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Memorial of John Mercer Langston for Colored People of Ohio to General Assembly of the State of Ohio


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Memorial of John Mercer Langston for Colored People of Ohio to General Assembly of the State of Ohio












This promising young man has recently won, for himself, the respect and gratitude of the colored citizens of the State of Ohio, by his able and manly efforts to secure for them the abrogation of everything in the organic law of that State, making a discrimination between its citizens on account of color. It is hardly necessary to state, in our columns, the fact that, without making any merit of it, Mr. Langston permits himself to be known as a member of the despised colored race. He is known also as having born a very distinguished part in the proceedings of the greatest Convention ever held in this country by the colored people. Mr. Langston is a farmer; and what he does in the way of philanthropy and patriotism, has the merit of being at his own expense; and he is, therefore, all the more entitled to the grateful respect and affection which we believe he largely enjoys among the colored people throughout the free states.

We take pleasure in laying before our readers the following, which sufficiently explains itself, being a report on the subject, from a Committee of the Ohio State Legislature:

Report of the Select Committee on Petitions and Memorials from colored persons, in Senate, April 19, 1854. Laid on the table and ordered to be printed

The committee to whom was referred sundry petitions and memorials, asking the political enfranchisement of the colored citizens of Ohio, has had the matter under consideration, and herewith submits a bill providing for an amendment of the constitution of the State, in accordance with the wishes of the petitioners, and accompany the same with the following


The various reasons for extending the right of suffrage to colored persons are so ably set forth in the memorial of J. Mercer Langston, which was read to the Senate during the present session, and referred to this committee, that nothing further in the way of arguments seemed to be required. The committee therefore, adopts the language of that memorial and makes it a part of this report, and this course appears the more appropriate to the committee, inasmuch as Mr. Langston had been appointed by a State convention of colored people, to memorialize the General Assembly on this subject, he therefore, speaks by authority, and may be presumed to present the subject as it is understood and felt by the parties most interested. This report then is the plea of the colored citizens of Ohio, to their white fellow-citizens, and your committee



unites with the disfranchised in begging that it may be impartially and candidly considered.


To the General Assembly of the State of Ohio

Your memorialist has been selected as the representative of the twenty-five thousand half freemen of Ohio, to ask your honorable body to the necessary and appropriate steps for striking from the organic law of this State, all those clauses which make discriminations on the ground of color.1

In doing this, we feel that we are but asking that the constitution of our State be made to reflect, in all its truthfulness and deep significance, the following living, breathing sentiment of the Declaration:--"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created free and equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

In doing this, we also feel that we but ask that the constitution of Ohio be made to harmonize with the genius and spirit of the constitution of the United States, which was ordained to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty to the people of this country.

Nor are we unmindful of the fact that in making this request, we are asking your honorable body to take the first step towards making our government a democracy, which in the eloquent language of Hon. William Allen, "asks nothing but what it concedes, and concedes nothing but what it demands. Destructive only to despotism, it is the sole conservator of liberty, labor and property. It is the sentiment of freedom, of equal rights and equal obligations. It is the law of nature pervading the law of the land."

Since we present our memorial in the name of the Declaration, in the name of the constitution of the United States, the supreme law of the land, and in the name of genuine democracy, we are confident that you will consider it patiently and without prejudice.

What then, are the grounds upon which we claim the elective franchise?

In answering this question, we have to say, in the first place, that we are men. Nor is it necessary to enter upon an argument in support of so self-evident a proposition. We possess the physical, the intellectual and the attributes common to humanity. We have the same feelings, desires and aspirations that other men have; and we are capable of the same high intellectual and moral culture. As men then, we have rights, inherent rights, which civil society is bound to respect, nay, more, which civil society is bound to protect and defend. Prominent among those rights, and one which we deeply love and cherish, is the elective franchise. It is the privilege of saying who shall be our rulers, and what shall be the character of the laws under which we live. By none is this right, held in higher estimation than by the colored men. And those greatly mistake who think that we are contented without it. We are not. We know that it is one of our dearest rights. We feel that we ought to have it. We feel that civil society is under obligation to secure it to us, and protect us in its enjoyment. The first consideration that we offer, therefore, in favor of granting our claim, is the fact that it is a dictate of justice and fair dealing, between civil society and men living within its jurisdiction.

