Lancaster Hill (c.1713-1796) is not widely associated with American literary history. He was not an author nor a poet. He didn’t keep a journal (that we know of). He was not a prolific letter writer. Yet, he was part of a group that produced some of the most powerful writing on the nature of American freedom in the late-1770s.
A congregant of King’s Chapel, Lancaster Hill was a free person of color in colonial Boston. He owned his own business — a shop on what is now Washington Street. Despite this seeming prosperity, Hill could not escape slavery’s influence. On April 9, 1755, Lancaster wed a woman named Margaret at King’s Chapel. Margret was enslaved by fellow congregation member Dr. Silvester Gardiner. Following this union, his life was intricately bound to it. As his wife was an enslaved woman, all the couple’s children were born into enslavement. The Hills had a total of five children, only two of whom lived past the age of ten.
Living in Boston throughout the duration of the Revolutionary War, Lancaster Hill was surrounded by the language of freedom. The rhetoric of independence, suffrage, and self-determination — that “Spirit of ‘76” — was not lost on the black population of Boston. While white Patriots throughout the colonies met to debate the nature of freedom, free men of color formed a parallel movement. Hill was part of one such group, led by famed abolitionist and community organizer Prince Hall.
In 1777, Hill helped to draft a petition that was sent to the Massachusetts government. A passionate assertion of the humanity and intrinsic freedom of those in a free American state, the appeal called for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. Quoting the Declaration of Independence, these men turned the tables on Patriots who had so recently and zealously fought for their own political freedom to remind them of the bondage their government embraced. In recalling this recent struggle, they “express their astonishment that it has never been considered that every principle from which America has acted in the course of their unhappy difficulties with Great Britain, pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your Petitioners.” The petition pairs vivid and poetic writing on the plight of those enslaved, with a stinging critique of the new Massachusetts government’s hypocrisy. It closes with the plea that the legislature would be “no longer chargeable with the inconstancy of acting themselves that part which they condemn and oppose in others.”
Lancaster Hill was the first to sign his name to the document.
While this stirring appeal brought about discussions of abolition and a bill was drafted to end slavery in Massachusetts, the movement stalled and the motion died on the floor.
This setback did not deter Hall, Hill, and the men who stood with them. Even after the eventual abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783, Lancaster Hill continued to advocate and petition for the betterment of the treatment of people of color in his home state.
To the Honorable Counsel & House of Representatives for the State of Massachusetts Bay in General Court assembled, January 13, 1777:
The petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery in the bowels of a free & Christian County Humbly sheweth that your Petitioners apprehend that they have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unalienable Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Universe that Bestowed equally on all menkind and which they have Never forfeited by any Compact or agreement whatever Ð but that wher Unjustly Dragged by the hand of cruel Power and their Derest friends and sum of them Even torn from the Embraces of their tender ParentsÐfrom A populous Pleasant and Plentiful country and in violation of Laws of Nature and of Nations and in Defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity Brough here Either to Be sold like Beast of burthen & Like them Condemned to Slavery for LifeÐAmong A People Professing the mild Religion of Jesus A people Not Insensible of the Secrets of Rational Being Nor without spirit to Resent the unjust endeavors of others to Reduce them to a state of Bondage and Subjugation your hononuer Need not to be informed that A Live of Slavery Like that of your petitioners Deprived of Every social privilege of Every thing Requisite and render Life Tolable is far worse that Nonexistance.
(In imitat)ion of the Lawdable Example of the Good People of these States your petitioners have Long and Patiently waited the Event of petition after petition. By them presented tot the Legislative Body of this state and cannot but with Grief Reflect that their Success hath been but too similar they Cannot but express their Astonishment that It have Never Bin Considered that Every Principle from which America has Acted in the Course of their unhappy Difficulties with Great Briton Pleads Stronger than A thousand arguments in favors of your petitioners they therfor humble Beseech your honours to give this petition its due weight and consideration & cause an act of the legislature to be past Wherby they may be Restored to the Enjoyments of that which is the Natural right of all menÐand their Children who wher Born in this Land of Liberty may not be held as Slaves after they arrive at the age of twenty one years so may the Inhabitance of this States No longer chargeable with the inconstancy of acting themselves that part which they condemn and oppose in others Be prospered in their present Glorious struggle for Liberty and have those Blessings to them, &c.