The Present State and Condition of the Free People of Color

Publication Year: 1838

Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. The Present State and Condition of the Free People of Color, of the City of Philadelphia and Adjoining Districts… (Philadelphia: The Society, 1838).
Call number: PAM F 158.9 .N3 P4 1838

Reading suggestions

See especially the address following p. 40: "To the People of Color in the State of Pennsylvania."

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Source note

The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery was founded in 1775 by Quakers and other early abolitionists in Philadelphia, and noted anti-slavery activist Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) was a founding member. Commonly referred to as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, or PAS, the group’s most famous member was Benjamin Franklin, who joined 12 years after the group’s founding and co-wrote the society’s constitution. The society’s original mission was to litigate on behalf of free African Americans who were illegally enslaved, but it later expanded to help ban the international slave trade and amend the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. In the late 1780s, under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin, PAS worked in conjunction with the Free African Society to try to improve the lives of free African Americans by building schools, helping people find employment, and placing black children as indentured servants, which was a common practice at the time. By the 1830s, PAS was less influential, especially after the 1833 founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan. This 1838 document, read at a January 5th, 1838 meeting of the society, was a response to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention’s amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution banning free African Americans from voting in the state.

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Reading questions
  1. Who wrote this document, and what was their purpose for writing it? 
  2. Why do you think the authors mention the founding of their organization, more than 60 years earlier? 
  3. What is the tone of this document? Why do you think the authors employ this tone for this particular subject? 
  4. On page 4, the authors refer to the Philadelphia race riots of 1834 and 1835 that cost one African American his life and destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of African American-owned property. What purpose do the authors have for mentioning these riots? 
  5. Why are black Pennsylvanians urged to be as “wise as serpents and harmless as doves”? 
  6. Despite the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention’s decision to revoke black voting rights, what comfort do the authors suggest black Pennsylvanians can take in the proceedings of the convention (page 5)? 
  7. Why does PAS claim that African Americans of Pennsylvania should practice temperance? What benefit does this philosophy have for them? 
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Source type
History Topics
African American History
Black Voting Rights
Civil Rights
Time Period
Slavery, Sectionalism, and Social Reform (1815-1861)