Missouri State Archives
Missouri's Early Slave Laws:
A History in Documents
Guided Discussion Questions
1837 and 1847 Missouri Slave Laws
What was going on in Missouri and the United States during this time? What changes occurred in Missouri and the U.S. over the next fifty years?
- Refer students to the Missouri State Archives Timeline of African American History and the Timeline of Missouri History.
- What is an abolitionist? Why would there be a law prohibiting abolition?
- Why were “slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes” prohibited from going to school? Why would Missouri 's elected officials fear “negroes and mulattoes” being taught to read or write?
- The 1847 law forbade “negroes or mulattoes” the right to assemble for religious worship if services were conducted by “negroes or mulattoes,” unless an officer of the law was in attendance. Can you think of reasons why the legislature enacted a law like this? What effect would this have on an “enslaved African” or “free black” in Missouri ?
- Number 6 in the 1847 slave law references the fact that “free negroes and mulattoes” in Missouri had to carry a pass or “license” stating their freedom. What impact would a regulation like this have on “free blacks” in Missouri ? Can you think of other episodes in U.S. or World History where these types of discriminatory regulations were placed on people?
George Thompson Documents
- George Thompson was an Illinois abolitionist imprisoned in Missouri for attempting to entice slaves to cross the Mississippi River and head to Canada for freedom. When the plea for release was written by Thompson and James E. Burr, they had already served four years in prison, with more than eight still ahead of them. Discuss the severity of this punishment. Examine some of the reasons Thompson and Burr give for their request.
- What do Thompson and Burr promise never to do again, if they are released from prison? Why do they offer a further promise to “prevent others from doing the like”?
- What words do Thompson and Burr underline? Why are they adding extra emphasis to those words?
- What happened that prompts Thompson and Burr to offer “a thousand thanks and prayers”?
- Examine the petition, which was signed by supporters of Thompson, Burr, and their fellow abolitionist Alanson Work. What stands out to you about the elegant text that precedes the signatures?
- Would you have signed such a petition, or feared some sort of retribution for your actions? What might have happened to you?
- This petition was written nearly twenty years before enslaved Africans in Missouri were freed. What do the words contained here tell you about the mindset of those who placed their signatures on the petition? How strong were their feelings toward slavery? How might others in their communities have viewed them?
- Do you think Thompson's views changed by the date of his request, or is he just trying to make statements, which he may not agree with, that might help him gain his freedom?