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As the Continental Congress moved towards and then declared Independence, it became increasingly important to consider those who would (and would not) benefit from the new nation’s commitment to the proposition of human equality. Abigail Adams urged her husband to consider the rights of women; Thomas Jefferson recognized that the existing institution of slavery presented not only a theoretical but a moral conundrum that would plague the young nation; religious minorities, like the Jewish Synagogue members in Philadelphia, asserted their right to be included as well. The principles of the Declaration – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – seemed as though they should be open to all.
As John Adams and Benjamin Rush observed, the very headiness of freedom might prove to be the new nation’s downfall. While in theory liberty and equality were open to all, for the sake of political prudence, the number of those who enjoyed full civil rights had to be more limited in practice. Rush appealed not only to prudence but to Providence, observing that these principles were only secure when the citizenry were firm in their commitment to virtue, and would otherwise become dangerous.
Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th Ser., 3 (1877): 436-37.
The petition of a great number of blacks detained in a state of slavery in the bowels of a free and Christian country humbly shows that your petitioners apprehend that they have in common with all other men a natural and unalienable right to that freedom which the Great Parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all mankind and which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever – but they were unjustly dragged by the hand of cruel power from their dearest friends and some of them even torn from the embraces of their tender parents – from a populous, pleasant, and plentiful country and in violation of laws of nature and of nations and in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity brought here to be sold like beasts of burden & like them condemned to slavery for life – among a people professing the mild religion of Jesus, a people not insensible of the secrets of rational being nor without spirit to resent the unjust endeavors of others to reduce them to a state of bondage and subjection. Your honors need not to be informed that a life of slavery like that of your petitioners, deprived of every social privilege, of everything requisite to render life tolerable, is far worse [than] nonexistence.
In imitation of the laudable example of the good people of these states your petitioners have long and patiently waited the event of petition after petition by them presented to the legislative body of this state and cannot but with grief reflect that their success hath been but too similar they cannot but express their astonishment that it has never been considered that every principle from which America has acted in the course of their unhappy difficulties with Great Britain pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners. They therefore humbly beseech your honors to give this petition its due weight & consideration & cause an act of the legislature to be passed whereby they may be restored to the enjoyments of that which is the natural right of all men – and their children who were born in this land of liberty may not be held as slaves after they arrive at the age of twenty-one years[. So] may the inhabitants of this state no longer chargeable with the inconsistency of acting themselves the part which they condemn and oppose in others [b]e prospered in their present glorious struggle for liberty and have those blessing to them, etc.