The Constitution of 1776 vested limited administrative and executive powers of the government of the Commonwealth in an elected council of twelve members known as the Supreme Executive Council. The primary function of the council was to oversee the proper execution of the laws of the state. The council was composed of one member from Philadelphia and one from each county. A president and vice president of the council were selected from among the twelve by joint vote of the General Assembly and the council.

Prior to the formal organization of the Supreme Executive Council in March 1777, executive and military powers were exercised by the Committee of Safety (1775-1776), and the Council of Safety (1776-1777). The Committee of Safety was appointed by resolve of the Provincial Assembly to supervise all military activities and matter relating to the defense of the state. The committee first met on July 3, 1775, and continued to function until July of the following year, when it was replaced by the Council of Safety. The council was created by the state Constitutional Convention of 1776 to assume executive responsibilities until the new constitutional government could be organized.

Functioning under the revolutionary governments was the Board of War, the Navy Board, and the second Council of Safety, which had been created in 1777. The Constitution of 1790 provided for a popularly elected governor with expanded executive powers to replace the Supreme Executive Council.


Clemency File, 1775-1790, and undated. (12 boxes) Arranged alphabetically by surname of petitioner. Individual case files of persons seeking pardons from the president of the Supreme Executive Council that contain such diverse items as summary sheets, letters, and respites about persons seeking pardons. The information found varies with each dossier and the time period. While some case files only provide a person’s name and reason for being imprisoned, others list the incarcerated individual’s occupation and particulars about his or her life and family. References are made to African Americans from several counties. Representative of these are the following:

• November 1785, Philadelphia County-a petition for Negro Sarah, who was convicted of stealing the goods of Ruth Black.

• November 1787, Philadelphia County-Alice Clifton, slave of John Barthlomew, was convicted of murdering her female child on April 5, 1787. She was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.

• January 1789, York County-In Pennsylvania vs. Negro Harry, Negro Harry was found guilty of stealing money from Jacob Wertz. He was charged to pay back the money as well as a fine, and to serve three months of hard labor.

• June 1789-In Commonwealth vs. Negro Cuff, Slave to Cornelia Cross, Negro Cuff was convicted of larceny of the property of Benjamin W. Morris. He had to restore the goods stolen or the value of them. In addition, Cuff was fined forty-five shillings and sentenced to a servitude of hard labor for six weeks. He was later granted a pardon.

• August 1789-Petition of John Irwin of Westmoreland County requesting release of his servant boy, who had committed felonies in Bedford County and been fined twenty pounds. Because he was unable to pay the fine, he was to be sold at a public sale. The petition requested a remission of the fine on the grounds that the servant would not sell for even a fifth of the fine and the owner would therefore take a great lost.

• September 1780-Petition of James Oellers, of Philadelphia, on behalf of his slave Sarah Craig, read on September 25, 1780. Sarah Craig had knowingly received stolen goods from Alice Wiley, who had taken them from John Fry. As a result of this petition, Sarah was granted a pardon in October 1790.

Forfeited Estate File, 1777-1790. (4 boxes) Arranged chronologically. This series documents the property of colonists deemed loyal to the British Crown during the Revolutionary War that had been seized by the revolutionary authorities. Cited here are some examples representative of references to African Americans:

Bucks County: An inventory and assessment of the forfeited goods and chattels and property of Gilbert Hicks taken August 28, 1778., lists "a Negro 12 years old" valued at 112 pounds and ten shillings.

Chester County: An inventory of lands, tenants, goods and chattels of Christopher Wilson taken July 6, 1778 lists a "Negro Wench 19 years old" valued at 75 pounds.

Lancaster County: A petition of John Swanwick read in Council October 21, 1777, regarding the protection of the estate of his father W. Swanwick, who had died and left his estate to John’s mother, Mary Swanwick. A militia captain had taken some of her property, which included a "Negro girl."

Philadelphia County: An inventory of household goods and property of John Tolly appraised August 8, 1778, lists "one black wench named Betty, two female children," valued at forty pounds.

York County: A petition, read in Council in September 1778, for Negro Ralph who had been purchased by John Rankin from Robert Power. Rankin declared his intention to free Negro Ralph after he had served Rankin for a fixed term. Shortly after Negro Ralph obtained his freedom, however, Rankin died. Negro Ralph feared being sold as part of the Rankin estate and this petition was made on behalf of Negro Ralph.

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