J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Isaac Freeman’s Petition

This item appeared in the 1 Jan 1781 Boston Gazette, issued by Benjamin Edes:


Your publishing the following Copy of a Petition presented to the General Assembly in their late Sessions, may probably amuse some of your Readers, at this barren Season of the Year for News.

The Commonwealth of MASSACHUSETTS.

To the Honorable Senate, and Honorable House of Representatives, in General Court assembled.

November 1st, 1780.

The memorial of Isaac Freeman, (a poor negro) humbly sheweth,

That your memorialist, in the face of death and danger, enter’d the service of this country, on that auspicious and ever memorable, and thrice happy day, the 19th of April, 1775, which glorious morn gave birth to the independence of America. No sooner was the alarm given, that a band of the British villains, robbers, and cut-throats had begun the horrid slaughter, by sheding the blood of a number of the worthy inhabitants of Lexington; but their blood cryed from the ground for vengeance, and demanded of all the Sons of Freedom, to repair to arms, and revenge the injury done their bleeding country—I enter’d the service on that blessed occasion, and have fought and bled in the cause of the country; and remain a faithful soldier to this hour.

Your memorialist would beg leave to acquaint your honors, that in the second battle that was fought in June following, on Bunker’s Hill, he in the retreat, lost a very good fire-arm, his knapsack, containing one handkerchief, shirts, hose, &c. &c. which cost him in that day, forty or fifty hard dollars, for which be never has received one farthing; tho’ others have been fully and generously rewarded for their losses by former Houses of Assembly, whose noble example of rewarding merit, and doing justice, he doubts not will ever be the paths your honors will delight to step in, and hereby encourage good soldiers in your Honors service; his losses and services, he thinks, ought to go hand in hand, and therefore humbly begs leave further to observe to your Honors——

That your memorialist was the happy man (tho’ a poor negro) that put an end to the life of that bold, and of course, dangerous man, Major [John] Pitcairn, with eight or ten others that day, besides wounding a number of other villains; in the execution of which service, your memorialist received three very bad wounds from the British pirates; in this wounded and bleeding condition, he continued like a bold soldier, fighting for the country, till he was obliged with the heroes of the day, to retreat, which was worse than death to a soldier, and give up the ground to those (British hell-hounds,) and all for want of the help of those cowardly commanders and the poltroon fellows under their command, whose i[n]f[amou]s names I conceal, who lay during the whole action at the back of the hill out of danger:

Had they like men come on, instead of the shame and disgrace of that day, a most compleat victory would have taken place, and the whole of the British army would, by the close of that day, been snuggly sent DOWN DOWN to the abode of shame, disgrace and despair; whose just fate they would have received my hearty amen and amen, as those did which I sent there in battle.—

And very happy happy would it have proved to the United States, if that infallible rule had been adopted on this occasion, of the Great, the Wise and ever memorable General and Protector OLIVER CROMWELL, Esq; of Blessed Memory———(To PAY WELL and HANG WELL.) And had their frighted commanders been made an example of, with some of their hen-peck’d comrades
Would not those wretches, who now in triumph sing,
Have grac’d a gibbet, and adorn’d a string?
Sure I am that justice would have taken place, and the world been rid of a very tame set of J—k–ss–s, who live only to discourage better solders, and much time saved which has been taken up in court-marshals, to try cowardly leaders; and at this day, not one British officer, or British soldier, would have been found in any part of America.

By the conduct of the above frighted fellows, I was deprived that pleasure which I so earnestly wished to see, which was, to have seen the Britons turning their backs, cover’d with shame, disgrace and slaughter, as with a garment,—with everlasting destruction tripping at their heels, to enclose Tom Gage, & the remainder of his army in the same net.

Your memorialist now looks up to the seat of justice, which your Honors now fills with dignity, under a new, and he trusts, is the happiness Constitution now in being under Heaven, and which he prays GOD to establish to the end of time, and crown your Honors with eternal glory.

——And notwithstanding the loss of blood and treasure, &c. &c. has not yet been rewarded: I stand ready whenever call’d into the field by your Honors command, to step forth and spill the last drop of blood in the defence of your Honors lives, estates, and this much injured country, and resign my life as every good soldier ought to do, when I hope to join those noble Martyrs who are inroll’d in the catalogue of fame, in the other world, who fought, bled and died in the cause freedom and liberty, and there to mix (tho’ a poor negro) with a Charles the XII, a Cromwell and a Warren, who are now set down in peace, crown’d with everlasting joy and glory.

I now close with hoping your Honors will take into your most serious consideration, my case, with my wounds and loss of blood and treasure; and grant a poor negro such recompence as your Honors, in your great wisdom and goodness shall seem meet; and he, in duty bound, will ever pray.

The two lines of poetry that appear in the midst of this petition were derived from a couplet in “Cruelty and Lust” by John Pomfret (1667-1702):
Does not that wretch, who would dethrone his king,
Become the gibbet, and adorn the string?
Those words might appear to declare the importance of royalty, but Pomfret presented them as coming from the mouth of a cruel, lustful monarch. So even though this petition had to rewrite them for a republican context, the underlying sentiment was compatible.

TOMORROW: How did the Massachusetts legislature respond to this petition? What can we make of it as a historical document?

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