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The Struggle for Freedom

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Document-Based QuestionDocument-Based Question

The American Revolution and Its Legacy

The American Revolution was a conservative revolt that did not expand liberties in a radical way.

Evaluate the validity of the statement above, using the documents provided and your knowledge of the time period. You may entirely or partly agree or disagree with the quotation. Whatever position you take, be sure to construct an original thesis. Be sure to consider the counterargument, that is, what historians might say in opposition to your thesis. Remember that "conservative" and "radical" are relative terms, so be sure to define your terms carefully. Do not forget to consider the point of view of the sources you employ.

Document Links

A. Freedom Petition of Massachusetts Slaves
B. First Continental Congress Declaration and Resolves
C. Common Sense
D. Abigail Adams to John Adams
E. Manumission of Slaves in North Carolina
F. The Declaration of Independence
G. Memoirs of Captain Alexander Graydon
H. A Whig Freeholder on Emancipation
I. Rewards for Revolutionary War Veterans
J. The Constitution and Slavery
K. Benjamin Rush on the Confederation
L. Jefferson on Slavery

A. Freedom Petition of Massachusetts Slaves

Primary source: Transcript of freedom petition submitted by four slaves, 1773.
Background information: Four slaves submitted this letter to the provincial legislature in Massachusetts on April 20, 1773.

Sir, The efforts made by the legislative of this province in their last sessions to free themselves from slavery, gave us, who are in that deplorable state, a high degree of satisfaction. We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them. . . 

We do not pretend to dictate to you Sir, or to the honorable Assembly, of which you are a member: We acknowledge our obligations to you for what you have already done, but as the people of this province seem to be actuated by the principles of equity and justice, we cannot but expect your house will again take our deplorable case into serious consideration, and give us that ample relief which, as men, we have a natural right to.

But since the wise and righteous governor of the universe, has permitted our fellow men to make us slaves, we bow in submission to him, and determine to behave in such a manner, as that we may have reason to expect the divine approbation of, and assistance in, our peaceable and lawful attempts to gain our freedom.

We are willing to submit to such regulations and laws, as may be made relative to us, until we leave the province, which we determine to do as soon as we can from our joynt labours procare money to transport ourselves to some part of the coast of Africa, where we propose a settlement. We are very desirous that you should have instructions relative to us, from your town, therefore we pray you to communicate this letter to them, and ask this favor for us.

In behalf of our fellow slaves in this province,
And by order of their Committee,


For the REPRESENTATIVE of the town of Thompson

Transcript of freedom petition submitted by four slaves in Boston to the provincial [British] legislature (1773), collection of The New-York Historical Society, negative 51012.

Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society.

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B. First Continental Congress Declaration and Resolves

Primary source: First Continental Congress, Declaration and Resolves, October 14, 1774.
Background information: Representatives of twelve of the thirteen original colonies met in Philadelphia in September and October of 1774 to develop a common response to the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts.

[ . . . ]

The good people of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North- Carolina and South-Carolina . . . DECLARE,
That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS:

Resolved , N.C.D. 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.

Resolved , N.C.D. 2. That our ancestors, who first settled these colonies, were at the time of their emigration from the mother country, entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England.

[ . . . ]

Resolved , 4. That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures . . . 

[ . . . ]

Resolved , N.C.D. 5. That the respective colonies are entitled to the common law of England, and more especially to the great and inestimable privilege of being tried by their peers of the vicinage, according to the course of that law.

[ . . . ]

In the course of our inquiry, we find many infringements and violations of the foregoing rights, which, from an ardent desire, that harmony and mutual intercourse of affection and interest may be restored, we pass over for the present, and proceed to state such acts and measures as have been adopted since the last war, which demonstrate a system formed to enslave America.

[ . . . ]

First Continental Congress, Declaration and Resolves, October 14, 1774 (House Document 398), in Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States, ed. Charles C. Tansill (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1927), at

Courtesy of The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.

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C. Common Sense

Primary source: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, essay, 1776.
Background information: Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was born in England and emigrated to the colonies in 1774. In Common Sense, Paine articulates his argument for independence.

. . . the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other. . . 

A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. . . 

Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776; reprint, edited with an introduction by Isaac Kramnick, New York: Penguin Classics, 1986), 98.

