An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery
An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed by the Pennsylvania legislature on 1 March 1780, was one of the first attempts by a government in the Western Hemisphere to begin an abolition of slavery.
The Act prohibited further importation of slaves into the state, required Pennsylvania slaveholders to annually register their slaves (with forfeiture for noncompliance, and manumission for the enslaved), and established that all children born in Pennsylvania were free persons regardless of the condition or race of their parents.
Those enslaved in Pennsylvania before the 1780 law went into effect remained enslaved for life. Another act of the Pennsylvania legislature freed them in 1847.
Pennsylvania's "gradual abolition"—rather than Massachusetts's 1783 "instant abolition"—became a model for freeing slaves in other Northern states.
The 1780 Act prohibited further importation of slaves into Pennsylvania, but it also respected the property rights of Pennsylvania slaveholders by not freeing slaves already held in the state. It changed the legal status of future children born to enslaved Pennsylvania mothers from "slave" to "indentured servant", but required those children to work for the mother's master until age 28. To verify that no additional slaves were imported, the Act created a registry of all slaves in the state. Slaveholders who failed to register their slaves annually, or who did it improperly, lost their slaves to manumission.
The 1780 Act specifically exempted members of the U.S. Congress and their personal slaves. Congress was then the only branch of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation, and met in Philadelphia.
An Amendment, created to explain and to close loopholes in the 1780 Act, was passed in the Pennsylvania legislature on 29 March 1788. The Amendment prohibited a Pennsylvania slaveholder from transporting a pregnant enslaved woman out-of-state so her child would be born enslaved; and from separating husbands from wives, and children from parents. It required a Pennsylvania slaveholder to register within six months the birth of a child to an enslaved mother. It prohibited all Pennsylvanians from participating in, building or equipping ships for, or providing material support to the slave trade.
The 1780 Act had allowed a non-resident slaveholder visiting Pennsylvania to hold slaves in the state for up to six months. But a loophole was soon identified and exploited: if the non-resident slaveholder took his slaves out of Pennsylvania before the 6-month deadline, it would void his slaves' residency. The 1788 Amendment prohibited this rotation of slaves in and out-of-state to subvert Pennsylvania law.
President Washington's dilemma
The 1780 Act had exempted personal slaves owned by members of Congress. But by 1790, when Philadelphia became the temporary national capital for a 10-year period, there were three branches of the federal government under the U.S. Constitution. There was confusion about whether or not the Pennsylvania law extended to all federal officials; members of Congress (legislative branch) remained exempt, but there was uncertainty regarding whether justices of the U.S. Supreme Court (judicial branch) and the President of the United States and his Cabinet (executive branch) would also be exempt. Attorney General Edmund Randolph lost his personal slaves to manumission due to his misunderstanding of the state law. He conveyed his advice to President George Washington through the president's secretary, Tobias Lear:
This being the case, the Attorney General conceived, that after six months residence, your slaves would be upon no better footing than his. But he observed, that if, before the expiration of six months, they could, upon any pretense whatever, be carried or sent out of the State, but for a single day, a new era would commence on their return, from whence the six months must be dated for it requires an entire six months for them to claim that right.
Washington argued (privately) that his presence in Philadelphia was solely a consequence of the city being the temporary national capital, and that he remained a citizen of Virginia and subject to its laws on slavery. Still, he himself was careful not to spend six continuous months in Pennsylvania, which might be interpreted as establishing legal residency. Had he litigated the issue, it might have clarified his legal status and that of other slaveholding federal officials. But it also would have called attention to his slaveholding in the President's House, and put him at risk of losing those slaves to manumission. It was thought that he followed his Attorney General's advice, and knowingly and repeatedly violated the state's 1788 Amendment by rotating the enslaved Africans in his presidential household in and out of Pennsylvania.
There is no record of Washington having been challenged for this. According to Lear, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society seems to have turned a blind eye to the President's actions:
That the Society in this city for the abolition of slavery, had determined to give no advice and take no measures for liberating those Slaves which belonged to the Officers of the general Government or members of Congress. But notwithstanding this, there were not wanting persons who would not only give them (the Slaves) advise, but would use all means to entice them from their masters.
Other slaveholding officers of the executive and judicial branches faced a similar dilemma. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson swore that he would eventually free his enslaved cook, James Hemings, if Hemings would agree not take advantage of Pennsylvania's abolition law.
Philadelphia's hostile environment for slaveholders was one of the reasons that the U.S. Constitution was written to give Congress exclusive control "over such District ... as may ... become the seat of the government of the United States."
Freed in 1847
Those enslaved in Pennsylvania before its 1780 Act became law continued to be lifelong slaves, unless manumitted. Also, the 1780 Act and its 1788 Amendment did not apply to fugitive slaves from other states or their children. Pennsylvania tried to extend rights to fugitive slaves through an 1826 personal liberty law, but it and the 1788 Amendment were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842).
Although slavery steadily declined in Pennsylvania, the state that had initially led the way toward abolition tolerated it for decades after it ended in New England. The 1840 U.S. Census listed 47,854 (99.87%) of the state's Blacks as free, and 64 (0.13%) as enslaved. Legal slavery ended in Pennsylvania in 1847, when the several dozen remaining slaves (the youngest, aged 67) were freed.
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- 1777: The Constitution of Vermont bans slavery.
- 1783: Massachusetts Supreme Court rules slavery illegal based on the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts. All Massachusetts slaves instantly freed.
- Maine is part of Massachusetts in 1783; all slaves instantly freed. It enters the Union as a free state in 1820.
- 1783: New Hampshire begins a gradual abolition of slavery.
- 1784: Connecticut begins a gradual abolition of slavery.
- 1784: Rhode Island begins a gradual abolition of slavery.
- 1791: Vermont enters the Union as a free state.
- 1799: New York State begins a gradual abolition of slavery.
- 1804: New Jersey begins a gradual abolition of slavery.
Excepting New Jersey, these states were not as conservative as Pennsylvania about slaveholders' property rights. Their gradual abolition laws freed future children at birth, and all slaves after a certain date or period of years.
New Jersey's gradual abolition law freed future children at birth, but those enslaved before its 1804 passage remained enslaved-for-life. The December 6, 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery in the United States. New Jersey's legislature did not approve the Thirteenth Amendment until February 1866, two months after it had been ratified by a three-fourths majority of the states.
- Douglas Harper (2003). "Slavery in the North". Retrieved 22 January 2010.
- The 1777 Constitution of the Vermont Republic banned slavery in the territory, but did not free anyone.
- 1780 Gradual Abolition Act
- 1788 Amendment
- Tobias Lear to George Washington, 24 April 1791.
- Washington brought 8 slaves to Philadelphia in November 1790. Four of them, he returned to Mount Vernon in Spring 1791, before the 6-month deadline. Two of them were taken on a short trip to New Jersey by Martha Washington, which interrupted their 6-month residency. Two of them were trusted not to take advantage of the Pennsylvania law to seize their freedom.
- Slavery by the Numbers
- Tobias Lear to George Washington, 24 April 1791.
- The affidavit is quoted in Garry Wills, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), pp. 210-11. ISBN 978-0-618-34398-0
- Article One of the United States Constitution
- Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (2003), pp. 276-78. ISBN 0-674-01061-2