But it may be said in reply to this, that the elective franchise is not to be numbered among our inherent rights. It may be contended that the voting privilege is one of expedience. We, however, are not of this faith. We have no confidence in this principle. Self-government, in our opinion, is an inherent right. And without the privilege of saying who shall be the makers of our laws, who shall be their executors, and what shall be their general character, there can be no self-government. This was the view taken of the matter by the Fathers of the Republic. And it was upon this principle as enduring granite that they built up the free institutions of the land.

We could, with propriety, however, claim so much at your hands, if we were foreigners. But when it is remembered that we are native born inhabitants, and by our birth citizens, the consideration which has just been


Ohio, 1854

offered, appears doubly significant, and therefore doubly forcible. It is needless for us in grounding our claim to the elective franchise upon our nativity, to remind you that it is a principle fully recognized by the constitution of the country, that natural birth gives citizenship, otherwise, our naturalization laws are absurd and nonsensical. Says Chancellor Kent, in confirmation of our view, "citizens, under our constitution and laws, [means] free inhabitants born within the United States, or naturalized under the laws of Congress. If a slave, born in the United States, be manumitted, or otherwise lawfully discharged from bondage, or if a black man be born within the United States, and born free, he becomes thenceforward a citizen." If Chancellor Kent's principle be correct, we may ask with some degree of force where is the right to disenfranchise us--where is the right to strip us of our citizenship? Said the Hon. Mr. Baldwin, in the U.S. Senate, "When the constitution of the United States was framed, colored men voted in a majority of these States; they voted in the State of New York, in Pennsylvania, in Massachusetts, in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina, and long after the adoption of the constitution they continued to vote in North Carolina and Tennessee also. The constitution of the United States makes no distinction of color. There is no word 'white' to be found in that instrument. All free people then stood upon the same platform in regard to their political rights, and were so recognized in most of the States of the Union. The free colored citizens of these States are so much entitled to the rights of citizenship, as are men of any other color or complexion whatever. To this day, in the State of Virginia, free colored persons born in that State, are citizens."

But to deprive us of citizenship, is not only to outrage the well established principle of our political creed, that natural birth gives citizenship, but it is to trample in the dust that practically adopted principle in the law of nations, to wit, that those born in a country become members of the body politic on reaching the requisite age, and discharging the equal responsibilities imposed on all. This is the principle which the nations of earth generally have seen fit to adopt. As we hold this is the correct principle. It is a dictate of reason and common sense. It is in accordance with it, that we desire your honorable body to act in considering the propriety of enfranchising us.

We claim our enfranchisement also upon the ground that we are patriotic. It is a fact that we love this country. We love her constitution, and we love those free Institutions that might and ought to be built up all over this land under its benign influence. Indeed at no time have we manifested for this country any other spirit than that of deep abiding affection. And that too when we have been outraged and abused most barbarously. In proof of our patriotism it is only necessary to refer to our conduct in the revolutionary contest and the war of 1812. It has been said, that those were times that tried men's patriotism. But in neither were we found wanting. Our course in those struggles whether on land or sea, for we were in the campaigns under Washington and Lafayette, and in the cruising under Decatur2 and Barry3, was marked by courage and heroic devotion. That our words may be fully attested we beg leave to offer in this connection the opinions of several distinguished American Statesmen.

Hon. Calvin Goddard, of Connecticut, states that, in the little circle of his acquaintance, he was instrumental in securing, under the act of 1818, the pensions of nineteen colored soldiers. "I can not," he says, "refrain from mentioning an aged blackman, Primus Babcock, who proudly presented to me an honorable discharge from service, during the war, dated at the close of it, wholly in the hand writing of George Washington. Nor can I forget the expression of his feelings when informed after his discharge had been sent to the war department that it could not be returned. At his request it was written for, as he seemed inclined to spurn the pension and claim the discharged."

"In Rhode Island," says Governor Eustis,4 in an able speech against slavery in Missouri in 1820, "the blacks formed an entire regiment and discharged their duty with zeal and fidelity. The gallant defense of Red Bank in which the black regiment bore a part is among the proofs of its valor." The glory of this defence in a very important sense belongs to the blacks. And it has been pronounced the most heroic action of the war. Among the distinguish-



distinguishing traits of this regiment was devotion to their leaders. Then on the 13th of May, 1781, the American forces were near Croton river; Col. Green, the commander, was cut down and fatally wounded; but the weapons of the enemy could only reach him through the bodies of his faithful black guards. They defended him till every one of them was killed.

