Oxford AASC: Gradual Emancipation

Gradual Emancipation

In March 1780 the newly independent state of Pennsylvania passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” This was the first statute in modern history (perhaps in the history of world) designed to end an existing system of slavery. At the time, every one of the thirteen states had slavery, as did every other jurisdiction in the Americas colonized or settled by Europeans. In the case of Somerest v. Stewart (1772) opponents of slavery had successfully challenged the right of a master to keep a slave in England against his will. However, at this time there was no serious movement to end slavery in the colonies.

Inspired by a combination of religious belief and Revolutionary ideology, the Pennsylvania legislature moved to end human bondage in that state. The striking preamble to the Pennsylvania act set out the goals and motivations of the legislature:

"WHEN we contemplate our abhorrence of that condition, to which the arms and tyranny of Great-Britain were exerted to reduce us, when we look back on the variety of dangers to which we have been exposed, and how miraculously our wants in many instances have been supplied, and our deliverances wrought, when even hope and human fortitude have become unequal to the conflict, we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful sense of the manifold blessings, which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being, from whom every good and perfect gift cometh. Impressed with these ideas, we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our power, to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us, and release from that state of thraldom, to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every prospect of being delivered. 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. We find, in the distribution of the human species, that the most fertile as well as the most barren parts of the earth are inhabited by men of complexions different from ours, and from each other; from whence we may reasonably, as well as religiously, infer, that He, who placed them in their various situations, hath extended equally his care and protection to all, and that it becometh not us to counteract his mercies. We esteem it a peculiar blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization, by removing, as much as possible, the sorrows of those, who have lived in undeserved bondage, and from which, by the assumed authority of the Kings of Great-Britain, no effectual, legal relief could be obtained. Weaned, by a long course of experience, from those narrow prejudices and partialities we had imbided [sic], we find our hearts enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards men of all conditions and nations; 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."

Despite the goals of the legislature, ending slavery was not a simple task. There were about 6,800 slaves in the state, and they were valuable property. To free them without compensation would have seemed, to many, arbitrary and hostile to the very nature of a free country. Most Americans of the period believed that it was wrong for the government to take property from private persons in order to support public policy. On the other hand, to maintain slavery seemed a violation of the very purposes of the Revolution itself. To purchase the slaves in the state and then free them would have been prohibitively expensive for the new state. In one of the most creative legislative actions of the Revolutionary period, the Pennsylvania legislature balanced these dilemmas with its gradual abolition act. Under the law no slaves became immediately free, but, as the statute's name indicated, slavery would gradually be ended in Pennsylvania.

The law contained four major components. First, it declared that all persons born in Pennsylvania after 1 March 1780 would be free for life. After passage of the act no new slaves could be born in the state, nor could any new slave be brought into the state. If a master migrated to the state with his slaves, the slaves would be emancipated instantly. In deference to visitors and transients, however, including the many slave owners doing business in the nation's capital, Philadelphia, the law allowed nonresidents to keep slaves in the state for six months. If they remained in the state longer than that, the slaves would become free. The law also had a special exemption for members of Congress and diplomats, who were allowed to keep slaves in the state indefinitely while holding their elected office or diplomatic position.

Gradual Emancipation

New Jersey's “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” among other provisions, indentured male children of slaves until age twenty-five and females until age twenty-one. After its passage in 1804, the enslaved population of New Jersey gradually declined: at the beginning of the Civil War, there were not even twenty slaves in the state.

Library of Congress.

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Second, the statute required that all slave owners in the state register their slaves and pay the not inconsequential sum of two dollars for each one. Any slave not registered would be immediately free. Third, the statute provided for the indenture of all children of slaves born after 1 March 1780. These blacks would be free but would be required to serve their masters until they turned twenty-eight. During this period they would be considered indentured servants. At the end of the period the master would have to give the former servants their “freedom dues,” which consisted of money and some goods to start their lives as free people. Finally, the law repealed most criminal regulations aimed only at slaves, declaring:

"That the offences and crimes of Negroes and Mulattoes, as well slaves and servants as freemen, shall be enquired of, adjudged, corrected and punished, in like manner as the offences and crimes of the other inhabitants of this state are and shall be enquired of, adjudged, corrected and punished, and not otherwise, except that a slave shall not be admitted to bear witness against a freeman."

