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Was the Revolution a missed opportunity to end slavery? Previous Next
Digital History ID 4570


The Revolution greatly stimulated opposition to slavery. Many Americans recognized that it was hypocritical for them to fight for liberty while they continued to hold slaves. Slavery contradicted the idea that all human beings were born with certain natural and inalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Between the 1760s and the 1780s, large numbers of white Americans began to grapple, for the first time, with the discrepancy of slavery in a republican society committed to liberty. A series of events illustrate the revolutionary generation's unease with slavery.

  • In 1770, Massachusetts debated a bill "to prevent the...inslaving Mankind in the Province."
  • In 1774, the Continental Congress prohibited the Atlantic slave trade.
  • Also in 1774, Vermont became the first political jurisdiction to outlaw slavery when it prohibited the institution in its Constitution.
  • In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to vote to end slavery, when it adopted a gradual emancipation plan.
  • In 1782, Virginia repealed its ban on private manumissions; Delaware did the same in 1787 and Maryland in 1790.
  • In 1783, Thomas Jefferson proposed that Virginia outlaw the introduction of any more slaves into the state and declare all African Americans born after Dec. 31, 1800, free.
  • In 1784, the leaders of the Methodists--the fastest growing religious denomination in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia--prohibited slaveholders from joining the church and called on Methodists who owned slaves to free them.

During and immediately after the Revolution, all the states prohibited the Atlantic slave trade; Georgia was the last in 1798, though South Carolina temporarily reopened the trade in 1803, provoking shock in the other states.

At the same time, all the northern states committed themselves to emancipation. Vermont outlawed slavery in its constitution; Massachusetts and New Hampshire ended slavery by judicial decree. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island adopted gradual emancipation measures. Even in states where slave holding interests were deeply entrenched, gradual emancipation schemes adopted. New York passed a gradual abolition law in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804. For a time it seemed that Maryland and Delaware might adopt similar legislation.

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