History, Department of


Date of this Version

Summer 2012


Shalon, Trevor. (2012). A plea for freedom: Enslaved independence through petitions for freedom in Washington D.C. between 1810 and 1830 (Master's thesis). University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE.


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: History, Under the Supervision of Professor William G. Thomas. Lincoln, Nebraska: August 2012

Copyright (c) 2012 Trevor J. Shalon


Between 1810 and 1830, over 190 petitions for freedom by African Americans went through the District Court of Washington D.C. The free African American community which had emerged following the American Revolution had been restricted in the beginning of the nineteenth century and the rights granted to free and enslaved African Americans were retracted. The methods by which enslaved African Americans had used to obtain their freedom were eliminated and more innovative methods would needed in order to continue the expansion of the free community.

As the nineteenth century progressed, as other methods were eliminated, the number of petitions issued through the District Court increased. The rate of petitions increased nearly two fold between the 1810 and 1820, as arguing within the Washington D.C. legal system became an increasingly viable option to obtain freedom. While the quantitative figures of these petitions become a unique statistic in the historiography of enslaved African American historiography, the impact of these petitions must be examined in a qualitative manner as well.

While the goals of the white majority and Chesapeake legislatures in the early nineteenth century had been to eliminate the connections between themselves and the African American population and to segregate the two communities. The restrictions were placed on African Americans in the hope to discourage the desire and drive to join the free community, actually led to the reverse. The increased number of petitions tightly wound the enslaved African Americans, their slave holders, and the white majority population. Petitions for freedom fostered a unique interaction between in a legal forum. This interaction adds to the influence of these petitions and the change they provided to the Chesapeake region. Slaves continuously petitioned in order to aggravate the white majority in the viable manner possible.

Petitions for freedom did more than provide an alternative method to pursue freedom, it aided in the continuously changing political, social and legal landscape of the Chesapeake and Washington D.C.

Adviser: William G. Thomas