In 1788 the state passed a second statute, “for preventing many evils and abuses arising from ill disposed persons availing themselves of certain defects in the act for the gradual abolition of slavery passed [in 1780].” The new act prevented the separation of families, made it a crime to carry pregnant slaves out of the state so that their children could be born as slaves for life, and prevented the removal to slave states of blacks born after 1 March 1780. The new law also prohibited the separation of married slaves without their consent. This was the only law ever passed in the United States that protected slave marriages. The 1780 law had allowed visiting masters to keep slaves in the state for up to six months, but the 1788 amendment declared that slaves of visitors would become instantly free if the visitor showed an intention to reside in the state, such as by taking a long-term lease or buying a house. The new law also banned outfitting ships for the African slave trade and provided penalties for the kidnapping of free blacks.

Reaction in Pennsylvania

The 1780 and 1788 laws were not designed to end slavery immediately, but they ensured that slavery would literally die out in the state after a generation or two. Many opponents of slavery criticized the laws. The twenty-eight-year indenture period was long and would consume much of a person's working years. Modern economists have argued that the twenty-eight-year indenture provided a huge profit for masters who raised the children of slaves. Brissot de Warville, a French visitor to Philadelphia, wondered why property “founded on robbery and plunder” was so sacred. Others noted the irony of the American Revolutionaries' winning freedom for themselves but promising freedom only to the children or grandchildren of their slaves. A female slave born just before 1 March 1780 might have looked forward to sixty years of bondage, and if she had children late in life, say, at age forty, her children would have been indentured until 1848. This was not a quick end to bondage.

These laws led to significant litigation in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and for Improving the Condition of the African Race—usually known as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS)—vigorously monitored visiting masters and quickly brought legal action if they stayed more than six months. The society also helped slaves if there was a defect in the registration. In one case a female slave named Belinda gained her freedom because her master neglected to list her gender when registering her under the 1780 law. In another case U.S. Senator Pierce Butler lost a slave when he remained in Philadelphia longer than six months during a period when he was no longer a senator. On the other hand, when a South Carolina congressman remained in Philadelphia for more than six months when Congress was not in session, the Pennsylvania court upheld his right to keep his slave because, although Congress was not in session (and no longer meeting in Philadelphia), he was still a member of Congress. George Washington complained about the meddlesome nature of the PAS but wisely did not bring his slaves to Philadelphia while serving there as president. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, did bring slaves to Philadelphia while serving in Washington's cabinet and as vice president. During his time in Philadelphia, Jefferson signed a contract agreeing to free his cook, James Hemings. It seems likely that the PAS pressured Jefferson to do this.

While the critics were correct in their analysis, they were wrong in their predictions. The 1780 and 1788 laws led to freedom for most slaves quite quickly. The laws undermined the value of slaves and the moral authority of slave owners. Slavery was still profitable, but it was an institution with no future. Following passage of the laws, many masters, especially in Philadelphia, began to manumit their slaves. The state's slave population dropped from over 6,800 in 1780 to 3,737 by 1790. Some of this change was doubtless due to migration out of the state, but migration cannot account for most of the change, because the overall black population of the state grew during this period. The growth in Philadelphia was particularly dramatic. There were fewer than 800 blacks in Philadelphia in 1780, but the 1790 census recorded 2,150 in the city. This number grew to over 6,000 in 1800 and to just fewer than 9,000 by 1810. Similarly, Pennsylvania's overall black population grew from just over 10,000 in 1790 to 16,000 in 1800 and to more than 23,000 by 1810. At the same time, the slave population of the state continued to drop dramatically. By 1800 there were only 1,706 slaves in the state, and by 1810 there were fewer than 800. Forty years after the gradual abolition act was passed, the slave population stood at 211. In 1847 Pennsylvania would free its last remaining slaves, a mere handful. The 1840 census found only 64 in the whole state. In Philadelphia slavery disappeared with even greater speed. In 1790 there were about 500 slaves in the city and the surrounding county; in 1810 the census found only 11 slaves in the city and county.

