Petition for Relief from Taxation
Submmitted by and for Former Slaves of Dartmouth, Massachusetts
Paul Cuffe was born a free child in 1759, on Chuttyhunk Island,
Massachusetts, the son of a Native American mother and African
father. His father, Kofi, was a member of the Ashanti tribe of West
Africa, who was captured and brought to America as a slave at the age
of ten. A skilled carpenter, Kofi (Cuffe) earned his freedom, and
educated himself. Paul refused to use the name of his father's owner,
Slocum, and adopted his father's given name, Cuffe (or Cuffee).
At the age of 16, following his father's death, Paul Cuffe began
his career as a common seaman on whaling and fishing boats. During the
Revolutionary War he was held prisoner by the British for a time but
managed afterward to start small-scale coastal trading. Despite
attacks by pirates, he eventually prospered. He built larger vessels
and successfully traded south as far as Virginia and north to
Labrador. In later life he owned several ships which engaged in
trading and whaling around the world.
Cuffe was a devout and evangelical Quaker. At his home in
Westport, Massachusetts, he donated a town school and helped support
the teacher. It was quite possibly the first integrated school in the
young republic. Later he helped build a new meeting house. Through his
connections with Quakers in other cities he became involved in efforts
to improve the conditions of African Americans. Strongly opposed to
slavery and the slave trade, he joined other free African Americans in
the Northern states in their abolitionist campaigns.
In 1780 he and his brother John petitioned the Massachusetts
government either to give African and Native Americans the right to
vote or to stop taxing them. The petition was denied, but the case
helped pave the way for the 1783 Massachusetts Constitution, which
gave equal rights and privileges to all (male) citizens of the
state. This is a transcript of the petition submitted to the
by Paul Cuffe
To the Honorable Council and House of Representatives, in General Court
assembled, for the State of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England:
The petition of several poor negroes and mulattoes, who are
inhabitants of the town of Dartmouth, humbly showeth,—
That we being chiefly of the African extract, and by reason of long
bondage and hard slavery, we have been deprived of enjoying the
profits of our labor or the advantage of inheriting estates from our
parents, as our neighbors the white people do, having some of us not
long enjoyed our own freedom; yet of late, contrary to the invariable
custom and practice of the country, we have been, and now are, taxed
both in our polls and that small pittance of estate which, through
much hard labor and industry, we have got together to sustain
ourselves and families withall. We apprehend it, therefore, to be hard
usage, and will doubtless (if continued) reduce us to a state of
beggary, whereby we shall become a burthen to others, if not timely
prevented by the interposition of your justice and your power.
Your petitioners further show, that we apprehend ourselves to be
aggrieved, in that, while we are not allowed the privilege of freemen
of the State, having no vote or influence in the election of those
that tax us, yet many of our colour (as is well known) have cheerfully
entered the field of battle in the defence of the common cause, and
that (as we conceive) against a similar exertion of power (in regard
to taxation), too well known to need a recital in this place.
We most humbly request, therefore, that you would take our unhappy
case into your serious consideration, and, in your wisdom and power,
grant us relief from taxation, while under our present depressed
circumstances; and your poor petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever
Samuel Gray, X his mark.
Pero Howland, X his mark.
Pero Russell, X his mark.
Dated at Dartmouth, the 10th of February, 1780.
Memorandum in the hand-writing of John Cuffe:—
This is the copy of the petition which we did deliver unto the
Honorable Council and House, for relief from taxation in the days of
our distress. But we received none. JOHN CUFFE.