The late Rev. Dr. Harris of Dunbarton, New Hampshire, a revolutionary veteran, in speaking of the perilous condition in which the regiment was placed, to which he belonged, and their brave and manly conduct, in the same connection makes honorable mention of a "regiment of the blacks in the same situation--a regiment of negroes fighting for our liberty and independence, not a white man among them but the officers--in the same dangerous and responsible position." Had they been unfaithful," he says, "or given way before the enemy, all would have been lost. Three times in succession were they attacked with the most desperate fury by well disciplined and veteran troops, and three times did they successfully repel the assault, and thus, preserved an army. They fought thus through the war. They were brave and hardy troops."

Hon. Tristram Burgess, of Rhode Island in a speech delivered in Congress, in January 1828, said: "At the commencement of the Revolutionary War, Rhode Island had a number of slaves. A regiment of them were enlisted into the continental service, and no braver men met the enemy in battle; but not one of them was permitted to become a soldier until he had first been made a freeman."

The Hon. Charles Pinckney5 of South Carolina, in a speech on the Missouri question made use of the following language: "They (the colored people) were in numerous instances the pioneers, and in all, the laborers of our armies. To their hands were owing the largest part of the fortifications raised for the protection of the country. Port Monteriel gave, at an early period of the inexperience and untried valor of our citizens, immortality to the American arms. And in the Northern States numerous bodies of them enrolled and fought side by side with the whites in the battle of the Revolution." And in addition to all this, if history be true, the first man that fell in the Revolutionary War--the first man whose life and blood were yielded up in defence of the freedom of this country was a colored man. He died on the plains of Boston the first revolutionary martyr in the massacre of the 5th of March, 1770.6

Let us now see what the conduct of colored men was some forty years afterward. Said Martindale of New York, in Congress, on the 22d of January, 1828: "Slaves, or negroes who had been slaves, were enlisted as soldiers in the war of the revolution, and I myself say a battalion of them, as fine martial looking men as I ever saw, attached to the northern army in the last war, on the march from Plattsburgh to Sackett's Harbor."

Said the Hon. Charles Miner of Pennsylvania, in Congress, on the 7th of February, 1828: "The African race make excellent soldiers. Large number of them were with Perry, and helped to gain the brilliant victory of Lake Erie. A whole battalion of them were distinguished for their ordinary appearance."

In the constitutional convention of New York, held in 1821, Dr. Drake, the delegate from Delaware country, in speaking of the colored people of that State, said: "In your late war they contributed largely towards some of your most splendid victories. On Lake Erie and Champlain, when your fleets triumphed over a foe superior in numbers and engines of death, they were manned in a large proportion with men of color. And in this very House, in the fall of 1814, a bill passed receiving the approbation of all branches of your government, authorizing the Governor to accept the services of a corps of 2000 free people of color. Sir," he continues, "these were times which tried men's souls. In these times it was not sporting matter to bear arms. These were times when a man who shouldered his musket did not know but he bared this bosom to receive a death wound ere he laid it aside, and those times these people were found as ready and as willing to volunteer in your services as any other. They were most compelled to go. They were not drafted. No! Your pride had placed them beyond your compulsory power. But there was no necessity for its exercise; they were volunteers; yes, they were volunteers to defend that country from the inroads and ravages of a ruthless and vindictive foe, which had treated them with insult, degradation, and slavery."


OHIO, 1854

But I will not weary your patience, further than to quote the celebrated proclamation of General Jackson, in 1814, they are as follows:


To the Free Colored Inhabitants of Louisiana

"Through a mistaken policy, you have been deprived of a participation in the glorious struggle for natural rights, in which our country is engaged. This no longer shall exist.

"As sons of freedom, you are now called upon to defend the most inestimable of blessings. As Americans, your country looks with confidence to her adopted children, for a valorous support, as a faithful return for the advantages enjoyed under her mild and equitable government. As fathers, husbands and brothers, you are summoned to rally around the standard of the Eagle, to defend all that is dear in existence.

