The Era Before The Civil War

In 1681, William Penn, was granted the proprietary rights to Pennsylvania. With him he brought the religious beliefs of the Quakers. They believed that all people were equal in God’s eyes, and every human being was capable of receiving the “light” of God’s spirit and wisdom. Therefore they were one of the first groups of white men to question the morality of slavery.

The very first antislavery petition in the New World was drafted in 1688 by Dutch-speaking Quakers that lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania. (Germantown is approximately five miles from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania.) Their ancestors had been tortured and persecuted for their religious beliefs, and they saw a striking similarity between their ancestors; sufferings and the sufferings of slaves. They charged that Africans had been seized illegally from their homelands, shipped across the Atlantic against their will, and sold away from their families.

The following is an excerpt from the Germantown Quaker Petition of 1688, It identifies the reasons they opposed slavery:

“There is a saying, that we should do to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent, or colour they are…. To bring men hither [to America], or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against. In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience-sake; and here there are those oppressed which are of a black colour….Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, than if men should rob or steal us away, and sell us for slaves to strange countries; separating husbands from their wives and children.”

Quaker religious philosophy laid the groundwork for the antislavery movement. By 1775, the Quakers founded the first American anti-slavery group, and by 1780 Pennsylvania was the first state to abolish slavery by legislation— The Pennsylvania Assembly voted 34 to 21 in favor of gradual abolition.

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 furious and grateful fence 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 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 w ho 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.
  • Section 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 fame unhappy cafe. 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.
  • Section 3. Be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted, by the representatives of the freeman of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in general assembly met, and by the authority of the fame, 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 cafe 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.
  • Section 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 cafe this act had not been made, have been born a fervent 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 cafe 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 holder; and shall be liable to like correction and punishment, and entitled to like relief in cafe 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 fame; in which cafe the overseers of the poor of the city, township or district reflectively, 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.
  • Section 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 fervent for life or till the age of thirty one years, now within this state, or his lawful attorney, shall on or before the fade first day of November next deliver or calm 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 fervent and servants for life or till the age of thirty one years, together with their ages and sexes severally and reflectively 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 asked 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 fervent 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 herein after excepted; the said clerk to be entitled to a fee of two dollars for each slave or fervent so entered as aforesaid from the treasurer of the county, to be allowed to him in his accounts.
  • Section 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 fervent 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 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.
  • Section 8. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That in all cafes 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 cafe such sentence be executed, the court shall make an order on the state treasurer, payable to the owner for the fame and for the costs of prosecution; but cafe of remission or mitigation, for the costs only.
  • Section 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 harbouring, concealing or employing Negro and Mulatto slaves and servants, shall be the fame, and shall be recovered in like manner as in cafe of servants bound for four years.
  • Section 10. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That no man or woman of any nation or colour, 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 fold to any inhabitants nor (except in the cafe of members of congress, foreign ministers and consuls) retained in this state longer than fix months.
  • Section 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 fervent, 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 fervent, as he might have had in cafe 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.
  • Section 12. And whereas attempts maybe made to evade this act, by introducing into this state Negroes and Mulatoes bound by covenant to serve for long and unreasonable terms of years, if the fame be not prevented:
  • Section 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 fervent or apprentice were at the commencement of such servitude or apprenticeship under the age of twenty one years; in which cafe such Negro or Mulatto may be holden as a fervent or apprentice reflectively, according to the covenant, as the cafe shall be, until he or she shall attain the age of twenty eight years, but no longer.
  • Section 14. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That an act of assembly of die province of Pennsylvania, passed in the year one thousand Seven hundred and five, intitled, “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, intitled, “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, intitled, .. 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, inititled, “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.

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

Ref: PHMC: PA and Antislavery

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