Enslaved African Americans helped initiate the first emancipation in the Atlantic world. In 1781, Bett, also known as Mumbet, and a fellow slave named Brom sued their master, Col. John Ashley, a prominent revolutionary soldier from Berkshire County in western Massachusetts, for their freedom. His wife, Annetje Ashley, had struck Mumbet with a shovel when she tried to shield her sister from her mistress’s wrath. In court Mumbet insisted on giving an abolitionist interpretation to the new state constitution. She had heard that it had set all slaves free. Her lawyer and later her employer, Theodore Sedgwick, said of this remarkable woman that she “had nothing of the submissive or subdued character, which succumbs to superior force.”1 Mumbet’s freedom suit, along with that of another slave, Quok Walker, led to the judicial abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

The long northern emancipation started during the Revolution in Vermont and ended well after the revolutionary impulse was spent in New Jersey. Most northern states enacted emancipation laws that were gradual, but abolitionist activism instigated and completed that process. Blacks struggling for freedom complemented the early white antislavery societies. Together they made the courts and statehouses of the new Republic an arena for contesting black freedom claims. If African Americans and abolitionists put emancipation on the political agenda, state implementation of post nati, or what the Spanish called free womb, emancipation laws, which freed children of slaves when they reached majority, regulated that process. Economic considerations hindered northern emancipation, with laws balancing slaveholders’ rights to property and labor with slaves’ rights to liberty and education. Gradual northern emancipation was an experiment in state-mandated self-purchase and apprenticeship meant to regulate the transition to freedom.2 Slaves and their abolitionist allies hastened and implemented the process of emancipation, preventing abuse and backsliding. In the South lack of state support and proscription of abolitionist activism nipped emancipation plans in the bud, despite a spurt in manumissions in the upper south.


During the American War of Independence, small antislavery steps toward abolition had been taken. The much-excoriated Atlantic slave trade to the colonies came to a halt. Financial considerations, colonial indebtedness, and fears of slave rebellion due to the growing numbers of enslaved Africans in the population had led some colonies to restrict the trade, attempts that failed because of the opposition of the British government. Slave resistance thus underlay this initial anti–slave trade movement. In 1774 many colonies banned the trade, and others instituted high duties on the import of slaves. The Continental Congress extended this prohibition when it included the slave trade in its nonimportation agreement against the British. The only successful move against slavery itself came from the Quakers, who managed to prohibit slaveholding among their members. In 1774 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting disowned slave traders. Two years later, following meetings in New England, it expelled slaveholders from membership. Meetings in New York and New Jersey followed suit. By 1783 virtually all Quakers had forsaken slaveholding, and some meetings gave slaves compensation for their years in servitude. The same year, the Society of Friends presented its first anti–slave trade petition to the Continental Congress with over five hundred signatures. Benezet, one of the signatories, led a delegation that read the petition before Congress. In 1785 a Quaker address demanded the complete abolition of slavery.3

Abolitionist mobilization and the desire of blacks for freedom rather than the North’s waning economic interest in slavery were the dominant forces behind revolutionary emancipation, even though slavery did not occupy the same place in northern economies that it did in the plantation states of the South. Slave labor was central to cities like New York, which contained the largest urban slave population outside of Charleston, South Carolina, in colonial America, certain farming areas in the middle colonies, and rural Connecticut and Rhode Island. Even in New England, the area with the fewest slaves, one of every twenty persons was enslaved in 1750. The New England states, especially Rhode Island, were also centers of slave trading.4 Northern slaveholders and commercial interests resisted emancipation. The economic motives of northerners weakened the process of emancipation by making lawmakers solicitous of slaveholders’ property interests.

