Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens


The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania attempted to persuade Pennsylvanians to vote against the ratification of a new state constitution in 1838 because the word “white” had been inserted prior to “freemen” as a qualification for voting. Written by African American leader Robert Purvis (1810-98), the pamphlet highlighted the achievements, sacrifices, and value of the Black community to Philadelphia.

A color photograph of the title page of a book, featuring plain black lettering, with some text italicized and bolded .
On March 14, 1838, Robert Purvis read the text of the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens to an audience at the First African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Within a month it had been published in pamphlet form, with this title page. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Under Pennsylvania’s first two constitutions, ratified in 1776 and 1790, Article III limited voting rights and elections to “freemen,” but definitions of “freeman” varied in individual counties depending on local politics and traditions. Some understood the term “freeman” to apply only to whites, while others did not. The commonwealth’s western counties, which had small populations of free Blacks, tended to allow them to vote. Eastern counties with larger populations of free Blacks–especially Philadelphia–discouraged them from voting though intimidation at the polls.

Philadelphia’s free Black community, the largest and wealthiest in the state, grew in the early decades of the nineteenth century as a destination for free Blacks from the South and runaway slaves. At the same time, tension over the issue of slavery increased, especially after Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1831 and the rise of racial abolitionism in the 1830s.

The explosive issue of race relations was one of many financial, governmental, and immigration problems facing Pennsylvania when the legislature called a convention to reform the state constitution in 1837. The convention began in May 1837 in Harrisburg but moved to Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia for its concluding sessions in November 1837 and February 1838. Initially, delegates made no recommendations to alter the language of Article III to prohibit free Blacks from voting. But Democrat John Sterigere (1793-1852) of Montgomery County seized on public opinion against Black voting rights and proposed to the convention that the language of Article III be changed to include the word “white” prior to “freemen” in order to exclude all Blacks, even if they paid taxes or owned property.

Thomas Earle (1796-1849), a Democrat from Philadelphia County, objected to changing the language and attempted to persuade the convention to seek a compromise to temporarily suspend Black voting rights throughout the commonwealth. He lost to a larger Democratic majority, which approved the change to Article III and proposed a new Constitution of 1838 for ratification. Similar actions occurred in other states during this period as politicians attempted to prevent Blacks from gaining the same voting rights as white men, whose access to the polls was increasing with changes in voting qualifications such as reduced taxes or land-owning requirements.

A black and white photograph of man from the chest up, wearing a jacket and a tie.
Robert Purvis became a prominent representative of Philadelphia’s black community after co-founding organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People and drafting The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens in 1838. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Philadelphia’s Black community responded to Pennsylvania’s proposed constitution with the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania. In the tradition of African American leaders such as Absalom Jones (1746-1818), Richard Allen (1760-1831), and James Forten Sr. (1766-1842), Robert Purvis emphasized the worthiness of Philadelphia’s Black community. Purvis systematically presented an argument based on history, statistical data, economics, and politics to combat public misconceptions about African Americans.

The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens invoked the founding documents of Pennsylvania and the nation to argue that it would be consistent with previous generations to ensure suffrage to freemen without the mention of a specific race. The pamphlet pointed out that during the colonial period, white indentured servants as well as Black slaves were not permitted to vote because they lacked the status of freemen. “White” was not included as a qualification for voting in either the 1776 or 1790 Pennsylvania constitutions.

To support the claims of the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery compiled a census as evidence that Philadelphia’s Black community provided the city with revenue, laborers, and taxpayers who contributed to its economic success. The census demonstrated that compared with whites, African Americans made up a substantially lower proportion of the poor and people receiving aid. In fact, the Black community paid more to provide relief for the poor than it received in return. Purvis used the statistics to rebuke a public image of idleness. Recognizing the connection between actions in Pennsylvania and increasing racial tensions in the nation, Purvis charged the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention with having, “laid our [Black] rights a sacrifice on the altar of slavery.”