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D. Abigail Adams to John Adams

Primary source: Abigail Adams to John Adams, letter, 1776.
Background information: In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John Adams, who was then attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

. . . I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. . . 

Abigail Adams to John Adams, Braintree, Mass., 31 March 1776, The Adams Papers Collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society, at

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams Papers Editorial Project.

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E. Manumission of Slaves in North Carolina

Primary source: An Act to Prevent Domestic Insurrections, and for other Purposes, state law, 1777.
Background information: In the wake of the Revolution, many Southern states liberalized their provisions for manumission. By 1790, slaveholders could manumit their slaves throughout the South, except in North Carolina.

[ . . . ]

I. Whereas the evil and pernicious Practice of freeing Slaves in this State, ought at this alarming and critical Time to be guarded against by every friend and Wellwisher of his Country: . . . 

II. Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and by the Authority of the same, That no Negro or Mulatto Slave shall hereafter be set free, except for meritorious Services, to be adjudged of and allowed by the County Court, and Licence first had and obtained thereupon. And when any Slave is or shall be set free by his or her Master or Owner otherwise than is herein before directed, it shall and may be lawful for any Free holder in this State, to apprehend and take up such Slave, and deliver him or her to the Sheriff of the County, who, on receiving such Slave, shall give such Freeholder a Receipt for the same; and the Sheriff shall commit all such Slaves to the Gaol of the County, there to remain until the next Court to be held for such County; and the Court of the County shall order all such confined slaves to be sold during the Term to the highest Bidder . . . 

V. And be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That if any Slave or Slaves shall hereafter be allowed by his or her Master, Mistress, or Overseer, or other Person having the Care of such Slave or Slaves, to hire out him or herself, such Slave may be taken up by any Magistrate or Freeholder, and kept to hard Labour, for the Use of the Poor of the County, for any Time not exceeding Twenty Days; any Law, Usage, or Custom, to the contrary notwithstanding. . . 

[ . . . ]

An Act to Prevent Domestic Insurrections, and for other Purposes (1777); reprinted in The State Records of North Carolina: Published Under the Supervision of the Trustees of the Public Libraries, by Order of the General Assembly, vol. 24, Laws 1777–88, ed. Walter Clark (North Carolina: Nash Brothers, Book and Job Printers, 1905).

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F. The Declaration of Independence

Primary source: U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776.
Background information: In the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress asserted American independence from Britain and justified its decision to do so by citing a series of alleged violations of American rights.

. . . 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. . . 

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. . . 

Original at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

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G. Memoirs of Captain Alexander Graydon

Primary source: Alexander Graydon, Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania, Within the Last Sixty Years, 1822.
Background information: Alexander Graydon (1752–1818), a captain in the Continental army, recounted the problems he encountered as he recruited men to fight the war, and he commented on the meaning of the Revolution.

[ . . . ]

A number of fellows at the tavern, at which my party rendezvoused, indicated a desire to enlist, but although they drank freely of our liquor, they still held off. I soon perceived that the object was to amuse themselves at our expense. . . .  One fellow . . . began to grow insolent, and manifested an intention to begin a quarrel. . . . 

[ . . . ]

This incident would be little worthy of relating, did it not serve in some degree to correct the error of those who seem to conceive the year 1776 to have been a season of almost universal patriotic enthusiasm. It was far from prevalent, in my opinion, among the lower ranks of the people, at least in Pennsylvania. At all times, indeed, licentious levelling principles are much to the general taste, and were, of course, popular with us; but the true merits of the contest were little understood or regarded. The opposition to the claims of Britain originated with the better sort: it was truly aristocratic in its commencement; and as the oppression to be apprehended had not been felt, no grounds existed for general enthusiasm. The cause of liberty, it is true, was fashionable, and there were great preparations to fight for it; but a zeal, proportioned to the magnitude of the question, was only to be looked for in the minds of those sagacious politicians, who inferred effects from causes, and who, as Mr Burke expresses it, "snuffed the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze."

[ . . . ]

Alexander Graydon, Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania, Within the Last Sixty Years (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1822), 132–33.

