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Image: Slaves prepare a meal.Analyzing a Primary Source: Pennsylvania Ends Slavery

In March 1780, Pennsylvania abolished slavery, by the terms of the act (law) that appears here. (The act is what historians call a primary source; see Primary and Secondary Sources.) The law did not provide for immediate freedom. Persons currently enslaved remained slaves. However, children born to slaves would not be slaves for life, but would have the status of indentured servants until they reached a certain age. After that age, they would be free.

Summary of the act: Section 1 of the act gives the reasons for its passage. Section 2 describes the benefits of abolishing slavery. Section 3 abolishes slavery for life in the state for anyone born after the passage of the act. Section 4 gives the children of slaves that are born after the act's passage the status of indentured servants (see glossary). Section 5 lays out procedures for masters to register slaves and indentured servants and states that any slaves not registered will be set free. Section 6 makes masters financially responsible for the maintenance of their slaves and indentured servants. Section 7 states that African Americans of whatever status are subject to the same criminal laws as other residents of Pennsylvania. Section 8 provides compensation to owners of slaves condemned to death in criminal trials. Sections 9 through 11 deal with slaves that run away and the slaves of people who visit Pennsylvania from other places. Sections 12 and 13 make longer terms of indenture than those allowed in Pennsylvania illegal, even if the longer indenture is legal in another state. Section 14 repeals older laws that are inconsistent with the new law.

In March 1780, when Pennsylvania passed this law, the war for independence was still raging. At this time, the British southern campaign was just getting started, and the great patriot victory at Yorktown (the last major battle of the war) was 18 months in the future. Residents of Vermont had adopted a constitution banning slavery in 1777, but Vermont was still a part of New York State at that time, so its action was not fully effective until Vermont was admitted as a state in 1791. In reading over the Pennsylvania law, think about the reasons given for ending slavery. Try to imagine what the hopes and fears of the Pennsylvania law makers might have been in taking this step. What important issues of human rights face law makers today?

The law uses language and sentence structures that are unfamiliar to us today. To help with unfamiliar words, a glossary of terms is included at the end of the reading. It is worth the effort to put yourself in the shoes of a Pennsylvania citizen in 1780 and to try and understand what the law provides and the reasons for its passage. [Note: some spelling and punctuation have been changed to conform to modern usage.]

An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery

SECTION 1. 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 there 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 a release from that state of thralldom 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 narrower prejudices and partialities we had imbibed, 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.

SECT. 2. And whereas the condition of those persons who have heretofore been denominated Negro and Mulatto slaves, has been attended with circumstances which not only deprived them of the common blessings that they were by nature entitled to, but has cast them into the deepest afflictions, by an unnatural separation and sale of husband and wife from each other and from their children; an injury, the greatness of which can only be conceived by supposing that we were in the same unhappy case. In justice therefore to persons so unhappily circumstanced, and who, having no prospect before them whereon they may rest their sorrows and their hopes, have no reasonable inducement to render their service to society, which they otherwise might; and also in grateful commemoration of our own happy deliverance from that state of unconditional submission to which we were doomed by the tyranny of Britain.

SECT. 3. Be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted, by the representatives of the freemen of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in general assembly met, and by the authority of the same, 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; and that all servitude for life, or slavery of children, in consequence of the slavery of their mothers, in the case of all children born within this state, from and after the passing of this act as aforesaid, shall be, and hereby is utterly taken away, extinguished and for ever abolished.

SECT. 4. Provided always, and be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that every Negro and Mulatto child born within this state after the passing of this act as aforesaid (who would, in case this act had not been made, have been born a servant for years, or life, or a slave) shall be deemed to be and shall be by virtue of this act the servant of such person or his or her assigns, who would in such case have been entitled to the service of such child, until such child shall attain unto the age of twenty eight years, in the manner and on the conditions whereon servants bound by indenture for four years are or may be retained and holden; and shall be liable to like correction and punishment, and entitled to like relief in case he or she be evilly treated by his or her master or mistress, and to like freedom dues and other privileges as servants bound by indenture for four years are or may be entitled, unless the person to whom the service of any such child shall belong shall abandon his or her claim to the same; in which case the overseers of the poor of the city, township or district respectively, where such child shall be so abandoned, shall by indenture bind out every child so abandoned, as an apprentice for a time not exceeding the age herein before limited for the service of such children.

