This Day in Resistance History: Free Blacks in Philadelphia petition Congress to Abolish Slavery
Absalom Jones and other Philadelphia blacks petition Congress at a time when it was not only an unpopular position to take, but risky for blacks to be publicly opposed to slavery.
Petitions today are generally weak and ineffectual tactics in struggles for liberation, but such an act in 1800 was not only a powerful statement against the slaveocracy in the US, it was an act that put your life at risk.
It was one thing to call for an end to slavery, but including the repeal of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was an affront to the slave owners and the slave-based economy in the US. The Fugitive Slave Act not only allowed for slave owners to get slaves back, which had escaped, it institutionalized the role that the legal system and society as a whole played in policing against runaway slaves.
The House voted 85-1 to not even accept the petition. Only a lone Massachusetts representative opposed the movement to give “no encouragement or countenance” to these petitions and to refuse to even consider them, because of their “tendency to create disquiet and jealousy.”
A prelude to Abolition
While the petition to end slavery on January 2, 1800 was roundly defeated, it must be seen as part of the long-term campaign to abolish slavery.
Such acts are always necessary in any struggle. It provides a framework and makes a statement of what a movement is against and what it is for. Such an act is part of a trajectory of change that begins with what these free blacks in Philadelphia did and then builds to include other acts of resistance.
It should not be too surprising that in 1800 two great abolitionists are born, Nat Turner and John Brown. Turner and Brown both engaged in direct action against the system of slavery and sought to arm former slaves in order to liberate more of them. These actions along with work slowdowns, the Underground Railroad, insurgent newspapers and other acts of resistance against slavery are what made up the abolitionist movement that eventually ended legal chattel slavery.
The bold actions of free blacks in Philadelphia 213 years ago today is not just an opportunity to wax nostalgically about what people have done in the past, it can be both a source of inspiration and a lesson for acts of defiance today.
We always need to think about resisting current injustices with the same sense of urgency that those in the abolitionist movement did. If people or other forms of life are being brutalized right now, then our acts need to be bold and defiant.
We also need to remember that our single action or tactics will not be enough to achieve real liberation, but can be seen as part of the longer trajectory of liberation and freedom.
However, we must engage in actions to defy the existing power structure and not try to win them over. Struggles for liberation in this country’s history have never come about by appealing to those in power. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass would say, “power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will.”
One might say that petitioning Congress to end slavery is an appeal to those in power, but such an act at that time was more of a line in the sand act to make it clear to those in power what people were fighting for.
Such actions and movements may result in power structures doing things that movements want to see happen, like ending slavery, but this was the result of the collective resistance of the movement, not because of appeals to those in power.
These are the real lessons for today – Act defiantly, with urgency, engaging in acts of resistance that challenges systems of power.