Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 3
The Female Antislavery Petition Campaign of 1831–32
- Patrick Breen, pp. 377–98
In October 1831, just two months after Nat Turner's Rebellion shocked Virginia and the South, John Hartwell Cocke and
Charles Augustus Stuart wanted to make an argument against slavery in a way that would get the attention of Virginia's legislators.
Stuart proposed that they lobby the House of Delegates with a female petition, hoping that "the fears and cries of the tender sex"
would open the ears of a legislature that had long been unwilling to discuss the future of slavery. Cocke believed Stuart's idea
might work, and he urged Stuart to compose a female petition. After being signed by hundreds of women from Augusta
County, that petition was submitted to the legislature. Inspired by Stuart's idea, Cocke also asked his friend Virginia
Cary—a well-known writer—to try her hand at composing her own petition against slavery. Although it was never
submitted to the legislature, this petition from Fluvanna County was published in several newspapers and gained a
large audience throughout the region and the nation. After reading the Fluvanna petition, Mary Minor Blackford,
an opponent of slavery from Fredericksburg, decided that another female petition was in order. She wrote a petition
on behalf of the women of Fredericksburg, which one other woman signed, but then Blackford had a change of heart
and decided to suppress it.
Among the earliest examples of female petitions on political issues in the nation, these petitions are remarkable examples
of women's political action. The history of their origin and authorship make them even more compelling.