Saying no to freedom in 1838

You can hear the father’s hope and his anguish in the words he sent to the South Carolina Legislature.

Not on his own behalf was he asking, in words that must have been written for him since he himself could not even sign his name.

No, he was asking for his family. His wife, his son, his daughter.

Their names were Sarah, George and Mary.

And the frieze-frame image of a moment in their lives that’s captured in records The Legal Genealogist came across in the South Carolina State Archives yesterday can break your heart.

James Paterson told the legislators sometime before December 1838 that:

he is a free man of Colour, & that by a Long life of Care and industry he has been inabled to buy his wife Sarah, & his two Children George & Mary who are Slaves by the Law of the Land & the property of your Petitioner. Your Petitioner further sheweth That he is very desirous of setting said slaves free, but that by the law of the Land he is unable to do so. Wherefore your Petitioner most humbly intreats your Honorable body to Manumit the said slaves Sarah Paterson George Paterson & Mary Paterson — so that the honest industry the unwearied Pains and untiring effort of a Father & Husband may not be lossed to him intirely. …1

He must have known that the deck was stacked against him. South Carolina had passed a law in 1800 requiring slaveholders to free slaves only by deeds that were approved by local courts, and another even more restrictive law in 1820 to put a solid lid on manumissions: it required that the Legislature concur in any slaveholder’s decision to free a slave.2

So James didn’t rest on his own unsupported application: he submitted as well a petition signed by 16 other men from Columbia. Checking the names against the 1850 census, it’s clear that he put together the strongest case he could: venerable white men from the community. And they wrote:

We the undersigned are well acquainted with James Paterson the within Petitioner. He is an honest careful industrious man who by a life of constant industry has been inabled to buy his wife & children, and we do for the purpose of encouraging similar conduct in others of his grade & for the purpose of doing to him but an act of Justice most cordially recommend that the prayer of the Petitioner by (sic) Granted.3

These are men the legislators themselves described as “persons of the highest respectability, residents of Columbia.”4

And you already know what the Legislature did, on 11 December 1838, right?

They turned James down.

Flat.

The one page decision of the Committee on the Colored Population is chilling:

James

You can click on the image and see it in a bigger version, If you need a transcription, the gist of it is this:

… it would be inexpedient, except as a reward for great and distinguished merit, to depart from the principles and policy of the law which forbids the emancipation of slaves. However great may be the merit of the present petitioner, your committee are of opinion that it is not such as to call for an extraordinary act of favor on the part of this Legislature, and nothing has been offered to show, that the wife and children of the petitioner, (the persons most concerned in the subject of this petition) have any claims whatsoever to the interposition of the Legislature in their behalf.5

A life of hard work, industry, honesty and care… and it didn’t matter one bit.

I wasn’t able to find out, yesterday, just what happened to James and his family. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how they must have felt when they heard back from the Legislature. I can’t help but wonder how they coped… how they went on with their lives, knowing that their family was horribly at risk when James died.

This is one of those stories where you’re almost afraid to find out how it ends.

And one of those stories that, whenever we find them, we must tell.


SOURCES

  1. Petition of James Paterson to the South Carolina Legislature, Record Group S165015: Petitions to the General Assembly, Item 2923, c1838; South Carolina Department of Archives & History, Columbia.
  2. See LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, A Guide to Researching African American Ancestors in Laurens County, South Carolina and Selected Finding Aids (Bloomington, IN : Xlibris, 2016), 49-51.
  3. Petition in Support of James Paterson to the South Carolina Legislature, Record Group S165015: Petitions to the General Assembly, Item 2923, c1838; South Carolina Department of Archives & History, Columbia.
  4. Report of the Committee on the Colored Population on the Petition of James Patterson, Free Black, Asking that his Wife and Children be Freed, Record Group S165015: Petitions to the General Assembly, 1838 Item 91, 11 December 1838; South Carolina Department of Archives & History, Columbia.
  5. Ibid.
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