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Petition from the women of Augusta

  • Petition from “females of the County of Augusta” to the General Assembly, January 19, 1832
  • Petition from “females of the County of Augusta” to the General Assembly, January 19, 1832
  • Petition from “females of the County of Augusta” to the General Assembly, January 19, 1832
  • Petition from “females of the County of Augusta” to the General Assembly, January 19, 1832
In this 1832 petition from Augusta County the women used their expertise in the domestic sphere to argue for the end of slavery.
Related documents:
  • Society of Patriotic Ladies
    A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton, North Carolina, October 25, 1774
  • Proclamation Concerning Nat Turner
    Proclamation Concerning Nat Turner by Governor Floyd, September 17, 1831
  • The Negro Woman's Appeal
    The Negro Woman's Appeal to Her White Sisters, ca. 1850
  • Make the Slave's Case Our Own
    “Make the Slave's Case Our Own,” Speech by Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1859
  • Appeal of the Women of Staunton
    Appeal of the Women of Staunton, Broadside, ca. 1900
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Petition from “females of the County of Augusta” to the General Assembly, January 19, 1832

One of the unintended consequences of Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 was the circulation in Augusta County of a petition that has been called a “high water mark for direct female political action in antebellum Virginia.” This petition, submitted to the Virginia House of Delegates on January 19, 1832, bears the signatures of 215 women from Augusta County, and requested the initiation of a plan to end slavery and to provide for sending freed African Americans to Africa.

The petition is notable because it demonstrates political activity by women, but a man, Charles Augustus Stuart, of Greenbrier County (now in West Virginia), with the support of John Hartwell Cocke, wrote the petition in November 1831. Cocke, from Fluvanna County, was an outspoken opponent of slavery and the senior vice president of the American Colonization Society. Elizabeth Stuart, wife of Charles Stuart, was the first woman to sign the petition, and she circulated it among the women of Augusta County, where the Stuarts had family ties.

Turner's Rebellion left white Virginians and other southerners with a fear of more slave revolts, and as the petition from the women of Augusta County demonstrated, much discussion took place on how to abolish slavery in Virginia, reduce its importance, and reduce or eliminate the free black population. The distinctiveness of this petition is based on the gender of its signers and the reasoning it uses. It contains language that adhered to the acceptable gender roles of the time. The women were the leaders of the “domestic sphere,” meaning the home, and it was their responsibility to run the household and raise children. By contrast, men belonged to the “public sphere” of business and politics. Acknowledging these differences, the petition appeals to the men of the legislature as the “protectors of our persons” possessing “manly reason” and “more matured wisdom.” Citing their fear of “the bloody monster” (in this case, the looming possibility of another slave rebellion) the petition calls for an end to slavery. In addressing the labor vacuum that would be created by the proposed emancipation, the documents note that the prospects of additional work “have no terrors for us.” The Augusta petition and the further encouragements by John Cocke resulted in other memorials on the same subject. Virginia Cary of Fluvanna County, a noted author of advice books for women, wrote a petition in November 1831 that, while not submitted to the Virginia General Assembly, was published in the Richmond Constitutional Whig.

Despite the boldness demonstrated by the women of Augusta County, the House of Delegates took no action. The legislators debated the future of slavery in Virginia but ultimately could not muster support for any plan for emancipation, and instead passed new legislation to crack down on the few liberties afforded to African Americans, both free and enslaved alike, within the state.

For Educators

Questions

1. Who was Nat Turner?
2. What was the domestic sphere?
3. What was the goal of this petition?

Further Discussion

1. Why do you think slavery became more oppressive rather than ending as these women advocated? How does this petition, which asks for abolition, differ from the traditional antislavery arguments?

Notes

The petition in the Library of Virginia's collection bears the signatures of 215 women. Because of a contemporary reference in the Richmond Enquirer on February 4, 1832, noting 343 signatures, it is probable that other copies of the petition with additional signatures have been lost.