In New England, where slaves possessed certain judicial and civil rights, including the right to sue their masters for freedom, African Americans initiated and enforced emancipation. From the start Puritan courts were known to free those who could prove they had been unjustly enslaved. In 1645 two Africans were released from bondage in Boston because they had been kidnapped, an act condemned as man stealing in the Bible, by a slave trader reputed to have killed over a hundred people in a slave raid in Africa. The next year Massachusetts specifically provided foreigners and the enslaved the right to bring suit and petition the court for unlawful enslavement. Like the number of slave runaways, that of slaves petitioning and suing their masters for freedom on various grounds increased dramatically during the revolutionary era. In 1762 Jenny Slew of Ipswich, Massachusetts, sued her master, John Whipple, for having “kept her in servitude as a slave in his service and restrained her of her liberty.” Even though Slew was able to sue because she had a white mother, one of the judges in the Essex Superior Court who ruled in her favor four years later argued that “this is a Contest between Liberty and Property—both of great Consequence, but Liberty of most importance of the two.” She received her freedom and four pounds in court costs and damages. After the Slew case, a number of freedom suits came up in Massachusetts courts. Nearly all the plaintiffs in the twenty-eight recorded freedom suits in colonial and revolutionary Massachusetts were successful. Only one, Amos Newport of Hatfield, an African who had been kidnapped, failed. His case, begun in 1766, went all the way to the Superior Court in 1768. Amos lost his suit, but his descendants gained their freedom.5

Even in cases of outright constitutional abolition, black activism was necessary to make freedom a reality. In 1777 the newly created state of Vermont, with its minuscule black population, became the first state to abolish slavery. Its liberal state constitution not only instituted universal manhood suffrage but also outlawed slavery as a violation of “natural, inherent and unalienable rights.” The constitution’s antislavery clause stated that no man could be bound to servitude after the age of twenty-one years and no woman after the age of eighteen. This clause allowed for the apprenticeship of children and was indifferently implemented. African Americans constituted less than 2 percent, around a thousand persons, of the state’s population, but they helped enforce its constitutional ban on slavery. In 1779 a female slave of a Congregational minister successfully sued her master for freedom, as did an enslaved man, Pompey Bra-kee, who received four hundred pounds in compensation. In 1784 a runaway slave was able to win his freedom despite the fact that his master produced a bill of sale in court. By 1802 Vermont judges ruled that a bill of sale for a slave was not admissible as evidence in a case involving an enslaved woman, Dinah. Evidence of continued enslavement even after constitutional abolition suggests that the end of slavery in Vermont was contested rather than immediate. In 1786 and again in 1806 the state was forced to pass laws prohibiting out-of-state slave sales and kidnapping.6

Nowhere was black initiative in the process of emancipation illustrated better than in Massachusetts. In 1776 the state’s General Court passed a law to prevent the sale of two Africans seized on the high seas, but attempts to abolish slavery by law were stillborn. The first draft of the state’s constitution in 1778 recognized slavery and denied blacks the right to vote, to the chagrin of some residents in Sutton, who argued that it added “to the already accumulated Load of guilt lying upon the Land.” They called for emancipation, warning of divine vengeance. Although the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 removed the color bar for voting and included a bill of rights, it did not abolish slavery. But the slaves gave antislavery meaning to it. Soon after its adoption, an observer reported, “One negro after another deserted the service of those who had been their owners.” Those who were remanded back to service “brought actions against those who had been their masters, and the success of the negroes in these suits operated to the liberation of all.”7 Puritan legal tradition granted the enslaved some legal and civil rights, and antislavery public opinion helped, as juries and judges decided in favor of enslaved plaintiffs.

Two historic freedom suits brought by Quok Walker and Mumbet against their owners inaugurated emancipation in Massachusetts. In 1754 James Caldwell purchased nine-month-old Quaco (an Akan day name for a boy born on Wednesday) and his parents, Mingo and Dinah. Before his death Caldwell promised Quok his freedom at the age of twenty-five. Caldwell’s widow acquired Quok, but her second husband, Nathaniel Jennison of Barre, was determined to keep him enslaved. Quok deserted Jennison and began working for John and Seth Caldwell, either siblings or children of James. Jennison assaulted Quock and tried to forcibly seize him. Quok Walker sued Jennison for damages in 1781. The jury in the Worcester Inferior Court of Common Pleas ruled against Jennison and declared Walker a free man. Jennison appealed the decision and sued the Caldwells for enticing his slave away. This time the court decided in favor of Jennison, and the Caldwells appealed this decision. Later in the year the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the decision in Jennison v. Caldwell. In this case, Levi Lincoln, the antislavery lawyer who represented Walker and the Caldwells, made the broader argument that slavery violated “the law of nature,” “the law of God,” and the Declaration of Independence. The court decided against Jennison on the grounds that the state constitution declared that “all men are born free and equal” and thus had abolished slavery. Jennison then petitioned the General Court, seeking clarification on the legal status of slavery in Massachusetts.

