Throwing Off Their Fetters

Throwing Off Their Fetters: Analyzing the Work of Sarah Parker Remond and Maria Stewart

Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
Assistant Professor
Loyola University Maryland

Intended Audience: Secondary Students and Undergraduates

Background Information for Students

In order to understand the context of the letter as a literary genre and the role of antislavery activists, students should have should have knowledge of the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, the institution of slavery, and the Civil War. They should also have a working knowledge of the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements. In addition, students should a) understand the differences between primary and secondary sources; b) know how to read and analyze historical documents and c) know how to synthesize material.

Scope and Sequence

This lesson would work best being taught over a two-day period to provide students with an opportunity to properly review the history, examine and decode the primary sources, and brainstorm conclusions. Students should be encourage to select one of the Extension Activities (see below) as either a homework or an extended credit assignment.


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Understand the role of antislavery lecturers during the nineteenth century;
  2. Analyze excerpts from foundational documents that are a significant part of America's historical narrative;
  3. Discuss and debate the lives and writings of Sarah Parker Remond and Maria Stewart.

Topic Background/Materials

Maria Stewart

Sarah Parker Remond

Documents Analysis Worksheet

Terms Distinctions

  1. Enslaved Africans vs. Slaves: Being "enslaved" rather than a "slave" implies that this is a situation that is forced upon someone rather than a natural inherent situation.
  2. Black vs. Afric-Americans: At this time in history, people of African ancestry, who were based in the North, had been feverishly debating through the Editorials about what to call themselves and they had agreed (somewhat) on the term "Afric-American."
  3. Free-born vs. Free(d): The term "freeborn" is used to help students understand the differences between women who have never been enslaved and women who were "free" or "freed" and were less than one generation removed from bondage.

Part One: Motivation

  1. Inform the students that they are going to analyze the first sentence from the Declaration of Independence (if necessary, remind them that it was written by Thomas Jefferson, adopted by the delegates on July 4, 1776 at the Second Continental Congress and it is one of two American foundational philosophical documents, along with the Constitution). Ask them to a) read the sentence; b) circle any words or phrases that they are unfamiliar with; c) briefly explain what this statement means to them and d) decide whether this sentence applied to the lives of enslaved Black Americans (yes or no answer with a one-sentence description).
  2. Invite them to briefly share their responses and then think about what this statement means to Americans. You should be looking for answers along the lines of "our country's freedom," "our rights and privileges," "life, liberty and justice for all." If these are not given, add them to the discussion. Ask them to think about what life was like in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century for Black Americans and whether or not the words "justice for all" was meant for them. Record their answers on the board and tell them to keep these ideas mind as they move into the lesson.

Part Two: Procedures

  1. Inform the students that they will read and decode primary source documents to determine the ways in which freeborn black women critiqued and analyzed America's social and political situation. They will be analyzing primary sources written by antislavery lecturers Sarah Parker Remond and Maria Stewart. (Either have your students read the biographies of Remond and Stewart, or summarize the biographies for them.) They will then compare and contrast these documents with our national documents in order to better understand Remond and Stewart's opinion. See the full list of documents below.
  2. Refer the students to the terms distinctions lists above. Go through the list with them and then take the time to answer any clarifying questions they may have.
  3. Next, hand out copies of the Preamble to the Constitution and the Documents Analysis Worksheet. Ask them to do the first part independently: a) read it; b) circle any words or phrases that they are unfamiliar with; c) briefly explain what this statement means to them and d) decide whether this passage applied to the lives of enslaved Black Americans (yes or no answer with a one-sentence description).
  4. After working independently, students should work together to discuss and complete the Documents Analysis Worksheet.
  5. Place the excerpt on an overhead projector (if available), go through it with your students, and invite them to share some of their answers.
  6. Tell them to keep the meaning of these documents in mind, as they read through the words of Remond and Stewart to get an understanding of how free black women interpreted America's social and political situation.
  7. Tell the students they have 30–40 minutes to go through their primary source package and answer the questions. While they are working, circulate amongst the groups to make sure that they understand the assignment and they are correctly analyzing the sources (as much as possible, push them to synthesize the material, drawing connections, making comparisons, etc.).

Part Three: Closure

  1. At the end of the assignment, students should present their findings to the class for open discussion.


(If necessary, primary source excerpts can be shortened)

The Declaration of Independence. Full text here.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"


The Preamble to the United States Constitution. Full text here.
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."


Sarah Parker Remond. Excerpt from a letter written September 18, 1858. In Speak Out in Thunder Tones: Letter and Other Writings by Black Northerners, 1787–1865, edited by Dorothy Sterling. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, unabridged paperback edition 1998: 177.
"Dear Friend: There is a very strong effort being made on the part of the slaveholder and their allies to legalize the slave trade. Only think of it, in the nineteenth century, a nation which years ago declared the slave trade piracy, endeavoring to legalize traffic in bodies and souls of men and women. Is it not enough to make one's heart sick? It is true that the traffic in slaves has always been carried on, but now there will be an attempt made to throw around this infamous crime the sanction of law. "And why not?" I may ask, "When the Supreme Court of the United States has declared that men and women with a dark complexion 'have no rights which white men are bound to respect.'"