Drawing of the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall
The destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, 1838. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Voters ratified the Constitution of 1838 by a margin of a little more than one thousand votes—113,971 to 112,759—on October 9, 1838. African Americans continued to petition the legislature to reinstate suffrage for free Blacks, but their petitions were left unanswered. Racial tensions turned to violent riots targeting African Americans and attacks on a newly erected abolitionist meeting place, Pennsylvania Hall. Although a new generation of leaders including Jacob C. White Jr. (1837-1902) continued the fight for suffrage, African Americans in Pennsylvania did not regain the vote until the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1870) extended voting rights to Black men throughout the nation.

David Reader teaches history at Haddonfield Memorial High School and was the recipient of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship in 2007. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens... Title Page

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

As the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention approved changes to the language of Article III to allow voting rights to only "white freeman" in January 1838, members of Philadelphia's black community quickly established meetings to fight the ratification of the new constitution. Robert Purvis was the chairman of a seven-member committee, created during a public meeting at Saint Paul's Lutheran Church in February 1838, entrusted to create a public appeal to persuade others to reject the new state constitution. On March 14, 1838, Purvis read the text of the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens to an audience at the First African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Within a month of being read to the public, Philadelphia press Merrihew and Gunn published the appeal as a pamphlet, with the title page pictured here. To view a full transcript of the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, visit the Historical Society of Pennsylvania website.

Musical Fund Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

Between November 1837 and February 1838, Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia housed a convention to shape a new state constitution for Pennsylvania.

The Musical Fund Society was founded in 1820 to bring musical entertainment to Philadelphia. The society purchased a Presbyterian Church at Eighth and Locust Streets in 1824 and hired notable architect William Strickland to refurbish the building for the society's acoustical needs. The renovation greatly changed the interior of the building to make it suitable for musical acts, while only small adjustments were made to the building's facade, pictured in this drawing from the 1920s.

The Musical Fund Hall drew a variety of musicians, composers, lecturers, and poets to the Philadelphia area, but the society also rented out the building for special political events. When the Pennsylvania Legislature held its Constitutional Convention there, it drafted a constitution that disenfranchised all African Americans in Pennsylvania until after the Civil War.

In June 1856 the newly formed Republican Party held its first national convention in the hall. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the hall was sold numerous times and was repurposed into a sports venue and a storage facility. In 1980, private developers purchased the hall and drastically renovated the interior of the building to transform it into condominiums.

James Forten (1766-1842)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In 1813, when Pennsylvania legislators proposed a law that would have required all African American migrants to register with the state, wealthy Philadelphia businessman James Forten argued against the proposal in an anonymously published pamphlet titled Letters From a Man of Color. Forten evoked language from the Declaration of Independence to make his argument, and began the first letter: "We hold this truth to be self-evident, that GOD created all men equal, and is one of the most prominent features of the Declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African, and whatever measures are adopted subversive of this inestimable privilege, are in direct violation of the letter and the spirit of our constitution, and become subject to the animadversion of all, particularly those who are deeply interested in the measure..."

Forten was born to a free African American family in Philadelphia in 1766. Forten's father had a successful career working at Robert Bridges' sail loft and Forten worked beside his father by the age of eight. Forten continued working for Bridges after his father's death, and only left his position to serve briefly as a privateer during the Revolutionary War in 1780 and apprentice in a London shipyard for seven months. Forten returned to Philadelphia as Bridges' apprentice and yard foreman. Forten was able to design a series of popular sails that increased the speed and maneuverability of ships. When Bridges retired in 1798, Forten took control of the business and was able to retain Bridges' customer base. Over the next forty years, Forten earned a substantial amount of wealth, some of which he used to fight for the social freedoms of African Americans.

Following his Letters From a Man of Color, in 1817, Forten joined with Richard Allen to organize the Convention of Color to support a settlement in Canada for fugitive slaves. Forten and Allen together believed that freed or fugitive slaves should not be relocated away from the North American continent and frequently allied together against the American Colonization Society (which argued that freed or fugitive slaves would have greater freedoms if they were sent to Africa). In 1831 when William Lloyd Garrison began The Liberator, a weekly newspaper that focused on information about abolitionist initiatives around the United States, James Forten wrote editorials and offered financial assistance to keep the paper in circulation. By his death in 1842, Forten had helped make Philadelphia a center for abolitionism.

