Guest Post: Thomas Mundy Peterson and the Fifteenth Amendment

Gordon Bond is an independent historian/researcher. He has written an excellent biography of the colonial New York printer, James Parker, entitled James Parker: A Printer on the Eve of Revolution. He is also the author of Hidden History of South Jersey (2013) and North Jersey Legacies (2012). Currently, he is the Founder, Editor-in-Chief & Director of Garden State Legacies .

While a rejection is nothing any writer wants, sometimes it is what we need. Such was the case with my proposals to publishers for a book about Thomas Mundy Peterson. If you’ve heard of Peterson before, chances are it will be for the Wikipedia reason; in 1870, he became the first African-American to vote under the auspices of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He was, of course, more than that moment.

Peterson was born October 6, 1824 on the Mundy family farm in what is now Metuchen, New Jersey. His father, also Thomas, worked for Ezra Mundy and both father and son adopted the last name from time to time. While we know the son as Thomas Mundy Peterson, that tri-part combination was never used contemporarily. It was always Tom Mundy or Thomas Peterson. In fact, later documents indicate his full name was actually Thomas Henry Peterson. His mother, Lucy, was a manumitted slave of Andrew Bell in Freehold, New Jersey. Her son would be born automatically free, both by virtue of her own status and also New Jersey’s Gradual Emancipation act of twenty years before. By 1828 the family had moved to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where Peterson would live out his life.

This was a particularly fortuitous move, as Perth Amboy was home to an enclave of progressive idealists. Marcus and Rebecca Spring had established the Raritan Bay Union there, a sort of cross between a boarding school, utopian community, and artist’s colony. The Union attracted likeminded intellectuals and artists, including Angelina and Sarah Grimke who taught there and Angelina’s husband, Theodore Weld, who ran the school. Abolitionists and reformers like James Birney, Edward Palmer, Caroline Kirkland, and Amos Bronson Alcott spent time there, as did Henry David Thoreau, who applied his hobby of land surveying to recording the property. They encouraged such unseemly behavior among the young ladies in their classrooms as acting in plays and public speaking. Not only did they mix the sexes in their classrooms, but races as well.

Perhaps the strongest example of the kinds of values and ideas they were imbuing their students with comes from Rebecca Spring’s reaction to John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. She travelled alone to meet with Brown and his men in their jail cells, administering to their wounds. When the men were executed and the bodies of two black men remained unclaimed, she had them brought to New Jersey for burial on the Eagleswood estate she and Marcus had in Perth Amboy—buried in free soil.

Thomas Peterson was working in the stables of one of the Union’s students, John Lawrence Kearny, when news of the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment arrived in Perth Amboy. Both Kearny and Marcus Spring encouraged him to go exercise the right of a free citizen. It so happened that the city was holding a special election to decide if they were going to revise their city charter or abandon it in favor of a township form of government. There is something apropos about this first vote being not for a party, but a free people deciding how to govern their selves. He voted to revise the existing charter—the side that prevailed—and was named as one of the committee tasked with doing just that.

While some were appalled at a black man voting—one man was said to have torn up his ballot and not voted again for a decade—the influence of the Raritan Bay Union on the city’s movers and shakers resulted in a pride that their city had the first Negro voter under the Fifteenth Amendment. A counterclaim of priority came from Princeton, however. But that man, Moses Schenck, was found to have been the first in that town, not first in the nation. Still, Princeton had seen fit to bestow a medal to Schenck on the occasion. Their civic pride a little bruised, Perth Amboy raised money for a gold medal, presented to Peterson in 1884 in a ceremony that was a striking mix of the progressive and the paternal. Peterson would go on to embrace civic life, serving on juries, running for local office, and representing his hometown at political conventions. Despite his local prominence, he nevertheless died a pauper in 1904.

Being a writer primarily of New Jersey history, I was thrilled by this story and have been researching and writing about Peterson for the last five years. I saw the potential for a full-blown book in it, and sent proposals to some major publishers. Where I saw an example of how New Jersey history impacted U.S. history, they saw it as being of too local an interest. They need to sell books beyond the Garden State, after all. Once the initial sting had subsided, however, I began to ruminate on the problem. Was his story too local? Or, was there some greater significance I was just missing in my Jersey-centric bias? It was dumb luck that the first post-ratification election just so happened in New Jersey. He hadn’t necessarily actively gone out to get the honor. True, he embraced everything it meant once he had the honor, but it came to him through no specific labor of his own. Maybe he was just a footnote to “History” with a capital “H.” And then it struck me.

There was actually another “first” happening that day. This was the first time that anyone had cast a ballot that was both guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution. In this, Peterson may not have technically been first; others had voted that day before him and some indeterminate individual was really the first. And yet, as a black man, that he was involved at all was a consequence of that broader “first,” lending an added, if overlooked, significance to his act. Thomas Peterson consummated our modern understanding of the relationship between citizenship and suffrage in the fullest possible sense at that time. Obviously, it would take longer before women would be included. But this event helped to set the precedent by which the turning away of women from the ballot box could no longer be legally and constitutionally supported.

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments did what the Founding Guys (to steal Richard Bernstein’s apt phrase) did not—and not just the obvious failure to address the future of slavery. The sudden freeing of over four-million slaves forced a federal definition of what a “citizen” was in practical terms, and placed suffrage at the heart of it. And yet, for nearly the first hundred years of our history, voting was viewed more as a privilege, and one which the states had the right to grant or deny. By that measure, our modern understanding of voting as a right is relatively new and Thomas Mundy Peterson was one of the first to help forge it in practice.

This started me wondering why our understanding of voting has changed. Is it not just about “citizenship?” In terms of understanding the principle that the legitimacy of government rests upon the consent of the governed (which we now understand to be derived from suffrage), did the Fifteenth Amendment change the definition of “consent” as well as that of “citizen?” Perhaps, I am completely misunderstanding things or missing something critical, but I make this post in the hopes that The Junto and its readers might be able to shed some light on this for me.

One comment on “Guest Post: Thomas Mundy Peterson and the Fifteenth Amendment

  1. Al says:

    Excellent. Who knew! The Schools need to know about this part of history, especially Jersey students.

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