"Your country, although calling for your exertions, does not wish you to engage in her cause without remunerating you for the services rendered. Your intelligent minds are not to be led away by false representations. Your love of honor would cause you to despise the man who should attempt to deceive you. With the sincerity of a soldier, and in the language of truth, I address you.

"To every noble hearted free man of color volunteering to serve during the present contest with Great Britain, and no longer, there will be paid the same bounty in money and land, now received by the white soldiers of the United States, namely, one hundred and twenty four dollars in money, and one hundred and sixty acres of land. The non-commissioned officers and privates will also be entitled to the same monthly pay, daily rations, and clothes furnished to any American soldier.

"On enrolling yourselves in companies, the Major General commanding will select officers for your government, from your white fellow citizens. Your non-commissioned officers will be appointed from among yourselves.

"Due regard will be paid to the feelings of freemen and soldiers. You will not by being associated with white men in the same corps, be exposed to improper comparisons, or unjust sarcasm. As a distinct, independent battalion or regiment, pursuing the path of glory, you will, undivided, receive, the applause of your countrymen.


ANDREW JACKSON, Major General commanding."

The second proclamation is one of the highest compliments that the General could have paid to his colored soldiers. This is his address:

"Soldiers!--When on the banks of the Mobile I called you to take up arms, inviting you to partake the perils and glory of your white fellow citizens, I expected much from you; for I was not ignorant that you possessed qualities most formidable to an invading enemy. I knew with what fortitude you could endure hunger and thirst, and all fatigues of a campaign. I knew well how you loved your native country, and that you as well as ourselves, had to defend what man holds dear,-- his parents, wife, children, and property. You have done more than I expected. In addition to the previous qualities I before knew you to possess, I found among you a noble enthusiasm which leads to the performance of great things.

"Soldiers! The President of the United States shall hear how praiseworthy was your conduct in the hour of danger, and the representatives of the American people will give you the praise you exploits entitle you to. Your General anticipates them in applauding your noble ardor.


"The enemy approaches, his vessels cover our lakes, our brave citizens are united, and all contention has ceased among them. Their only dispute is, who shall win the prize of valor, or who the most glory, its noblest reward."

By order,

THOMAS BUTLER, Aid-de-camp.

Thus it is very evident that the glory and honor of the Revolution and the War of 1812, are to be shared with colored men of the country. And these facts will serve to answer the question "what right have the children of Africa to a homestead in a white man's country?" "Their rights," in the truthful language of John G. Whittier, "like that of their white fellow citizens dates back to the dread arbitrament of war. Their bones whiten in every stricken field of the Revolution; their feet tracked with blood the snow of Jersey; their toil built up every fortification south of the Potomac; they shared the famine and nakedness of Valley Forge, and the pestilential horrors of the old Jersey prison ship." Have we then no claim to an equal participation in the blessings which have grown out of the national independence, which we fought to establish? Is it right, is it just, is it generous, is it magnanimous to withhold from us those blessings and "starve our patriotism?" What foreigner, what Irish or German emigrant has ever given such evidences of deep devotion to your government? And yet you have taken pains to make special arrangement by which in due time they are to enter upon the full enjoyment of citizenship. To this arrangement we would not object. We simply ask that we who have given such strong and significant proofs of our love of this country and its laws, be clothed in the livery of free and independent citizens.

Another ground, upon which we claim a participation in the rights and privileges of citizenship, is the fact that we are tax payers--that we willingly bear the burdens imposed upon us by the State. Nor is this fact to be regarded as a light and unimportant one. It will be seen at once that our tax is not of such insignificant account, since our real estate and personal property amount to more than five millions of dollars. Taking it, however, at five millions, and making an estimate according to the rate of taxation, in Lorain county, where the rate of taxation is lower than it is in the average of the counties of the State, our annual tax would amount to $57,165.00. In some counties it would be at least one hundred thousand dollars. In order to illustrate and enforce this consideration still further, I will refer to the amount of property owned by the colored people in the city of Cincinnati, the largest place in the State; and the amount owned by them in Oberlin, one of the smallest places in the State. In Cincinnati the colored people are worth $700,000, which, according to the rate of taxation in that city, will make their taxes $11,550. In Oberlin, where are very few colored residents (only 135,) their property amounts to $98,000. Their taxes then, according to the rate of taxation in that place would be $1,519.00. With such facts as these before your eyes gentlemen, you cannot find it in your hearts to say, that we are an ie., worthless, degraded class of men, and do not deserve the privilege of voting. In this connection I would gladly refer to the circumstances of the colored people in other cities and villages, and especially to their circumstances in several of the farming districts of the State; in Chillicothe, Portsmouth, Zanesville, Columbus and Cleveland, and of their large and well cultivated farms in the Peepee district, the Piketon settlement, and the settlements in Jackson, Gallia, Brown, Highland, Miami, Shelby, and Mercer counties; but I must not enlarge.

