Slavery and Freedom in Pennsylvania
Though Pennsylvania initially worked to sustain slavery in the U.S., by the late 18th century, the state mobilized to abolish it, a transition that would have serious consequences for slavery far beyond its borders.
History Of Slavery In Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania was a slaveholding colony from its inception, but it was not as deeply invested in slavery as other Mid-Atlantic colonies. The lack of labor-intensive cash crops in the colony, competition from indentured servants, and the colony’s political economy all prevented the widespread growth of slavery in Pennsylvania.
The slave population likely peaked shortly after independence, at slightly more than 6,800 and was heavily concentrated in two counties: Philadelphia—where slaves typically labored in construction, crafts and trade—and York—where they often engaged in agricultural labor.
Though the institution remained small, it faced significant moral opposition, especially from the Society of Friends (commonly called Quakers). In 1688, a meeting of Friends in Germantown denounced slavery and exhorted fellow Friends to treat all people according to the Golden Rule. Pacifist Quakers worried that slavery encouraged violence, both by masters and rebellious slaves. By the mid-1700s, Friends such as Richard Sandiford, Benjamin Lay and Anthony Benezet, began calling for slavery’s abolition in the colony. Ironically, just as Pennsylvania’s Friends were speaking out against slavery at home, the colony’s growing wheat and rye crops were feeding slaves in the American South and the Caribbean, aiding the institution’s expansion in those regions.
Abolition And Emancipation In The Keystone State
Quaker opposition to slavery and the concept of individual liberty that grew out of the colonies’ crisis with Great Britain inspired the foundation of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) in 1775. The first abolition society in colonial America, the PAS successfully lobbied for the passage of a Gradual Emancipation Law in Pennsylvania, which took effect in March 1780.
The law only freed slaves born after the act took effect, indenturing those born prior to the law’s passage to their mother’s master until the age of 28. Despite these conservative provisions, many owners emancipated slaves unaffected by the law, usually on the condition that these former slaves would sign contracts for long periods of indenture. Other slaves simply ran away and claimed freedom for themselves.
By 1820, only 200 slaves remained in the state, but those black Pennsylvanians who were now indentured servants still did not enjoy complete freedom throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Clashes With Federal Law
After providing for gradual emancipation, Pennsylvania subsequently sought to keep slavery out of the state entirely. In 1826, the Commonwealth passed a law forbidding people from forcibly carrying Pennsylvania citizens out of state. The act was aimed at keeping violent slave catchers out of the state and preserving the liberty of black Pennsylvanians. The Supreme Court nullified the law as a violation of the 1793 federal Fugitive Slave Act in the landmark case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842.
Undaunted, the state responded with a new law in 1847 that repealed slaveholders’ privilege of travelling through the state with their slave “property.” The law effectively freed any slaves voluntarily brought into the state by their owners as soon as they set foot on Pennsylvania soil.
These two laws quickly inspired passage of other similar “personal liberty laws” in the North. Yet this had unintended consequences as the proliferation of such laws was a factor in the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave the federal government vast powers to hunt, examine and return alleged fugitive slaves in every state in the Union, effectively nationalizing slavery.
Radicals Organize To End Slavery
While Commonwealth authorities sought to keep slavery out of the state, a new radical organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) began to call for the immediate abolition of slavery throughout the country. Founded in Philadelphia in 1833, the AAS admitted black members to positions of authority and power in the organization (unlike the more conservative PAS). They flooded the slaveholding South with thousands of abolition pamphlets, petitioned government to end slavery and harbored fugitive slaves who had escaped to the free states.
In response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, AAS members John Forten, Robert Purvis (the son of a white father and black mother), and William Still (whose parents had been slaves), reorganized the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee in 1852. The committee coordinated the Underground Railroad in the region, helping fugitive slaves escape through the North to Canada, where they would be beyond the reach of federal slave catchers.
Pennsylvania’s increasingly militant antislavery activities would help radicalize northern politics, contribute to the success of the anti-slavery Republican Party and lead to the final abolition of slavery after the Civil War with the adoption of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.
Information for this section was contributed by Matthew Isham, The Pennsylvania State University.
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- Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism and Comity (University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
- J. William Frost, The Quaker Origins of Antislavery. (Norwood Editions, 1980).
- Thomas D Hamm, The Quakers in America (Columbia University Press, 2003).
- Gary Nash and Jean Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath (Oxford University Press, 1991).
- Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
- Jean Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton University Press, 1985).
- William Switala, Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania (Stackpole Books, 2008).