Sarah Parker Remond. "Anti-Slavery Advocate, 1859," In Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings, edited by Bert James Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin. Penn: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976: 226–227.
"The true and sincere abolitionists in America inculcate and act on the maxim, "God is our father and the creator of us all, whatever may be our colour, complexion, race or country. We are all equal in the sight of God." This also was a maxim taught and practically illustrated in the lives and acts of the early Christians, who worshipped the true God in secret in the catacombs of Pagan Rome. These were the sentiments which, emanating from the glowing heart of the Savior and from his sacred lips, still characterize the acts and doings of those who were known as ultra abolitionists in America, who are stigmatized by every vile reproach, both as a body and individually, which vindictive malice can suggest. The abolitionists are not identified with any political party; their watchword is, "The immediate and unconditional abolition of American slavery."


Sarah Parker Remond. Excerpt from Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Vol II M – Z [Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993] pp. 972-974.
"I appeal on behalf of four millions of men, women and children who are chattels in the Southern States of America. Not because they are identical with my race and color, though I am proud of that identity, but because they are men and women. The sum of sixteen hundred millions of dollars is invested in their bones, sinews and flesh—is this not sufficient reason why all the friends of humanity should not endeavor with all their might and power, to overturn the vile systems of slavery."


MariaStewart. Excerpt from "Religion And The Pure Principles Of Morality, The Sure Foundation On Which We Must Build." See full version here.
"Feeling a deep solemnity of soul, in view of our wretched and degraded situation, and sensible of the gross ignorance that prevails among us, I have thought proper thus publicly to express my sentiments before you. I hope my friends will not scrutinize these pages with too severe an eye, as I have not calculated to display either elegance or taste in their composition, but have merely written the meditations of my heart as far as my imagination led; and have presented them before you, in order to arouse you to exertion, and to enforce upon your minds the great necessity of turning your attention to knowledge and improvement…All the nations of the earth are crying out for Liberty and Equality. Away, away with tyranny and oppression! And shall Afric's sons be silent any longer? Far be it from me to recommend to you, either to kill, burn, or destroy. But I would strongly recommend to you, to improve your talents; let not one lie buried in the earth. Show forth your powers of mind. Prove to the world, that Though black your skins as shades of night, Your hearts are pure, your souls are white. This is the land of freedom…"


Maria Stewart. Excerpt from "A Little Better than Slavery" (1832). In Primary Sources in American History, Sources of the African-American Past, edited by Roy Finkenbine. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.
"I have heard much respecting the horrors of slavery; but may Heaven forbid that the generality of my color throughout these United States should experience any more of its horrors than to be a servant of servants, or hewers of wood and drawers of water! Tell us no more of southern slavery; for with few exceptions, although I may be very erroneous in my opinion, yet I consider our condition but little better than that….After all, methinks there are no chains so galling as those that bind the soul, and exclude it from the vast field of useful and scientific knowledge….I have asked several individuals of my sex, who transact business for themselves, if providing our girls were to give them the most satisfactory references, they would not be willing to grant them an equal opportunity with others? Their reply has been-for their own part, they had no objection; but as it was not the custom, were they to take them into their employ, they would be in danger of losing the public patronage. And such is the powerful force of prejudice. Let our girls possess whatever amiable qualities of soul they may; let their characters be fair and spotless as innocence itself; let their natural taste and ingenuity be what they may; it is impossible for scarce an individual of them to rise above the condition of servants. Ah! Why is this cruel and unfeeling distinction? Is it merely because God has made our complexion to vary?…. O, horrible idea, indeed! To possess noble souls aspiring after high and honorable acquirements, yet confined by the chains of ignorance and poverty to lives of continual drudgery and toil….Most of our color have dragged out a miserable existence of servitude from the cradle to the grave. And what literary acquirement can be made, or useful knowledge derived, from either maps, books, or charts, by those who continually drudge from Monday morning until Sunday noon?…. I am also one of the wretched and miserable daughters of the descendants of fallen Africa. Do you ask, why are you so wretched and miserable? I reply, look at many of the most worthy and most interesting of us doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen's kitchens. Look at our young men, smart, active, and energetic, with souls filled with ambitious fire; if they look forward, alas! What are their prospects? They can be nothing but the humblest laborers, on account of their dark complexions; hence many of them lose their ambition, and become worthless. Look at our middle-aged men, clad in their rusty plaids and coats; in winter, every cent they earn goes to buy their wood and pay their rents; the poor wives also toil beyond their strength, to help support their families. Look at our aged sires, whose heads are whitened with the frosts of seventy winters, with their old wood-saws on their backs. Alas, what keeps us so? Prejudice, ignorance and poverty."


Maria Stewart. Excerpt from "The Negro's Complaint." In Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart presented to the First Africa Baptist Church & Society, of the City of Boston. Boston: Friends of Freedom and Virtue, 1835.

"By our blood in Afric wasted,
Ere our necks receiv'd the chain;
By the miseries we tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main.
By our sufferings, since ye brought us
To the man-degrading mart;
All sustained with patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart.
Deem our nation brutes no longer,
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier to regard and stronger
Than the color of our kind!
Slaves of gold! Whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted powers;
Prove that ye have human feelings,
Ere ye proudly question ours!"


Extension Activities

  1. Students can rewrite the Preamble to the Constitution and the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence in everyday language.
  2. Students can pretend it is 1865 and that they have been asked to write a speech to motivate freed men and women in the South. They should write their 1–2 minute speech on an index cards and present it in class.