The legislature did not respond to his petition, but in the criminal case against Jennison for assault, Commonwealth v. Jennison in 1783, Judge William Cushing charged the jury that “the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle” was simply a “usage” bequeathed by European nations in pursuit “of trade and wealth.” In America, “a different idea has taken place . . . more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses, features) has inspired all the human race.” Slavery, he declared, was inconsistent with “our own conduct and Constitution.” There can “be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract.” Having failed not only in his attempt to enslave Quok Walker but also ironically contributing to the demise of slavery in the commonwealth, the unrepentant Jennison took the rest of his slaves, one of whom was Quok’s brother, to Connecticut and sold them there. That very year Cushing also justified the freeing of fugitive slaves from South Carolina who had been captured by Massachusetts ships from privateers during the Revolutionary War on a writ of habeas corpus, leading the governor of South Carolina to threaten disunion. Twenty had chosen to return to their masters, but about fourteen found freedom and new lives in the Bay State. Massachusetts’s laws took precedence over the slave code of South Carolina; it would take the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution to subvert that equation.8

African American women played an active role in bringing freedom suits against their masters. Starting with one of the first freedom suits in the colonies, that of Elizabeth Key in seventeenth-century Virginia, and continuing with Jenny Slew in Massachusetts and the anonymous slave woman in Vermont who sued her master, black women’s readiness to use the courts as an instrument of liberation is noteworthy. In 1777 an enslaved woman named Cuba, who had been captured from a British ship, petitioned the Massachusetts Council for her freedom and won it against her captors, who sought to sell her in Jamaica. Between 1716 and 1783 fourteen black women sued for their freedom in New England.9 The freedom suit of Mumbet, also credited with giving an antislavery interpretation to the state’s constitution, bolsters this conclusion. Mumbet renamed herself Elizabeth Freeman after gaining her freedom. Colonel Ashley of Sheffield had acquired Mumbet at the age of six months when he married into the slaveholding family that owned her. Earlier, another slave, Zach Mullen, had sued the Ashleys for assault. Theodore Sedgwick, a slaveholding lawyer with antislavery leanings, and Tapping Reeve, the Federalist jurist who would found the Litchfield Law School in Connecticut, represented Mumbet and Brom in their case in 1781. In Brom and Bett v. Ashley, the jury in the Court of Common Pleas ruled for giving the slaves their freedom and awarded them damages. Sedgwick built on Mumbet’s testimony and argued ingeniously that Massachusetts had never instituted slavery by law and that the constitution nullified the practice. Sedgwick also represented a Connecticut master trying to reclaim a female slave, and he went on to vote for the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.

Only the enslaved showed a consistent devotion to antislavery principle. Even Cushing’s slave had challenged the antislavery judge. Elizabeth Freeman became a legend in her time, and another famous black from western Massachusetts, W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, claimed kinship with her. She married Jack Burghardt, a Revolutionary War veteran eighteen years her junior. Even though Freeman refused an offer from Colonel Ashley to work for him for wages, her husband rode with him to put down Shays’s Rebellion. According to family lore, Freeman saved some property of the Sedgwick family from the rebels. Burghardt also fought in the War of 1812, which was wildly unpopular among New England Federalists, revealing a political independence that belies simple notions of patron–client relationships among antislavery whites and African Americans. Freeman became a widely respected nurse and retained her adopted name after marriage. When she died in 1829, she said to the daughter of her benefactor, Catherine Sedgwick, “Any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth a free woman—I would.” In an abolitionist lecture he delivered in 1831, Theodore Sedgwick II specifically attributed his views to Freeman and her quest for freedom: “But for the care of one of this calumniated race, I should not now, probably, be living to give this testimony.” He refuted racist ideas, noting, “Having known this woman as familiarly as I knew either of my parents, I cannot believe in the moral or physical inferiority of the race to which she belonged.” His son Theodore Sedgwick III defended the Amistad rebels in 1839. Freeman had converted the influential Sedgwick family to abolition.10

