An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, March 1, 1780
The enslavement of African servants has a long and dishonorable history in Pennsylvania. Even before William Penn received his charter to the province in 1681, the Dutch and Swedish settlers in the Delaware Valley held Africans as slaves. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, who began to arrive in the early 1680s, including Penn himself, owned slaves. Many African slaves came to Pennsylvania from the West Indies where they had experienced a period of "seasoning" and entered the province through the port of Philadelphia. With few exceptions, they remained in the southeastern area, where they served as house servants, farmhands, laborers on iron plantations, and skilled craftsmen. Like other colonies, Pennsylvania enacted "Black codes": slaves were not allowed to meet in groups of more than four; they were not permitted to travel more than ten miles from their "master's" residence without his permission; they could not marry Europeans; were not to be tried by juries; and could not buy liquor.
Nevertheless, slavery never was prominent in Pennsylvania. In 1700, when the colony's population was approximately 30,000, there were only about 1,000 slaves present. Even at the institution's numerical peak in 1750, slaves numbered only 6,000 of a total of 120,000 residents. Pennsylvania "had fewer slaves than New Jersey, and only half as many as New York." In Virginia, slaves constituted about half of the total population. In South Carolina, slaves outnumbered European settlers.
Protests against slavery emerged shortly after Pennsylvania was established. Indeed, the first written protest in England's American colonies came from Germantown Friends in 1688. Numerous writers and speakers followed, including George Keith, Ralph Sandiford, Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, and John Woolman. Most were Friends who based their objections on religious principles. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends criticized the importation of slaves in 1696, objected to slave trading in 1754, and in 1775 determined to disown members who would not free their slaves. In 1775, Pennsylvanians formed the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the first of its kind in the nation. Throughout the 1700s, the Pennsylvania Assembly attempted to discourage the slave trade by taxing it repeatedly.
In addition to earlier influences the ideology of the American Revolution stimulated the movement for the abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania. Inspired by the philosophy of natural rights, numerous pamphleteers charged that taxation by the British parliament made slaves of the American colonists. Several, such as Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine, and Richard Wells noted the hypocrisy of Americans "who condemned the tyranny of England's colonial pollicies…while holding one-fifth of the colonial population in chains."
Expressing similar sentiments is the "Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" passed by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1780. It was the first such legislative enactment in America. Drafted by a committee of Revolutionary Pennsylvania's new political leaders and probably guided through the Assembly by George Bryan, the act begins with an expression of gratitude for deliverance from the "tyranny of Great Britain" and for the opportunity to "extend a portion of that freedom to others." It specified that "every Negro and Mulatto child born within the State after the passing of the Act (1780) would be free upon reaching age twenty-eight. When released from slavery, they were to receive the same freedom dues and other privileges "such as tools of their trade," as servants bound by indenture for four years. Slaves were to be registered and those not recorded were to be free. The bill passed by a vote of 34 to 21. The most consistent "opposition to abolition came from German Lutherans and Reformed representatives" from heavily German counties, at least seventy-five percent of whom voted against the bill. Probably, they feared that emancipation of slaves would affect their social status in Pennsylvania. Episcopal and Presbyterian representatives split on the issue.
Pennsylvania's Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was the most conservative of the laws emancipating slaves that were passed in northern states between 1780 and 1804. The law freed few slaves immediately. Although Pennsylvanians could no longer legally import slaves; they could buy and sell those who had been registered. Indeed, some pro-slavery residents of counties along the Delaware and Maryland borders violated the law and continued to buy slaves from those states until the law was tightened in l788. In 1781, conservative assemblymen attempted to extend the registration dead line and to re-enslave those whom courts had declared free because their owners had failed to register them in time. Simultaneously, they attempted also to repeal the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act. Only with great effort were slavery's opponents able to defeat these attempted revisions.
Despite such resistance to change, slavery declined after the passage of the act. In addition to emphasizing slavery's inconsistency with religious beliefs and philosophical principles, opponents pointed to its increasingly evident economic impracticality. Some owners freed their slaves during their lifetimes, while others provided for freedom in their wills. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society purchased a significant number of slaves and promptly set them free. Furthermore some slaves did not wait for such humanitarianism or for the Act to set them free but escaped from bondage. Between 1790 and 1800, the number of slaves dropped from 3,737 to 1,706 and by 1810 to 795. In 1840, there still were 64 slaves in the state, but by 1850 there were none. The act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania had achieved its sponsors' objectives--very gradually.