SECT. 5. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that every person, who is or shall be the owner of any Negro or Mulatto slave or servant for life or till the age of thirty one years, now within this state, or his lawful attorney, shall on or before the said first day of November next deliver or cause to be delivered in writing to the clerk of the peace of the county, or to the clerk of the court of record of the city of Philadelphia, in which he or she shall respectively inhabit, the name and surname and occupation or profession of such owner, and the name of the county and township, district or ward wherein he or she resideth; and also the name and names of any such slave and slaves, and servant and servants for life or till the age of thirty one years, together with their ages and sexes severally and respectively set forth and annexed, by such person owned or statedly employed and then being within this state, in order to ascertain and distinguish the slaves and servants for life, and till the age of thirty one years, within this state, who shall be such on the said first day of November next, from all other persons; which particulars shall by said clerk of the sessions or clerk of the said city court be entered in books to be provided for that purpose by the said clerks; and that no Negro or Mulatto, now within this state, shall from and after the said first day of November, be deemed a slave or servant for life, or till the age of thirty one years, unless his or her name shall be entered as aforesaid on such record, except such Negro and Mulatto slaves and servants as are hereinafter excepted; the said clerk to be entitled to a fee of two dollars for each slave or servant so entered as aforesaid from the treasurer of the county, to be allowed to him in his accounts.

SECT. 6. Provided always, that any person, in whom the ownership or right to the service of any Negro or Mulatto shall be vested at the passing of this act, other than such as are herein before excepted, his or her heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, and all and every of them severally shall be liable to the overseers of the poor of the city, township or district to which any such Negro or Mulatto shall become chargeable, for such necessary expense, with costs of suit thereon, as such overseers may be put to, through the neglect of the owner, master or mistress of such Negro or Mulatto; notwithstanding the name and other descriptions of such Negro or Mulatto shall not be entered and recorded as aforesaid; unless his or her master or owner shall before such slave or servant attain his or her twenty eighth year execute and record in the proper county a deed or instrument, securing to such slave or servant his or her freedom.

SECT. 7. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, 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 offenses 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.

SECT. 8. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that in all cases wherein sentence of death shall be pronounced against a slave, the jury before whom he or she shall be tried, shall appraise and declare the value of such slave; and in case such sentence be executed, the court shall make an order on the state treasurer, payable to the owner for the same and for the costs of prosecution; but case of remission or mitigation, for the costs only.

SECT. 9. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the reward for taking up runaway and absconding Negro and Mulatto slaves and servants, and the penalties for enticing away, dealing with, or harboring, concealing or employing Negro and Mulatto slaves and servants, shall be the same, and shall be recovered in like manner as in case of servants bound for four years.

SECT. 10. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That no man or woman of any nation or color, except the Negroes or Mulattoes who shall be registered as aforesaid, shall at any time hereafter be deemed, adjudged, or holden within the territories of this commonwealth as slaves or servants for life, but as free men and free women; except the domestic slaves attending upon delegates in congress from the other American states, foreign ministers and consuls, and persons passing through or sojourning in this state, and not becoming resident therein; and seamen employed in ships not belonging to any inhabitant of this state, nor employed in any ship owned by any such inhabitant. Provided such domestic slaves be not aliened or sold to any inhabitants nor (except in the case of members of congress, foreign ministers and consuls) retained in this state longer than fix months.

SECT. 11. Provided always; and be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that this act or any thing in it contained shall not give any relief or shelter to any absconding or runaway Negro or Mulatto slave or servant, who has absented himself or shall absent himself from his or her owner, master or mistress residing in any other state or country, but such owner, master or mistress shall have like right and aid to demand, claim and take away his slave or servant, as he might have had in case this act had not been made: And that all Negro and Mulatto slaves now owned and heretofore resident in this state, who have absented themselves, or been clandestinely carried away, or who may be employed abroad as seamen and have not returned or been brought back to their owners, masters or mistresses, before the passing of this act, may within five years be registered as effectually as is ordered by this act concerning those who are now within the state, on producing such slave before any two justices of the peace, and satisfying the said justices by due proof of the former residence, absconding, taking away, or absence of such slaves as aforesaid; who thereupon shall direct and order the said slave to be entered on the record as aforesaid.

