One could be excused for thinking that a document certifying a Black man’s freedom in 1811 was a sign of the slow march of racial progress in the United States. Yet, given the elusiveness of true equality, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that looks can be deceiving. In reality, the certificate of freedom shown here is anything but a sign of progress. Instead, such certificates are testament to historical efforts at disrupting Black men’s right to vote.
In April of that year, fearing the power of free Black support for the opposition Federalist party, New York’s Democratic-Republicans passed An Act to Prevent Frauds at Election and Slaves From Voting. The relative effect of existing property qualifications would have unevenly impacted free Black men but until this point the group had actually enjoyed suffrage on equal footing to white men. The 1811 act thus distinguished between the two groups as it more actively limited the Black presence at the polls.
Ostensibly, supporters conceived of the act as a means to prevent slaves and other disqualified men from casting ballots in an age when multiple votes and other irregularities were harder to prevent. The act’s provisions therefore required free “blacks and mulattos” (the latter being men of mixed race) to file a certificate of freedom with the county clerk in order to guarantee their right to vote. The act also heaped all associated costs on the shoulders of applicants in a thinly veiled attempt to push voting privileges beyond the reach of most free men.
Ultimately, this was the first attempt, of many, to dampen the voice of free Blacks in contemporary New York politics. Indeed, despite the 1811 act, suspicions that 300 Black voters tipped the balance of the narrowly contested 1813 New York State Assembly election in favor of the Federalists only fueled additional restrictive legislation.
Perhaps all of this sounds familiar? After all, though there are inevitably critical distinctions to be made from one era to another, it’s hard not to draw lines of comparison between the events represented in documents such as this certificate, and heated debates over voter ID, and associated registration laws, that rage on in many states today. While efforts to stamp out fraudulent voting may resonate logically, two hundred year old certificates of freedom such as this offer powerful historical context. In particular, they highlight the potential consequences added bureaucracy brought to those of limited means in exercising their rights as American citizens.
So, if you’re stuck in a long line to vote, or are lamenting having to drop off your ballot, you might consider the men recorded in these certificates as an example to us of the importance of making the effort to exercise our right in spite of the obstacles presented to us.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.