Slavery in Post-Revolutionary America
Digital History ID 194
The Revolution's promise of natural rights and equality carried far-reaching implications for the issue of slavery. In 1777, Vermont adopted the first constitution specifically prohibiting slavery. In 1780, Pennsylvania passed the first gradual emancipation law in the New World. In 1782, Virginia enacted a law (later repealed) allowing voluntary manumission. The 1783 Massachusetts case of Commonwealth v. Jennison removed judicial sanction from slavery in that state, and judicial decisions also eroded slavery in New Hampshire. In 1784, Connecticut and Rhode Island enacted gradual emancipation laws and Congress narrowly rejected Thomas Jefferson's proposal to exclude slavery from all western territories after 1800. In 1787, the Continental Congress prohibited slavery from the territories north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi rivers.
Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the opposition to slave emancipation in revolutionary America, even in the North. New York did not adopt a gradual emancipation law until 1799 and New Jersey until 1804.
Two economists have described the gradual emancipation laws adopted outside of New England as "philanthropy at bargain prices," since the laws required adult slaves to remain in bondage and only freed their children after a period of years, in order to compensate owners for the costs of raising them. Such laws worked extremely slowly. Slavery did not come to a final end in New York until 1827 and, at the beginning of the Civil War, there were still more slaves in the "free" state of New Jersey than in Delaware, a "slave" state.
In this letter, a prominent Quaker and early American abolitionist explains to a pioneering British Quaker abolitionist how the American Revolution has created political bodies, such as Congress, to which antislavery petitions could be addressed. The Revolution had interrupted the cooperative antislavery efforts of British and American Quakers. This letter from James Pemberton (1723-1808) to James Phillips represents the first postwar effort to reestablish collective or coordinated action. The letter also raises the issue of whether the Quakers should admit African Americans to membership within their own Society of Friends--an issue that would test the Quaker commitment to full racial equality, including racial intermarriage.
I am much obliged by the kindness in sending me the Essays on Slavery, the case of the oppressed blacks commands our attention to move in endeavors for their relief as opportunities are favorable; altho Congress has done as little in consequence of our address as your Parliament has in favor of your Petition, and I conclude on similar motives; An application is now about to be made by Friends to the Legislature of New Jersey on this Subject, and we have reprinted five hundred copies of the Petition of your yearly meeting and the Representation which followed it from your meeting...for general distribution among the people in these States, & the Rulers in particular, a fragment of a letter from T[homas] Day printed in London concise & nervous has been reprinted by private procurement in newspapers & otherwise by which it has a general dispersion and will I have prove useful.
The admission of members into our Religious Society is at all time a matter of weight, a base convincement of the rectitude of our principles and discipline, and a foundation sufficient without satisfactory proof of real conversion, the want of which has been productive of burdens & troubles to meetings in many instances, and in the case of Blacks, considerations of another nature occur which are of great importance, wherein friends here do not agree in sentiment tho religiously affected for the real welfare of those people, the concord of Society therefore requires a mature deliberate consideration of the Subject in a collective capacity, for which no occasion has yet offered and I know of no more than one instance of an application of this sort to any Monthly meeting; while some friends are advocates for an unrestricted admission, others plead if no limitation is proscribed they must become entitled to the privilege of intermarriage, and I believe there are few who would freely consent to introduce such a union in their families which mixture some think would reverse the order of Divine Providence who in his wisdom inscrutable to us has been pleased to form distinction of Colour, for tho[ugh] of one blood he made all nations of men, yet it is also said he has fixed their habitation, which has been changed by avarice & ambition. However when the subject becomes necessary to be religiously discussed, I hope friends will be favored with the true spirit of judgment rightly determined &c.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: James Pemberton to James Phillips
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