Petition from Pennsylvania Abolition Societies asking South Carolina to abolish the slave trade, 1795

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The concepts that fueled the Revolutionary War also gave rise to the American abolitionist movement.  Declarations of equality and freedom naturally sparked questions about the place for African slaves in the developing nation.  In the earliest years of the abolitionist movement, most supporters favored a gradual approach that included the end of the slave trade and an eventual manumission of slaves.  This 1795 petition from a Pennsylvania abolitionist group asks the state of South Carolina to commit to ending their involvement in the slave trade.

In the eighteenth century, the slavery question was not defined starkly between the North and the South.  Slaves labored throughout all the new states, but it became increasingly true that while the North implemented slave labor, the South was entirely dependent on the institution. 

The abolitionist movement that gained momentum in the 1820s and 1830s had its beginnings in the words of the founding fathers.  One such founder, Benjamin Rush, aligned himself with the abolitionist cause and signed his name to this petition.  The Pennsylvania physician and signatory of the Declaration of Independence was an early supporter of abolition.  His personal struggles with the morality of slavery reflect the indistinct beginnings of the movement.   The prominent doctor once turned down an offer to set up his practice in Charleston because he could not live among so many enslaved men, though he himself owned a slave for over a decade.  In the years leading up to the signing of this petition, he arranged to free his slave by allowing him to work for several more years to earn his own price. 

A petition such as this would be delivered to the State Assembly and then sent to a committee.  The committee would draft a recommendation of action that would then be presented to the larger body.  There is no record of how this petition was received.  The U.S. Constitution outlawed the slave trade in 1808.


Delegates of several abolitionist societies asking that South Carolina abolish all traffic in slaves and to prepare slaves for eventual freedom.  Petitions to the General Assembly.  ca.1795.  Item No. 00536.  S165015.  South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina. 


To the Honorable the President and the Members of the Senate and the Speaker and the Members of the House of Representatives of the State of South Carolina in general Assembly met, etc.

The Memorial and Petition of the Delegates from the several Societies formed in different parts of the United States for promoting the abolition of Slavery in Convention assembled in Philadelphia on the seventh day of January 1795.

Respectfully show,

            That having been disputed and having convened, for the purpose of considering and carrying into effect the most proper measures for the abolition of Slavery; and being forcibly improvised with a sense of the dangers to which the Citizens of the United States are exposed, while a numerous class of Men exist among them, deprived of their natural rights, and forcibly held in bondage; we think it our duty to address you, as Men, fellow Citizens, and Brethren, and earnestly to request your attention to the means of avoiding the evils naturally resulting from the abovementioned unhappy circumstances.

            The first step which we take the liberty of suggesting to you is an entire prohibition of all traffic in Slaves, between your State and every other Nation or States wither by importation or exportation. This is the first and principal object of our Memorial—an object which we the more earnestly recommend to your attention, as we are informed that the law of your State, prohibiting the importation of Slaves, will expire sometime in March next.

            In considering this subject, many methods of conciliating the affections of this unfortunate people and preparing them for that state in Society, upon which depends our political happiness, suggest themselves:- such as, an amelioration of their condition and a diffusion of knowledge among them. But, as nothing can be effectual while the number of Slaves may be daily increased by importation, and while the minds of our Citizens are debased and their hearts hardened by contemplating these people only through the medium of avarice or prejudice ( a necessary consequence of the traffic in Man) we confine the prayer of this Petition to the total prohibition of all traffic in Slaves, between your State and every other Nation or State, either by importation or exportation; which we respectfully solicit you to grant, having full confidence, that, independent of other considerations, you will see the evident policy of the measure.

  Philadelphia 14th Jan:                      [By order of the Convention] 1795.                                                               Benjamin Rush President

            Attest,   Walter Franklin Secretary

Correlating SC Social Studies Academic Standards:

Standard 2-5: The student will demonstrate an understanding of trade and markets and the role of supply and demand in determining the price and allocation of goods within the community.

Indicator 2-5.4  Identify the relationships between trade and resources both within and among communities, including natural, human, and capital resources. (E)

Standard 4-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the conflict between the American colonies and England.

Indicator 4-3.7 Explain the effects of the American Revolution on African Americans and Native Americans, including how the war affected attitudes about slavery and contributed to the inclusion of abolition in early state constitutions and how the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that were developed by Congress influenced the future of Native Americans. (H, P, G)

Standard 8-2: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Revolution—the beginnings of the new American nation and South Carolina’s part in the development of that nation.

Indicator 8-2 .4 Summarize events related to the adoption of South Carolina’s first constitution, the role of South Carolina and its leaders in the Continental Congress, and the ratification of the United States Constitution, including Henry Laurens’s actions, Charles Pinckney’s role, and the importance of issues debated during the Philadelphia Convention for South Carolina. (H, P)


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