The struggle for equality in antebellum America

A new article tells the story of Robert Purvis, a Black Philadelphian and abolitionist whose quest to secure a passport reflects the lives of other free Black people in the decades leading up to the American Civil War.

In 1834, Robert Purvis, a Black man living in Philadelphia and an up-and-coming abolitionist, applied for a passport to travel to Great Britain at the urging of his friend and fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. What it took to obtain that precious document is a story that reflects “the inherent challenges and struggles in Purvis’ life and the lives of other free Black people in the decades leading up to the American Civil War,” according to a new article published in the journal Social Education.

Robert Purvis, center, surrounded by others in a historical photo from 1851.
Robert Purvis (seated, center) with other members of the Board of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society in 1851. (Image: Courtesy of Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College)

“‘One of His Choicest Treasures’: Robert Purvis and the Meaning of Equality,” lays out that story, as told by Andrea Reidell, an education specialist and public historian who has joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) as director of outreach and curriculum of the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics.

In her article on Purvis, Reidell describes how Purvis was born in Charleston, S.C. His father was a wealthy white merchant born in England and raised in Scotland, his mother the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a Jewish man in Charleston. In preparation for a move back to Great Britain, his father moved the family to Philadelphia but died there before the move, leaving his family with a sizable inheritance.

“It is notable that Robert Purvis’s passport application is only one of two pre-Civil War passport applications for free Black men discovered to date at the National Archives,” Reidell writes. “Both passports required the personal intervention of prominent white men. Throughout his lifetime, Purvis publicly related the story of acquiring a passport, most notably when citizenship for Black people was being hotly debated—e.g., following the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857, in which Black people were declared not eligible for U.S. citizenship; and after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people in the states in rebellion.”

“One curious, but consistent twist to Purvis’s account is the personal involvement of President Andrew Jackson in the concession of the passport,” she writes.

“Jackson was an ardent anti-abolitionist slave owner perhaps best known for his Indian removal policy and the Trail of Tears. But Purvis, who had little reason to praise Jackson’s actions otherwise, attributed Jackson’s support to his remembrance of the free Black men who fought under him as a general in the War of 1812—a war 20 years in the past when Purvis applied for his passport. The connection seems tenuous, but history is full of such connections, and it clearly was what Purvis believed.”

Read more at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.