Another enslaved woman from Massachusetts, Belinda, made the first formal demand for compensation or reparations for her years in slavery. In 1782 Belinda petitioned for an allowance from her Tory master’s abandoned estate. Recounting her abduction as a young girl from Africa, the horrors of the Middle Passage, and her enslavement in America, Belinda argued that she “by the laws of the land, is denied the enjoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof had been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.” The General Court granted Belinda’s petition, partly because her master, Isaac Royall Jr., was a Loyalist, and allotted her an allowance for a year. In 1787 Belinda petitioned again for an allowance and was granted a pension from her former master’s estate for another year. Belinda’s petition evoked the old colonial practice of giving freedom dues to those released from servitude. Despite the parsimony of the legislature, her petition raised the issue of compensated freedom, not for the slaveholder but for the freed slave. In 1777 an abolitionist Presbyterian minister from Salem, Timothy Pickering, had petitioned the General Court against the slave trade and slavery and demanded reparations for slaves: “Our Slavers are advised to pay their Africans for their Past Services and to Let Them Goe Free.”11

African Americans in Massachusetts argued that citizenship was a necessary corollary to freedom. The Quaker sea captain Paul Cuffe and six other “poor negroes and mulattoes” from the town of Dartmouth, including his brother John, put black rights on the antislavery agenda in their petition of 1780 asking for relief from taxation. The Cuffes were jailed for failing to pay their taxes for three years. The petition pointed out that “being chiefly of the African extract and by reason of long bondage and hard slavery, we have been deprived of enjoying the profit of our labour or the advantage of inheriting estates from our parents.” Yet after gaining their freedom they were made to pay poll taxes on “that small pittance of estate” accumulated by much “hard labour and industry . . . to sustain ourselves and families withal.” They were “aggrieved, in that, while we are not allowed the privilege of freemen of the State, having no vote or influence in the election of those that tax us, yet many of our color (as is well known) have cheerfully entered the field of battle in the defense of the common cause, and that (as we conceive) against a similar exertion of power (in regard to taxation), too well known to need a recital in this place.” While demanding these specific political rights, the petition highlighted the plight of “we poor destresed miserable Black people” who did not have “an equal chance with white people,” had “no larning, no land and also no work.” The Cuffes were forced to pay their taxes despite pleading for exemption on the basis of their Indian lineage. A year later they petitioned the town of Dartmouth, asking for equal political rights and privileges for “all Free Negroes and Mullatoes” or relief from taxation “under our present depressed circumstances.” Their petitions perhaps contributed to the dropping of the color bar to voting in the state’s constitution of 1780.12

Even in Pennsylvania, the heartland of Quaker abolition, African Americans played a role in the coming of emancipation. The Anglo-American abolition movement got its organizational expression here with the formation of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage on April 14, 1775, at the initiative of a group of ten Quaker artisans and shopkeepers in Philadelphia. These men were young and poor, not part of the wealthy elite of the city. Most of them were associates of the English-born Quaker tailor Thomas Harrison and were not particularly religious, some being “lapsed” and “disowned” Quakers. Harrison, like his wife, Sarah, was a committed abolitionist. The society met to help a woman of mixed Indian and African heritage from New Jersey who was interned in the Philadelphia workhouse, Dinah Nevil. She was about to be sold into slavery with her four children even though she claimed to be free. The very title of the society suggests how blacks’ striving to gain freedom inspired the white abolitionist organization. The society met only four times that year but brought to court six cases of wrongful enslavement. Its preamble echoed Benezet, who some claim was its first president: to aid the efforts of “poor unhappy sufferers” in loosening the bonds of slavery, an endeavor which should appeal to “all professors of Christianity, but more especially when justice, liberty and the laws of the land are the general topics among most ranks and stations of men.” It did not meet regularly owing to the disruptions of war and general suspicion of Quaker pacifism. Harrison bought Nevil and her two surviving children. In his will Benezet named Harrison one of his heirs. Harrison helped reorganize the society at the end of the revolution.13

