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In the Classroom > African Americans Lessons

Petitioning Freedom

Grade Level: 8 - High School

High School History and Social Science Learning Standards

World History I

WHI.35 Explain how the Enlightenment contributed to the growth of democratic principles of government, a stress on reason and progress, and the replacement of a theocentric interpretation of the universe with a secular interpretation.

United States History I

USI.2 Explain the historical and intellectual influences on the American Revolution and the formation and framework of the American government.

USI.3 Explain the influence and ideas of the Declaration of Independence.

Summary and Objective

Students will understand that African slaves in Massachusetts petitioned unsuccessfully for freedom at the same time that the American colonies declared independence from Britain. They will understand that these Black petitioners were familiar with and inspired by the Declaration of Independence. Students should have some prior knowledge of the Declaration of Independence.

Needed for the Lesson

Teaching the lesson:

  1. Review the Declaration of Independence. Discuss:
    • To whom is this document addressed?
    • Find examples of strong language.
    • What are the reasons put forth for declaring independence?
  2. At the same time that the Declaration of Independence was composed, slaves in Massachusetts were seeking freedom. Some of their options for obtaining freedom included running away, manumission, and legal petition. Read “Petition for Freedom to the Massachusetts Council and the House of Representatives, [13] January 1777”. Discuss:
    • What is this document about? What are the petitioners asking for?
    • Who wrote it and what was his status? Do you think this was important? Why or why not?
    • To whom is it written?
    • What is the tone of the language in this document? For example, is the writer demanding, declaring, or something else? Compare the language of the petition to the language in the Declaration. Why might it not be as strong?
    • What are the arguments put forth?
    • Were the petitioners successful? Why or why not?
    • Read “Petition for freedom to Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson … June 1773”. This document, upon which the 1777 was probably based, predated the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolutionary War!
  3. Do you think that Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence could have anticipated the influence it would have on Black people in Massachusetts?

Lesson extension ideas:

  1. Learn about how and why slavery ended in Massachusetts, and think about why it persisted elsewhere in the United States.
  2. Read Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day Speech at Rochester, 1852, and discuss his opinion of the Declaration of Independence and the ideas therein. The speech can be found at: http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/douglass.htm

Possible answers to the discussion questions

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