Robert Purvis (1810-98)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Pictured here in the 1890s near the end of his life, Robert Purvis dedicated his life to fighting for the freedoms and rights of all African American citizens. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1810, Purvis came from a biracial family. His mother was the descendant of a freed black slave and his father was a white English cotton broker, and they were legally barred from marrying in South Carolina. Purvis' family moved from Charleston to Philadelphia in 1819, and Purvis and his two brothers attended a school operated by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society. Purvis became heavily involved with abolitionist groups and the black community throughout Philadelphia by way of co-founding the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People in Philadelphia in 1833. The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania, authored by Purvis in 1838, presented an argument to combat public misconceptions about African Americans and prevent the ratification of a new Pennsylvania constitution that would destroy African American voting rights. Unable to block ratification of the state constitution, Purvis continued to fight for African American voting rights and abolition causes, such as lobbying for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and serving as president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society from 1845-50. From the 1870s to his death in 1898, Purvis worked with other black community leaders in Philadelphia to fight against laws permitting racial segregation and discriminatory practices.

Richard Allen (1760-1831)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Richard Allen, born in Philadelphia as a slave in 1760, used his role as a Methodist religious leader to support abolitionism and assist the swelling African American community in Philadelphia from the 1780s through the1830s. Although born in Philadelphia, Allen and the rest of his family were sold to a Delaware plantation owner in the 1760s. While in Delaware, Allen began to attend weekly Methodist Society meetings and later became a Methodist preacher after he was able to purchase his freedom. The Methodist preaching circuit allowed him to attend Methodist meetings throughout Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. After preaching in Philadelphia numerous times, Allen accepted an offer in 1786 to be a weekly speaker at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Although St. George's was primarily a white church, it had services for the steadily growing African American audience.

Preaching at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church was difficult for Allen and the growing African American congregation that prayed there weekly. Allen had to conduct his sermons at 5 a.m. so that he did not disrupt the service for the white congregation later in the morning. After multiple incidents of white church members forcing African Americans into segregated seating that did not allow room to kneel to pray, Allen and other local religious leaders began to plan churches specifically for the African American population of Philadelphia. Their first step was to create the Free African Society in 1787 to support the local African American community and help recently freed slaves. The Free African Society offered financial assistance to families and educational services for children or adults seeking employment in Philadelphia. Over the next few years, a number of solely African American churches were built in Philadelphia. Allen was part of a council that purchased and renovated an old blacksmith's shop to become the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (later known as Mother Bethel). He became the first African American Methodist minister in 1799 and the first bishop of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. Until his death in 1831, Richard used his ties with his growing congregation and the Free African Society to support the African American community of Philadelphia.

The Destruction of Pennsylvania Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

On the night of May 17, 1838, at the corner of Sixth and Haines Streets, almost sixty years after the Gradual Emancipation Act, Pennsylvania Hall (erected 1837-1838) burned to the ground at the hands of a large crowd. Constructed as a place for local abolitionist groups to meet, the dedication ceremonies began on May 14 amid swarming, angry crowds that destroyed the building several days later. The building was allowed to smolder. Although firefighters were on hand to control the blaze, they chose to save surrounding buildings and let the Pennsylvania Hall fall. A few days after the fire, John T. Bowen, a local printer, issued this image. Known as the Philadelphia Riot, the incident at Pennsylvania Hall demonstrated the lack of support for abolition in Philadelphia, though legislation for its graduate abolition had been enacted more than half a century earlier.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Bacon, Margaret Hope. But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis. New York: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Newman, Richard (ed.). Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African American Protest Literature 1790-1860. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Price, Edward. “The Black Voting Rights Issue in Pennsylvania, 1780-1900.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Volume 100 Number 3 (July 1976) 356-373.

Smith, Eric Ledell. “The End of Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania: African Americans and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837-1838.” Pennsylvania History Volume 65 Number 3 (Summer 1988) 279-299.

Winch, Julie. Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Related Collections

African American Collections, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention Documents 1837, Duquesne University, 600 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh.

Related Places

Musical Fund Hall (now a condo building), 808 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Robert Purvis Historical Marker, 1601 Mount Vernon Street, Philadelphia.


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