Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania, 1838
In 1837, the Pennsylvania Constitution guaranteed: "In elections of the citizens, every freeman . . . shall enjoy the rights of an elector." Pennsylvanians interpreted this passage in different ways. Many African Americans and white abolitionists believed that free black males had been given the right to vote; most whites, on the other hand, interpreted the term "freemen" to mean only free white males. Due to the ambiguity in the law, African Americans voted in some rural districts where they had little influence on the results, but did not vote in urban areas such as Philadelphia, fearing violence from their white neighbors. During disastrous race riots of 1829 and 1834, African American–owned businesses, schools, and churches had been looted and black citizens beaten in the streets. However, some African Americans chose to resist the de facto restriction and brought their cases to court when they were turned away from the polls. On at least two occasions, the courts ruled that "freemen" only included white males. The publicity of these cases alerted the majority of white Pennsylvanians to the fact that African Americans were voting in isolated districts, driving them to take political action.
These political pressures were steadily growing as the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1838, which came to be known as the Reform Convention, met to amend the state constitution. The convention had originally been created to reform the tax and property ownership restrictions of suffrage to allow impoverished white citizens to vote. By the time the Reform Convention began, however, the issue of black suffrage was the most controversial subject in Pennsylvania. Thousands of white citizens petitioned the convention to amend the constitution to officially restrict suffrage to whites. They worried that African American suffrage would encourage blacks to flee the South and settle in Pennsylvania, decreasing their the political power of whites in the state. On January 17, 1838, the Reform Convention voted to amend the state constitution to limit voting to "white freemen."
Although the convention's adoption of the constitution was disastrous to African American liberty, the electorate still had to ratify it later that year. Working tirelessly, African American civil rights and abolitionist organizations circulated petitions and pleas throughout the state, asking white citizens not to approve the amended document. One of these petitions was the "Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disenfranchisement, To the People of Pennsylvania," drafted by Robert Purvis. It sought to put the struggle for suffrage in historical context while enumerating the contributions African Americans had made to American society and warning white citizens of the slippery slope that could lead free blacks into slavery.
Despite the massive effort put into the Appeal of Forty Thousand and similar documents, the citizens of Pennsylvania ratified the new state constitution on October 9, 1838. African Americans would not regain the right to vote in Pennsylvania until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1869. Although the Appeal of Forty Thousand did not successfully move white Pennsylvanians, it represented the beginning of a massive civil rights movement targeting the institutions of slavery and discrimination. The actions of early activists like Robert Purvis set African Americans on the path to the political freedom that would be gained by the end of the 19th century.
Opinion of the Hon. John Fox, President Judge of the Judicial District Composed of the Counties of Bucks and Montgomery, against the Exercise of Negro Suffrage in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Packer, Barrett, and Parke, 1838).
Edward Price, "The Black Voting Rights Issue in Pennsylvania, 1780-1900," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1976): 356-373.
Eric Ledell Smith, "The End of Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania: African Americans and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837-1838," Pennsylvania History 65 (1998): 279-299.
Julie Winch, "Free Men and 'Freemen': Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania, 1790-1870," Suffrage in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Legacies 8, no. 2 (2008): 14-19.
Nicholas Wood, "'A Sacrifice on the Altar of Slavery': Doughface Politics and Black Disenfranchisement in Pennsylvania, 1837-1838," Journal of the Early Republic 31 (2011): 75-106.