During the revolution, Pennsylvania, like Vermont, adopted a liberal state constitution, reflecting the rise of a radical group of patriots. George Bryan, one of the radicals, presented a gradual emancipation bill that became law on March 1, 1780. Benezet personally lobbied each member of the unicameral legislature on behalf of the bill. The law not only linked racial slavery with the fight against “political slavery” but also challenged the racial justification of slavery. It is not “for us to enquire why” men are distinguished by “feature or complexion,” the first section stated. All human beings are the work of God, subject “equally to his care and protection.” The times that tried men’s souls had “weaned . . . those narrow prejudices and partialities we had imbibed.” The law freed only the children of slaves who were born after March 1 and who had served their masters until the age of twenty-eight. The assembly rejected proslavery amendments such as a ban on interracial marriage and the binding of free blacks into servitude. It also required slaveholders to register their slaves by November 1, and noncompliance would result in the emancipation of the slaves. In response, twenty-three members of the assembly entered a protest, calling the measure imprudent and premature and warning that “free negroes” were liable to commit atrocities against the state at the behest of its enemies. Not only did slaveholders oppose the law, they shirked its provisions by failing to register slaves, selling them to other states, and demanding a law for the reenslavement of those who had been freed by their masters’ failure to register them.14 Post nati emancipation laws created a terrain of contestation between proslavery and antislavery forces in the north.

African Americans were not silent spectators to these controversies. Slaves in Pennsylvania ran away in record numbers during the 1780s, hastening and at times extending the process of emancipation to those (born before March 1) left out by the law. Blacks contributed to the “storm of protest” that prevented proslavery endeavors to pass laws that would reenslave unregistered slaves by extending the date of registration to January 1782 and exempting southern slave-holding refugees from the emancipation law. In two petitions to the legislature, free blacks in Philadelphia protested against the proposed law. The petition of “divers Negroes” argued that “the question of slavery or liberty, is too important for us to be silent. . . . If we are silent this day, we may be silent forever; returned to slavery, we are deprived of even the right of petitioning.” A “poor negro” called Cato wrote in the Freeman’s Journal that “to make a law to hang us all, would be merciful, when compared with this law; for many of our masters would treat with us with unheard barbarity, for daring to take advantage (as we have done) of the law made in our favor.” Reenslaving free men, he argued, was a crime worse than the original one of slavery. “I have read the act that made me free,” and, alluding to the preamble of the act of 1780, he asked, “What must we think of the meaning of all those words in the beginning of the said law, which seem to be a kind of creed respecting slavery?” The attempt to reenslave the nonregistered failed. In 1781 the legislature exempted southern refugees from the emancipation law but required them to register their slaves within six months of entering the state and to hold them for no longer than six months.15

Dramatic instances of black protest reenergized the abolition movement in Pennsylvania after emancipation. In 1784 two tragic cases of suicide, in which a black man hanged himself after his writ of habeas corpus was denied and another drowned himself in the Delaware River after he was forcefully separated from his family and sold to the South, revived the moribund Society for the Relief of Free Negros. It was reorganized as the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery (PAS), again, by Quakers but including antislavery patriots like Rush. Between 1784 and 1787 its new secretary, Tench Coxe, reported that the society represented over a hundred African Americans who had sought it out for legal assistance. In 1787 it was reorganized yet again, this time as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. It now included many of the city’s leading men, such as the banker Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and numerous lawyers, who were crucial in representing African Americans in the state’s courts and in implementing its emancipation laws. The group also promoted black education and, although all its members were white, explicitly prohibited only slaveholders from membership. A petition campaign led by the society and supported by the Society of Friends resulted in the passage of another law in 1788 that prevented slaveholders from circumventing the emancipation law by sending pregnant slave women out of the state, selling slaves who were about to be freed to the South, and separating slave families. It also fought to restrict the slave trade, strictly implement the six-month transit rule for slaves, and prevent the kidnapping of free blacks.16

Rhode Island and Connecticut, two New England states with substantial investment in slavery, emulated Pennsylvania’s road to abolition in 1784. Both states passed gradual emancipation laws that freed children of slaves born after March 1 of that year. In Connecticut they would serve their masters until the age of twenty-five and in Rhode Island until the age of twenty-one for males and eighteen for females. Both states had earlier freed African Americans who had fought in the Continental Army, many times as substitutes for their masters. State courts and laws also facilitated individual manumissions. In 1774 Connecticut banned the slave trade to the state, and in 1779 Rhode Island prohibited the sale of slaves outside the state. The latter law was inspired by the actions of a slave woman from South Kingston named Abigail. Bought by a North Carolinian slaveholder, she refused to let her new master carry her and her three young children to the South. The General Assembly ordered that Abigail and her children be kept within the limits of the state and passed the law prohibiting such sales. Connecticut had to pass similar laws in 1788 and 1792 to prevent the sale of term as well as lifetime slaves to the South. In 1797 it reduced the age of freedom for term slaves from twenty-five to twenty-one. Slavery steadily decayed rather than disappeared in the two states.17

