The Ashworth Act, passed by the Texas Congress on December 12, 1840, came in response to an act passed on February 5, 1840, which prohibited the immigration of free Blacks and ordered all free Black residents to vacate the Republic of Texas within two years or be sold into slavery. The earlier act was designed to make color the standard mark of servitude in Texas by eliminating the free Black population. It repealed all laws contrary to its provisions and nullified the act of June 5, 1837, which permitted the residence of free Blacks living in Texas before the Texas Declaration of Independence.
Immediately after the passage of the February 5 act, influential Whites from around the republic began to prepare petitions for the exemption of their newly disenfranchised friends, neighbors, and servants. Three of the petitions submitted were on behalf of several free Black families named Ashworth, who resided in Jefferson County. The first of these petitions requested exemptions for early immigrants Abner and William Ashworth, David and Aaron Ashworth, and Elisha Thomas, an early resident and the brother-in-law of William and Abner. The petition, signed by sixty citizens, claimed that Aaron and David had been residents for two years, though in fact they had neglected to apply for permission to remain in Texas during that time. The second petition, which accompanied the first, only addressed the plight of William and Abner, apparently because they were early immigrants and had a stronger case. The petition was signed by seventy-one citizens. It claimed that William and Abner had been residents for six years and stated that they had contributed generously to the Texan cause during the revolution. It argued that the law of February 5, 1840, would "operate grievously" if enforced against them. Sixty-one citizens signed the third petition supporting Elisha Thomas, who had served in the army immediately after the battle of San Jacinto. In all three cases the petitions were signed by prominent officials in Jefferson County.
On November 5, 1840, three days after the opening of the Fifth Legislature, Joseph Grigsby of Jefferson County presented the three petitions to the Texas Congress. The petitions were referred to a special committee, of which Grigsby was named chairman. The committee reported favorably on them, and a bill for the relief of the Ashworths passed its first reading without recorded contest.
Many congressmen had received one or more petitions from their constituents. House member Timothy Pillsbury of Brazoria, in an effort to conserve the time necessary to consider each of the petitions separately, offered a resolution, adopted by the House, instructing the Committee on the State of the Republic to consider legislation allowing the continued residence of free Blacks who were in the country when the constitution was adopted. Such legislation had precedence in the joint resolution of June 5, 1837. If passed, it would dispense favorably with most of the petitions for free Blacks. Pillsbury had a personal interest in such a bill, for he carried unpresented petitions supporting Samuel H. Hardin and James Richardson.
When the Committee on the State of the Republic ignored Pillsbury's resolution, he presented the Hardin and Richardson petitions to the House. James Richardson was a vendor of oysters in Brazoria County who had served in the garrison at Velasco in the revolution, although he was sixty years of age. Samuel H. Hardin's petition requested relief for him and his wife, reporting their long residence, industriousness, and good conduct. Sixty-five citizens signed the Hardin petition, including William T. Austin, Henry Austin, and Henry Smith. On November 9, 1840, the Hardin and Richardson petitions were referred to the Committee on the State of the Republic. A bill exempting Samuel McCulloch, Jr., and some of his relatives passed its first reading the same day.
On November 10, 1840, the Ashworth bill passed the House, and the McCulloch bill was read a second time. At this reading attempts were made to amend the bill by adding the names of William Goyens, who was supported by Thomas J. Rusk, and two other parties. The amendments lost, but the original bill passed.
The Ashworth bill came up in the Senate on November 20, 1840. A successful amendment inserted the words "and all free persons of color together with their families, who were residing in Texas the day of the Declaration of Independence" after the names of the original beneficiaries. The bill thereby addressed the case of all free Blacks who had immigrated to Texas before the Declaration of Independence and conferred residency on David and Abner Ashworth, who had immigrated afterward. The House accepted the Senate's amendment, and on December 12, 1840, President Mirabeau B. Lamar signed the bill. David and Abner Ashworth became the only free Blacks to immigrate subsequent to the Declaration of Independence who were given congressional sanction to remain in Texas.