A Petition for Freedom in 1779

Christine M. Jewell


Historical Background

Slavery is often taught within the context of the Civil War, but its history in America begins much earlier. The first Africans stepped foot onto North American soil in 1619, brought by a Dutch ship to be sold as indentured servants in Jamestown, Virginia. For its part, Connecticut’s coastline, rivers, and waterways promoted the trade of enslaved peoples by providing routes and ports that connected the state to England, Europe, Africa, South America, China, the West Indies, and the southern colonies. By the early 17th century, slavery was an integral part of the economy and Connecticut’s role in the Triangle Trade is an important part of our nation’s early history. Part of that history includes two enslaved men in Fairfield, known only as Prince and Prime, who petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly in 1779 to free all enslaved people in Fairfield and Hartford Counties. The petition was witnessed by attorney (and slaveholder) Jonathan Sturges and was ultimately denied by both houses of the Assembly. In 2009, Connecticut’s General Assembly formally apologized for the state’s involvement in, and support of, slavery.

D1: Potential Compelling Question

How did laws and rules in the colonies both promote and hinder freedom and equality?


  • What is slavery? What is freedom?
  • How did people react to their enslavement?
  • What do primary sources tell us about slavery?
  • How did a perception of injustice fuel conflict during the Revolutionary period?
  • How do Americans define freedom and equality and how have American conceptions of freedom and equality changed over the course of U.S. history?
  • Is America a land of political, economic, and social opportunity?
  • What was the significance of Connecticut’s contribution to America’s story?



Before starting this activity, teachers should understand and communicate with students that although the word “negro” was frequently used during this time period to refer to Africans or African Americans, this is not a term that is appropriate to use today, other than in its historic context.

1. Introduce the concept of slavery in the North as an integral part of society (see historical background information). Together as a class, discuss ways in which enslaved people could gain their freedom in the 1700s or early 1800s. Possibilities include running away / escaping, earning money to buy their freedom, legal action, or fighting in the Revolution in exchange for manumission.

2. Discuss what a petition is and how it works. If students could petition for anything, what would they ask for? Who makes the rules for their school? Who makes the laws for the state of Connecticut? (It’s the Connecticut General Assembly—do students know what that is?)

3. Present Prime and Prince’s 1779 petition to the Connecticut General Assembly as a projection and use for a class discussion, or form small groups of students to analyze the petition and the excerpts.

4. Starting with the images of the original petition, ask students if they can make out any words. Once students have examined the original document, you can provide the typed transcription for easier analysis.

5. Using the SOAPSTONE graphic organizer, have students analyze this primary source. Make sure the students notice and discuss some of the most important sections, including:
How do Prince and Prime describe their situation? (“most unjustly torn …”)
How do Prince and Prime compare themselves with the enslavers? (“We are endowed with …”)
What do Prince and Prime believe are their rights? How does this conclude their argument?

6. Draw students’ attention to how Prince and Prime signed the document. The X indicates that Prince could not write. On the bottom left, notice the signature of Jon Sturges. He assisted Prince and Prime with this document. He was also a slaveholder.

7. After discussing the document and revisiting the guiding questions, let students know that the Connecticut General Assembly denied this petition. What do students think might have been the reasons for the General Assembly denying the petition? What can students infer about Connecticut legislators’ opinion towards the institution of slavery and enslaved people themselves? What additional questions do they have about the petition itself or the history of slavery in Connecticut, and where do they think they could find out more about this topic?


  • Students will develop questions that they have about Prince and Prime and other enslaved people in Connecticut and conduct further research to discover more about enslaved people in Connecticut. (Some resources are listed below.)
  • Students will write a biographical sketch of a person from their research. When did this person live in Connecticut and where? Did they have a family? How did they live and work? What else could you find out? What else do you wonder?