African Americans hastened the process of gradual emancipation by running away, striking deals with their masters, and launching legal challenges. In Connecticut slaves petitioning for freedom during the revolution helped initiate the movement toward emancipation. James Mars, a term slave born in 1790, repeatedly ran away, once with his family to prevent being taken to Virginia by their master. The white citizens of Norfolk hid the Mars family, who eluded capture. Mars published his narrative during the Civil War for “many of the people” who do not “know that slavery ever lived in Connecticut.” Even though a term slave, he was sold away from his family. He eventually became a free man, a deacon in his church, and a prominent black abolitionist.

Antislavery sentiment also contributed to the emancipation process in the state. In 1775 the New Divinity clergyman Levi Hart proposed a plan for gradual emancipation that compensated masters for their lost property as a matter of “public faith” by the government, which made it legal for them to own slaves in the first place. Hart thought it was the state’s responsibility to enact abolition and argued that it was a matter of justice because of the “injury done to the Negroes.” He suggested that slaves serve their masters until the age of twenty-four or -five to compensate them for their education and that masters receive compensation in exact proportion to the amount of labor lost to them by developing a mathematical table that tied compensation to the age of the slave freed. Slaveholders would get nothing for superannuated slaves but would be responsible for their upkeep as money due to them for years of service. A conservative minister, Hart contended that freed blacks should be prohibited from intermarrying with whites but should enjoy the same benefits and treatment under the law as whites. He put forward the idea of appointing an overseer to supervise them but vindicated their ability “to conduct their own affairs & provide for themselves.” Finally, he proposed repatriation back to Africa. The Connecticut legislature adopted Hart’s plan except that it freed only the children of slaves and offered no compensation to masters.18

Rhode Island, like Connecticut, was a center of New Divinity Hopkinsianism and home to a crusading abolitionist, Moses Brown. Brown, who freed his own slaves and converted to Quakerism, campaigned vigorously for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the 1770s. The disastrous voyage of the Brown family’s slaver Sally in 1765, during which most of the enslaved Africans committed suicide by drowning and starving themselves after a failed uprising, had turned him against the slave trade. He proposed a plan for the gradual emancipation of slavery similar to the one eventually adopted by his state. Unlike Hart, Brown was not interested in colonization. A Quaker “Petition and Remonstrance” against the slave trade and slavery in December 1783 had led the state assembly to pass the gradual emancipation law in 1784. Hopkins commended the act but called for the education of slave children and a complete end to the slave trade. By this time he had also started barring slaveholders from attending his church. He died in 1803, having taken several futile steps to implement his African missionary project. With the revival of the African slave trade after the revolution, abolitionists like Brown and Hopkins renewed their work. Opposition from commercial and slave-trading interests, ironically headed by Brown’s slave-trading brother John Brown, managed to remove fines for violation of the act prohibiting the slave trade and allowed the state’s slave traders to ply their business elsewhere.

Brown emerged as the strongest voice of abolition in the state and continued his antislavery work after emancipation, becoming active in the anti–slave trade movement. In 1789 he helped form the Providence Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which, like the PAS, assisted slaves and helped free blacks escape enslavement and kidnapping. Brown developed ties with local blacks, many of whom sought out his aid and advocacy. As John Quamine wrote to him, “Having some late understandings of your noble and distinguished character, and boundless benevolent engagements, with regard to the unforfeited rights, of the poor unhappy Africans in this province; and of your sundry petitions to the General Assemblies in their favours, [there] has existed [in] one of that nation, though an utter stranger, [a desire] to present thee with gratitude and thanks.” In 1819 Brown purchased and then donated land for the construction of a meetinghouse and school for the African Union Society. He lived long enough to witness the emergence of Garrisonian abolition, which he heartily approved of, in the 1830s.19