Links

Working Out Her Destiny: Women's History in Virginia

Suggested Reading

Breen, Patrick H. “The Female Antislavery Petition Campaign of 1831–1832.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 110 (2002): 377–398.

Bogin, Ruth, and Jean Fagan Yellin. The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin and John C. Van Horne. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1994.

To the honourable the Genl Assembly of the State of Virginia, the memorial of the subscribing females of the County of Augusta humbly represents that although it be unexampled, in our beloved State, that females should interfere in its political concerns, and although we fell all the timidity incident to our sex in taking this step, yet we hold our right to do so, to be unquestionable, and feel ourselves irresistibly impelled to the exercise of that right by the most potent considerations and the perilous circumstances which surround us. We pretend not to conceal from our, our fathers & brothers, our protectors by your investment with the political power of the land, the fears which agitate our bosoms, and the dangers which await us, as revealed to us by recent tragical deeds, our fears we admit, as great, but we do not concede that they are the effects of blind & unreflecting cowardice: we do not concede that they spring from the superstitious timidity of our sex. Alas! We are indeed timid, but we appeal to your manly reason, to your more matured wisdom, to attest the justice & propriety of our fears, when we call to your remembrance the late slaughter of our sisters & their little ones in certain parts of our land, & the strong probability, that that slaughter was but a partial execution of a widely projected scheme of carnage. We know not we cannot know the right, nor the unguarded moments, by day or by night, which is pregnant with our destruction & that of our husbands & brothers, & sisters & children; but we do know that we are at every moment, exposed to the means of our own excision & of all that is dear to us in life. The bloody monster which threatens us is warmed & cherished on our own hearths. O hear our prayer & remove it, ye protectors of our persons, ye guardians of our peace!
Tell us not of the labor & hardships we shall endure when our bondservants shall be removed from us. They have no terrors for us. Those labors & hardships cannot be greater, or so great as those we now endure in providing for & ruling the faithless beings who are subjected to us, or were they greater still they are, in our esteem, less than the small dust in the balance compared with the burden of our fears and our dangers. But what have we to fear from these causes more than the females of other countries' Are they of the east, & of the west, of England, & of France more cumbered with such serving than we are? Are they less enlightened or less accomplished? However we may be flattered, we will not be argued out of our senses, & persuaded into a belief which is contradicted by all experience and the testimony of sober facts. Many, very many of our sisters & brothers have fled to other lands from the evils which we experience. And they send us back the evidences of their contentment & prosperity. They lament not their labors & hardships, but exult in their deliverance from servitude to their quondam slaves. And we too, would fly—we, too, would exult in similar deliverance, were our destiny otherwise ordered, that destiny is in your hands, & we implore your high agency in ordering it for the best. Do not slight our importunities. Do not disregard our fears. We desire to enjoy our exultation in the land of our nativity. Our destiny is identified, with yours. If we perish, alas! What will become of you & your offspring?
We are no political economists; but our domestic employments, our engagements, in rearing up the children of our husbands & Brothers, our intimate concern with the intercourse & prosperity of society; we presume, cannot but inform us of the great & elementary principles of that important science. Indeed it is impossible that that science can have any other basis than the principles which are constantly developing themselves to us in our domestic relations. What is a nation but a family upon a large scale? Our fears teach us to reflect & reason and our reflections & reasonings have taught us that the peace of our homes, the welfare of society, the prosperity of future generations call aloud & imperatively for some decision & efficient measure and that measure cannot, we believe, be decisively efficient or of much benefit if it have not, for its ultimate object, the extinction of slavery from amongst us. Without therefore entering upon a detail of facts and arguments, we implore you by our anxieties for the little ones around us, by an estimate of domestic weal, by present danger, by the prospects of the future, by our female virtues, by the patriotism which animates & glows in our bosoms, by our prayers to Almighty God, not to let the power with which you are invested lie dormant, but that you would exult it, for the deliverance of yourselves, of us, of the children of the Land, of future ages of the direst curse that can befall a people. O signalize your legislation by the mighty deed. This we pray and in duty-bound will ever pray.