(WHTM) — Pennsylvania had slaves before Pennsylvania was even Pennsylvania. Dutch and Swedish settlers in the Delaware Valley held Africans as slaves. When William Penn and the Society of Friends (Quakers) arrived in the 1680s, they also kept slaves.
But there were also Quakers who found the idea of slavery distasteful, a violation of the principles of Quakerism. In 1688, a group of Quakers presented a petition against slavery to the local Monthly Meeting of Friends, which was then forwarded to the Quarterly Meeting, and then the Annual Meeting. It raised important questions about the ethics of keeping slaves and helped stir an abolition movement in the Quaker community.
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Partly because of this opposition, slaves never became a major workforce as they did in the south. Estimates are there were only about 1,000 slaves in the colony in 1700 when the overall population was about 30,000. In 1750, when the population had hit 120,000, there were only about 6,000 slaves. (This was at a time when many southern colonies had slave populations equal to or greater than the number of white settlers.)
But there were still many slaveholders, who bitterly resisted the idea of full abolition. The only politically practical way to eliminate slavery was to do it gradually.
On March 1, 1780, by a vote of 34 to 21, the General Assembly passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” It had fourteen sections, the first two of which establish the moral underpinnings of the act, starting by comparing slavery to “the arms and tyranny of Great Britain” in the Revolutionary War, then moving to religious and ethical concerns:
“It is not for us to enquire why, in the creation of mankind, the inhabitants of the several parts of the earth were distinguished by a difference in feature or complexion. It is sufficient to know that all are the work of an Almighty Hand.”
“…and we conceive ourselves at this particular period extraordinarily called upon, by the blessings which we have received, to manifest the sincerity of our profession, and to give a Substantial proof of our gratitude.”
Section 3 proclaims “That all persons, as well Negroes and Mulattoes as others, who shall be born within this state from and after the passing of this act, shall not be deemed and considered as servants for life, or slaves;”
Note that it says “servants for life”. Section Four sets out how the process would work. Every “negro or mulatto child” born of enslaved mothers after the bill’s passage would be “servants” to their masters until they turned 28, at which time they would become free.
Slaves born before the passage of the act would remain slaves; however, Section Five required slaveowners to register their slaves annually, or risk losing them. This, obviously, required a lot of paperwork, and a long trip to the county seat, adding a layer of inconvenience to keeping slaves. Section Five also banned the importation of slaves.
Section Ten prohibited non-residents of Pennsylvania from keeping their slaves in the state for more than six months, and Section 14 declared existing legislation that discriminated against African Americans to be “annulled and made void.”
The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was a perfect compromise-it satisfied nobody. Slaveowners felt it interfered with their right to own “property” as they wish, and abolitionists were upset that all the slaves weren’t emancipated in one fell swoop. But ultimately, it worked; while there were slaveowners who tried to game the system, gradual abolition freed slaves over time.
The Pennsylvania Act served as a model for other states. Connecticut and Rhode Island enacted gradual emancipation laws patterned on Pennsylvania in 1784, followed by New York in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804.
And in Pennsylvania, the number of slaves dropped from 3,737 to 1,706 between 1790 and 1800. By 1810 it was down to 795, and in 1840, there were only 64 slaves left. In 1847, 67 years after gradual abolition started, Pennsylvania decided the process had dragged out long enough and abolished slavery completely.
And while the process used was slow and painful, Pennsylvania gets the credit for being the first state to pass an abolition law.
To read the entire Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, click here.