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H. A Whig Freeholder on Emancipation

Primary source: A Whig Freeholder to the Assembly of Pennsylvania, letter, 1780.
Background information: Pennsylvania, like many of the Northern states, established gradual emancipation.

I have seen, with great pleasure and satisfaction, the act for the gradual abolition of slavery in this State, printed in the Gazette of the 29th of December of last, for the consideration of the public . . . 

[ . . . ]

It has often happened in free countries, whilst the people have in other instances manifested the most generous zeal for liberty, they have refused the smallest portion of it to their slaves; so strange an inconsistency there is in human nature, to love and hate liberty at the same time. How different are the sentiments of the legislature of this State, as expressed in the preamble to this act: "We conceive it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our power, to extend a portion of that freedom to others which hath been extended to us, and a release from that state of thraldom to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every prospect of being delivered."

I have read over. .  the act with an eye to the policy of them, and can perceive it defective but in one point; which is, that in pursuance of this act, no person coming to reside in this State, after the time for entering the names of the slaves now in this State shall be expired, can bring with him his slaves to serve him. . . . 

[ . . . ]

. . . I would humbly propose that a proviso be enacted in the said act to this effect, viz. "Provided nevertheless, that nothing in this act shall be construed to prevent any person or persons coming to reside in this State with their slaves, from enjoying the benefit of the labour of such slaves. . . . "

A Whig Freeholder to the Assembly of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Gazette, no. 2589 (26 January 1780).

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I. Rewards for Revolutionary War Veterans

Primary source: An Act for Raising Men to Complete the Continental Battalions Belonging to this State, and Other Purposes, state law, 1780.
Background information: North Carolina, like other states, rewarded veterans of the American Revolution with the granting of land and slaves.

[ . . . ]

III. And as a farther consideration, be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that each and every soldier who shall well and truly serve and perform his duty as a soldier, shall be intitled to receive at the expiration of every year the sum of five hundred dollars, to be paid him by the proper officer appointed for that purpose, and each and every soldier who shall serve out his three years, or to the end of the present war, shall have and receive one prime slave between the age of fifteen and thirty years, or the value thereof in current money, and two hundred acres of land, to be laid off as herein after located and described; and every soldier inlisted as aforesaid, who may die in the service of his country by the fate of war, sickness, accident, or otherwise, his heirs shall be intitled to receive his pay, together with the slave and land intended to be given him in virtue of this Act.

[ . . . ]

An Act for Raising Men to Complete the Continental Battalions Belonging to this State, and Other Purposes (17 April 1780) reprinted in The State Records of North Carolina, 1777–1790, ed. Walter Clark (North Carolina: Winston and Goldsboro, 1886–1914), 338.

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J. The Constitution and Slavery

Primary source: U.S. Constitution (original version), 1787.
Background information: The Constitution's clauses relating to slavery did not mention the word "slavery.”

[The three constitutional clauses, dealing with slavery, are excerpted from the original U.S. Constitution. Note that the italicized text is no longer in effect.]

[ . . . ]

Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, of the original U.S. Constitution contained the three-fifths clause.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons . . . 

Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, of the original U.S. Constitution prohibited Congress from ending the slave trade before 1808.

The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808; but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding $10 for each person . . . 

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, of the original U.S. Constitution contained the fugitive-slave clause. It is no longer in effect:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due . . . 

[ . . . ]

"The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription," at

Original at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

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K. Benjamin Rush on the Confederation

Primary source: Benjamin Rush, "On the Defects of the Confederation," 1786.
Background information: Benjamin Rush (c. 1745–1813) was an American physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served as a member of the Continental Congress (1776–77) and for a time in the Continental army; he was also a member of the Pennsylvania convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution.

[. . . ]

There is nothing more common, than to confound the terms of American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection. . . 

Benjamin Rush, "On the Defects of the Confederation" (1786), in The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush, ed. Dagobert D. Runes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947), 26.

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L. Jefferson on Slavery

Primary source: Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1788.
Background information: Jefferson questioned the effects of slavery and slaveholding, and foretold its end.

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. . . . And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!. . . I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18 from Thomas Jefferson (Philadelphia: Prichard and Hall, 1788) at, at American Studies at the University of Virginia.

Courtesy of American Studies at the University of Virginia.

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