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‘Persons of colour excepted’: Highlights from the Territorial Papers of the United States

Posted on 09/23/2019

The September release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes several important collections of letters and correspondence between territories and the executive branch. The subjects under discussion range from suffrage in Indiana Territory to American involvement in the Mexican Revolution to the leasing of school lands in Mississippi Territory.

Bill Extending Right of Suffrage, Feb. 2, 1809


Kentucky Senator and President pro tempore John Pope (1770-1845) read into the Senate record on Feb. 2, 1889, a bill extending the right of suffrage to certain citizens of Indiana Territory.

That the citizens of the Indiana territory, entitled to vote for representatives to the general assembly thereof, shall, at the time of electing their representatives to the said general assembly, also elect one delegate from the said territory to the congress of the United States, who shall possess the same powers heretofore granted to the delegates from the several territories of the United States.

The bill, which goes on to describe various administrative functions of the general assembly and duties of other territorial bureaucracies, would re-emerge from the committee process two years later.

Senate. No. XXV. Bill To Extend Suffrage, etc., Feb. 8, 1811


In the third session of the 11th Congress, Tennessee Senator Joseph Inslee Anderson (1757-1837) presented the amended bill. Notably the right of suffrage was further limited with some changes being handwritten onto the bill. ‘White,’ for example, is inserted to replace, ‘persons of colour excepted.’ In 1811 the bill read:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That each and every free white male person, who shall have attained the age of twenty-one years (persons of colour excepted) and who shall have paid a county or territorial tax, and who shall have resided one year in said territory, previous to any general election, and be at the time of any such election a resident of said territory, shall be entitled to vote for members of the legislative council and house of representatives of the territorial legislature, and for a delegate to the Congress of the United States for said territory.

Inflammatory Printed Circular of Two Pages, Signed by John H. Robinson, Inviting Americans to Join in the Mexican Revolution, Sept. 16, 1813


Virginia-born John H. Robinson volunteered in 1806 to travel with Zebulon Pike’s expedition, later served as a commissioned surgeon in the U.S. Army, and in 1815 went to Mexico where he fought in the Mexican War of Independence. Calling his fellow citizens to arms in 1813, Robinson begins dramatically:

We now witness the most momentous crisis, which the history of man has ever furnished, on the review of which, the mind is filled with awfully solemn reflections; turning our attention to the East, we behold all Europe laid waste, we behold her plains redened [sic] with the blood of her innocent inhabitants. The fate of kingdoms and empires is at this moment suspended by mere threads, even the shores of Columbia are now whitened with the tents of armies; our ears are assailed on all sides by the din of camps, the sound of martial music, the cries of suffering humanity and the mournful sound of Peace retiring from this Globe.

Robinson continues, raising the alarm against an eventual well-armed and better equipped Great Britain on the United States’ southern border as a result of ongoing international conflicts.

Fellow citizen, whether a Bourbon, Braganza or a Bonaparte reigns in the peninsula of Spain, is of very little importance to us, but on crossing the atlantic [sic] this revolution changes its character, as it relates to the United States, and involves in its course their future peace, prosperity and even Independence. The Spanish government, feeling their incapacity to suppress that revolution, have applied to their ally, who as by treaty, agreed to mediate between the insurgent provinces and their metropolis, and eventually for a valuable consideration, to guarantee the integrity of the Spanish monarchy on this continent; it is not necessary here to calculate the ability of Great Britain to fulfill the conditions of his treaty, it is sufficient for our purpose to know that a government who has subjugated India and openly aspires to the exclusive commerce of the world, has made such a contract; but the revolution in Mexico has gone too far for mediation, consequently British bayonets would have to be employed to reduce and disarm the insurgents, and when that revolution is thus quelled, who will be the real masters of that country? will any man presume to say, that the imbecile government of Spain will have any authority there? No, a British General will dictate laws to, and control the destinies of Mexico, and to suppose that then, the resources of the New Spain would not be turned against the United States, would be extravagant indeed; it is well known that even at this moment a great portion of the wealth of that country passes into the coffers of Great Britain, and is consequently turned against this government.

Robinson describes how the Mexicans have fought for their independence, industriously used their resources, and gained the support of the clergy. He then goes on to portray the Mexican people and their relationship with the United States:

The Mexican, in character, is mild, affable, polite, hospitable and gay, they possess great fortitude, no privations, however great, will cause a murmur; in fine they are as good materials for an army, as have ever come within my view; they require nothing but discipline, to render them as good troops as any in the world.

The character of the citizens of the United States, stands pre-eminently high in that country, and they will receive them with the most fraternal affection, they very justly perceive that we have a common interest, and therefore ought to be friends.

Senate. No. XV. Bill To Provide for Leasing Certain School Lands, Dec. 23, 1814


Two days before Christmas 1814, Kentucky Senator George Mortimer Bibb (1776-1859) introduced a bill “to provide for leasing certain lands reserved for the support of schools, in the Mississippi territory.” The bill would allow Mississippi to leverage the federally granted school lands as a means of financing public education.

That the county court in each county in the Mississippi Territory, shall be, and is hereby authorized to appoint a suitable number of agents, (not exceeding f??) who shall have power to let out on lease for the purpose of improving the same, the sections of land reserved by congress for the support of schools, lying within the county for which the agents respectively are appointed, or to let them out at an annual rent, as they shall judge proper; and it shall be the duty of the said agents, under the direction of the county courts respectively, to apply with impartiality the proceeds arising from the rents of each section as aforesaid, to the purpose of education, and to no other use whatsoever, within the particular township of six miles square, or fractional township wherein such section is situated, in such a manner, that all the citizens residing therein may partake of the benefit thereof, according to the true intent of the reservation made by congress.

The bill continues, describing the lands to be leased, the agents’ duties, responsibilities, and rewards, and disallowing specific activities such as “destroying of timber, or removing stone, or any other injury to the lands whatever.”

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