SECT. 12. And whereas attempts may be made to evade this act, by introducing into this state Negroes and Mulattos bound by covenant to serve for long and unreasonable terms of years, if the same be not prevented:

SECT. 13. Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid, that no covenant of personal servitude or apprenticeship whatsoever shall be valid or binding on a Negro or Mulatto for a longer time than seven years, unless such servant or apprentice were at the commencement of such servitude or apprenticeship under the age of twenty one years; in which case such Negro or Mulatto may be holden as a servant or apprentice respectively, according to the covenant, as the case shall be, until he or she shall attain the age of twenty eight years, but no longer.

SECT. 14. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that an act of assembly of the province of Pennsylvania, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and five, entitled, "an Act for the trial of Negroes;" and another act of assembly of the said province, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and twenty five, entitled, "An Act for the better regulating of Negroes in this province; " and another act of assembly of the said province, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and sixty one, entitled, "An Act for laying a duty on Negro and Mulatto slaves imported into this province; " and also another act of assembly of the said province, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy three, entitled, "An Act making perpetual an Act laying a duty on Negro and Mulatto slaves imported into this province, and for laying an additional duty said slaves," shall be and are hereby repealed, annulled and made void.

JOHN BAYARD, SPEAKER

Enabled into a law at Philadelphia, on Wednesday, the first day of March, A.D. 1780,
Thomas Paine, clerk of the general assembly.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. What does the law provide for? What are its provisions for children born of slaves after March 1, 1780? What is the status of adult slaves following the passage of this act?
  2. How does the law relate Americans' gaining freedom from Great Britain to slaves gaining freedom in America?
  3. How do you think other states could have justified maintaining slavery even as they won their independence from Great Britain? How would a slaveholder of South Carolina have responded to the arguments put forth in Section 1 of the act?
  4. Why do you think that the state decided on gradual, not immediate, freedom for the enslaved?
  5. What benefits does the law see coming from emancipation? For slaves? For society as a whole?
  6. What is the intent of Section 7 dealing with the trial and punishment of African Americans?
  7. Why do you think that the slaves of visitors from other states and countries are exempted from the law?
  8. Why did Pennsylvania (and other states) prevent slaves from giving testimony in court cases against free persons (last paragraph of Section 7)?
  9. Imagine that you are the owner of a slave in Pennsylvania in 1780. Imagine that your slave is worth $800. What might your reaction be to this law?
  10. Compare Section 11 of the act with the last paragraph of Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Why do you think that the return to their masters of fugitive slaves from states like Pennsylvania became the subject of intense debate?

Glossary of Terms

abhorrence, noun: hatred; extreme dislike.
abscond, verb: to secretly run away or hide.
administrator, noun: in this context, an individual appointed by a court to oversee the processing of a will of a dead person.
alien, verb: to transfer the ownership of property
apprentice, noun: a person who is legally bound to another for a period of years for the purpose of learning a trade. assigns, noun: legal term for persons who receive property or rights.
clerk of the peace of the county: an official that served under a justice of the peace.
consul, noun: a person appointed by one country to live in a second country and represent the first country's interest there.
covenant, noun: a legally binding agreement.
denominate, verb: to name or identify.
executor, noun: the person named by the maker of will who is charged with carrying out the will's provisions.
holden: old form of held.
imbibe, verb: to take in or absorb.
indenture, noun: in this context, the agreement that spells out the terms of an apprenticeship.
justice of the peace: a county or local official with authority to hear minor criminal cases and carry out administrative duties.
mulatto, noun: a person of mixed African and European ancestry.
overseer of the poor, noun: a public official responsible for taking care of the needs of poor people.
sojourn, verb: to stay temporarily.
thralldom, noun: the state of being a slave or subject.
wrought, adjective: accomplished or done


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