Allow me, however, to add, that so far back as 1851, in the returns made from nineteen counties represented in a convention held in this city on the 15th of January, we find that the value of the real estate and personal property belonging to the colored people of those counties amounting to more than three millions of dollars. Since that time we have not been idle. We have been working day and night. Like our white friends we have been doing all we could to extend our borders, to increase our real estate, and add to our small stocks in cash. So that whereas one or two years ago we owned but one lot of farm, now we have two, three, four, and perhaps five. It is often said, that Americans are great lovers of money; and it is true. But it is no


OHIO, 1854

more true of white Americans that it is of black ones. Both classes love money, and both will go to the ends of the earth to get it. Since then, it is a cardinal, a fundamental maxim of your political faith that taxation and representation are never to be saundered, but always go together; and since we are taxed in common with all others to meet the expenditures of the government, we respectfully submit, that we ought to have the advantages of a fair and impartial representation.

It is urged in reply to what we have presented however, "That we are an ignorant and degraded class, and would not use the elective franchise in an intelligent and manly manner if we had it." If this were true, it might be proper to withhold from us this right. But it is not true. It is doubly false. We are not more ignorant and degraded than other men. And here we would introduce the opinion of Hon. Samuel Galloway who had abundant opportunity for knowing what he affirmed to be true. In speaking of the progress that the colored people were making in his report of 1840, he said: "Now they have many and well conducted schools; they have teachers of respectable, intellectual and moral qualifications--there are many who command general respect and confidence for integrity and intelligence; they call and conduct conventions and associations of various kinds with order and intelligence;--questions of general and proper interest have become with them topics of discussion and conversation--in a few words, the intellectual and moral tone of their being is ameliorated!" What more could he have said, gentlemen, of the masses among the white people of the State?

As touching this point we would also submit the views of Hon. Wm. H. Seward as presented in the following letter:

Washington, May 16, 1854.

Dear Sir:--Your letter of the 6th inst. has been received. I reply to it cheerfully and with pleasure.

It is my deliberate opinion, founded upon careful observation, that the right of suffrage is exercised by no citizen of New York more conscientiously, or with more beneficial results to society, than it is by the electors of African descent. I sincerely hope that the franchise will before long be extended as it justly ought to this race, who of all others need it most.

I am very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

William H. Seward.

Thus it will be seen, that in the estimation of such men --men who have bestowed some thought upon our condition and our conduct, that we are not after all so ignorant and degraded that we are incapable of exercising the elective franchise in an intelligent and manly manner.

Permit us to say in conclusion, then, in view of these considerations, we hold that it is unjust, and anti-democratic, impolitic and ungenerous to withhold from us the right of suffrage.

I behalf of the colored people,

J. Mercer Langston.

Frederick Douglass' Paper, June 16, 1854.


1. John Mercer Langston had been commissioned to draw up this report by the Ohio Convention of Colored Freemen which met at Cincinnati in January 1852.

2. Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), American naval officer and son of the naval officer Stephen Decatur (1752-1808), gained fame in the War of 1812 by capturing the British frigate Macedonian. Then, in the so-called Algerine War of 1815, he used his squadron with decisiveness and vigor in forcing the dey of Algiers to sign a treaty which ended American tribute to Algeria.

3. John Barry (1745-1803), U.S. naval officer, was born in Wexford, Ireland. During the American Revolution, he commanded the brig Lexington when she captured (1776) the British tender Edward--first British vessel taken

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John Mercer Langston, “Memorial of John Mercer Langston for Colored People of Ohio to General Assembly of the State of Ohio,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed July 23, 2021,