Similarly, the number of indentured blacks—that is, registered children of slave women born after 1 March 1780—also dropped dramatically. Figures for Philadelphia illustrate this decline. In 1794 masters registered 305 free blacks as indentured persons. Annual registrations dwindled after that. In 1801 there were only 130 registered indentured blacks, and that was the last year registrations were in double figures. With the exception of one year, registrations would never again exceed 58 in a single year. In 1820 only 6 blacks were indentures. By 1830 there would have been fewer than 900 indentured blacks in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the city had become a mecca for free blacks from Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Other States Follow Suit

Although they were not as detailed as Pennsylvania's statute, similar laws were passed in 1784 in both Rhode Island and Connecticut, with shorter indentures. Children of slaves born in Connecticut gained their freedom at age twenty-five, while in Rhode Island male children of slaves were free at twenty-one and females at eighteen. As in Pennsylvania, these laws did not end slavery but they undermined its viability. Rhode Island had 948 slaves in 1790 but only 380 by 1800 and 48 in 1820. Similarly, Connecticut's slave population dropped from 2,764 in 1790 to 951 ten years later. By 1820 there were just 97 slaves in the state. In the 1840s Connecticut and Rhode Island joined Pennsylvania in freeing their last remaining slaves.

New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804) were the last states to pass gradual abolition acts. Both states had substantially larger slave populations. New York's law required indentures until age twenty-eight for men and age twenty-five for women. Following Pennsylvania's lead in allowing transit with slaves, New York gave foreign masters even more leeway, allowing them to keep slaves in the state for nine months before they would be free. New York's law did not have as dramatic an effect on the slave population as did the laws in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. New York had over 21,000 slaves in 1790, the last census before it passed its gradual abolition act. By 1820 New York still had about 10,000 slaves, but this number was modest compared with the huge drop in the slave populations of other states. Meanwhile, by 1820 its entire black population had grown from about 26,000 to around 40,000.

In 1817 the state passed a new law declaring that on 4 July 1827 all slaves in the state would become instantly free. Thus, the 1830 census recorded just under 45,000 blacks in the state, including 75 slaves. Since slavery was illegal by then, however, we must assume that these people were not, in fact, slaves but instead were misrecorded. The 1817 law made New York the first state to abolish slavery by legislative act. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont had done so by constitutional provision, but the total number of slaves freed in those states was far less than the number of slaves freed by New York's 1817 law. In 1841 New York repealed its “nine-month law,” declaring that any slave brought into the state would become immediately free.

In 1804 New Jersey finally joined the rest of the North with a gradual abolition act. The law indentured male children of slaves until age twenty-five and females until age twenty-one. It allowed masters to visit the state with slaves without any time limit. A supplement to this law allowed slaves to refuse to leave the state if their masters migrated elsewhere. This was an improvement over the Pennsylvania law, which fined masters who sent their pregnant slaves or indentured blacks out of the state but did not prevent migrating masters from taking their slaves with them. In 1800 the state had over 12,000 slaves. The population declined slowly after the passage of the act. In 1810 there were still more than 10,000 slaves in the state, and ten years later New Jersey had more than 7,500 slaves. The 1840 census recorded 674 slaves in New Jersey. In 1847 the state ended slavery but made the remaining slaves “indentured servants.” There were fewer than 20 of them when the Civil War began.

The gradual abolition acts were a creative way of solving the problem of slavery in societies were slave owners commanded power and resources. Many masters resisted the laws. In 1781 a number of Pennsylvania legislators lost their bids for reelection, and slave owners pushed for a repeal of the 1780 law. This opposition reminds us that these laws were compromises between those who would have ended slavery outright and those who never wanted to see it end. Ultimately, the opponents of slavery won, but the victory was not complete, as bondage continued for a small number of slaves in all of these states. Looked at from another angle, however, these laws were remarkable and incredibly progressive. Without violence or bloodshed, they set the stage for ending slavery in five states, including two—New York and New Jersey—where slaveholding was widespread and important to the local economy. Moreover, these laws represent an unusual, almost unique, moment in history when elements of a master class voluntarily agreed to give up slaveholding.

See also American Revolution; Belinda; Connecticut; Emancipation; Free African Americans to 1828; Indentured Servitude; Jefferson, Thomas, on African Americans and Slavery; Kidnapping; Laws and Legislation; New Jersey; New York; Pennsylvania; Rhode Island; Slavery: Mid-Atlantic; Slavery: Northeast; and Washington, George, and African Americans.


  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.
  • Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
  • Finkelman, Paul. The Law of Freedom and Bondage: A Casebook. New York: Oceana, 1986.
  • Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degree: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

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