By 1784 all the New England states and Pennsylvania had abolished slavery. As elsewhere, slaves in New Hampshire had resisted slavery by running away, petitioning, and filing freedom suits. As early as 1748 one Peter Johnson had successfully sued his master for freedom. In 1778 Peter Hanson, a free black man, requested a divorce from his enslaved wife, Venus, using the occasion to criticize slavery: “Making slaves of any of the human race is unrighteous in the sight of God.” The court could either grant his divorce petition or free Venus so that he would not father slave children. New Hampshire’s state constitution of 1783, which like that of Massachusetts contained a bill of rights, was construed to have abolished slavery. In 1789 a revenue act deliberately excluded slaves as taxable property. However, over one hundred slaves remained in the state at the time of the first federal census in 1790. The Granite State still recorded three slaves in the census of 1830 and one in that of 1840. Not until 1857 would a law clarify that the state had abolished slavery and give African Americans full citizenship rights.20 That northern abolition could be a long, drawn-out affair was further exemplified by emancipation in New York and New Jersey.


In the early American Republic slaveholders managed to win valuable concessions that helped contain abolition. The U.S. Constitution (1787) safeguarded the institution of slavery even though it did not specifically protect slave property. Southern, especially lower south, opposition to a slave trade prohibition and to antislavery led to compromises over slavery. However historians have interpreted the nature of the Constitution, the end product became subject to contestation between slaveholders and men of antislavery faith. Revolutionary scruples prevented the Constitutional Convention from using the words slaves and slavery, but the three-fifths clause, which counted slave property for representation and taxation, the clauses postponing the African slave trade ban to 1808 and requiring the federal government to suppress domestic insurrections, and most important, the fugitive slave clause, which enforced southern laws of slavery in the free states and territories, gave slavery ironclad guarantees. The principles of federalism, which assumed the garb of states’ rights, and property rights protected slaveholders’ interests. Even the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 contained a fugitive slave provision while prohibiting slavery in territories north and west of the Ohio River. Slavery was eliminated in the old northwest, but the prohibition was contested vigorously. While the ordinance at least represented antislavery goals, the Constitution reflected a proslavery reality. Many northern anti-Federalists based their objections to the Constitution on the compromises over slavery. Eventually, northern Federalists emerged as the staunchest critics of “Slavery’s Constitution.”21

Whether the Constitution was a conservative counterrevolution or not, it privileged the creation of a strong federal government and Union over antislavery. Rush and Franklin decided not to present an anti–slave trade petition from the PAS to the convention and neither did Alexander Hamilton for the newly formed New York Manumission Society (NYMS) for fear of endangering intersectional unity. One of the few antislavery voices at the convention, Gouverneur Morris, who had earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to add an abolition clause to New York’s constitution, condemned it unequivocally for its slavery clauses. Of all the framers, only Morris argued that not only the continuation of the slave trade but also the existence of slavery in the Republic called forth the “curse of heaven.” And only he resisted threats by South Carolinians and Georgians to leave the Union if the Constitutional Convention did not give in to proslavery demands. It was better, he said, that the free and slave states “at once take friendly leave of each other.” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts identified the three-fifths clause as the fatal flaw of the Constitution that would lead to southern domination of the national government. John Dickinson also criticized the three-fifths clause as a “new principle of founding the right to govern Freemen on a power derived from Slaves.” James Pemberton of the PAS, Brown, and Hopkins lamented the Constitution’s failure to end the slave trade immediately and to enact a plan of general emancipation. Referring to the fugitive slave clause, Brown averred that instead of “Extending Humanity and good Will” to black people, the convention had “very Unhappily Wounded the Cause of Liberty and the rights of Men.”

Luther Martin of Maryland excoriated the Constitution’s provision allowing the African slave trade to continue. He pointed out how the three-fifths clause made it in the interest of the lower south to continue “that infamous traffic.” He would base his opposition to the Constitution on the grounds that slavery was “inconsistent with the genius of republicanism” and that the slave trade had received the sanction of the general government. The father of the Constitution, James Madison also called the twenty-year reprieve for the slave trade dishonorable. The upper south presumably had slaves enough and would soon get rid of its surplus human property in a profitable domestic slave trade to precisely the regions these men criticized. In his speech against the trade, George Mason, who, like Jefferson, criticized slavery and the slave trade in the abstract but did not free his slaves, noted that the fugitive slave clause was not strong enough for southern security. The two Virginian anti-Federalists Patrick Henry and Mason, like Rawlins Lowndes of South Carolina, opposed the creation of a strong federal government that could abolish slavery.22

Delayed abolition inspired proslavery opposition in the two northern states of New York and New Jersey. Slavery had more widespread roots in these two states, and neither boasted a history of antislavery like Pennsylvania’s. The process of emancipation was concomitantly slower there. Nearly 12 percent of New York’s population, including twenty thousand slaves, was African American, and slave labor was widespread in the rural counties of the Hudson River Valley and Long Island as well as in the city of New York. At the end of the revolution at least four hundred black New Yorkers left with the contingent of three thousand African American Loyalists for Canada. A New York law of 1781 had compensated patriot masters and given freedom to slaves serving in the Continental Army. At the end of the war the state confiscated Loyalists’ property, including slaves. In 1785, however, New York failed to follow Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut along the path of gradual emancipation. Gov. George Clinton, a lawyer for the NYMS, and his council vetoed a bill that abolished slavery but severely restricted black citizenship by withholding the franchise and office holding. Legislators, although agreeing to rescind an anti-interracial marriage clause in the bill, refused to remove political and civil disabilities on black freedom. Instead, the state banned the importation of slaves and eased restrictions on manumission.23

The failure of abolition in the state in 1785 gave birth to the second abolition society after the PAS, the NYMS, which had a large contingent of Quakers but also included New York’s prominent founders, Hamilton, John Jay, and Aaron Burr, who proposed immediate abolition in the legislature. All three men were slaveholders but had long been on record as favoring emancipation and ended up freeing their slaves. Burr was the grandson of the Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards and was probably influenced by the antislavery views of his grandfather’s New Divinity followers. Unlike the PAS, the NYMS did not exclude slaveholders and represented the elite of the state. The society gave “the Violent Attempts lately made to seize, and export for Sale, several free Negroes who were peaceably following their respective Occupations in the City” as a reason for its formation. The NYMS campaigned for statewide emancipation, regularly petitioning the legislature against the slave trade, domestic and foreign, as well as for emancipation. Members visited slaveholders after the Quaker fashion to encourage individual manumissions. The society republished Hopkins’s Dialogue of 1776 and address to slaveholders. In 1788 a successful petition campaign by the society resulted in the passage of a law prohibiting the sale of slaves outside the state. The NYMS was adept in gaining the freedom of slaves who belonged to Loyalists and whose property was confiscated. At times members of the society acted as arbitrators between masters and slaves, changing lifetime slavery to term servitude and intervening in numerous cases of wrongful enslavement, as in the case of a young black girl from Nova Scotia who was sold into slavery in New York. Between 1792 and 1814 the NYMS assisted over four hundred slaves in their quest for freedom. African Americans who bought relatives out of slavery or negotiated terms of freedom with their owners were responsible for more manumissions.24

The debate over emancipation in New York was dominated by the discourse of race and citizenship. Even before the society launched its antislavery campaign, a handful of black writers challenged the proslavery articles that appeared in the New York press in the 1780s, some of which mocked African American speech and abolitionist ideas about racial equality. The black voice was clearly important to the antislavery project, as both critics and defenders of slavery tried to mimic or represent the African American perspective. But blacks needed no surrogates. The most well known black New Yorker at this time was Jupiter Hammon. In 1787 Hammon published his third pamphlet, “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York,” which was reprinted in Philadelphia at that time and again in 1806 at the behest of Quaker abolitionists. In his last pamphlet Hammon once again addressed his “dear brethren” who were in “the poor, despised, and miserable state” of slavery. Evoking authority on the basis of his color, age, and previous publications, he advised the slaves of New York to behave in a manner that would not jeopardize the course of emancipation and provide fodder to proslavery opponents. Hammon returned to one of his favorite themes, that African Americans should exhibit by their exemplary behavior that they are better Christians than “a great many white people . . . some who are rich and great gentlemen.” In one of his most forthright criticisms of American hypocrisy he wrote, “Liberty is a great thing we know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge so from the conduct of white people in the late war. How much money has been spent and how many lives have been lost to defend their liberty! I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks and pity us. He has done it in some measure and has raised us up many friends, for which we have reason to be thankful and to hope in his mercy.” Hammon acknowledged the rise of the abolition movement and asked slaves by their “good conduct [to] prevail on our masters to set us free.”25

The same year Cyrus Bustill of Philadelphia issued a similar address to the slaves. Born a slave in New Jersey, Bustill refused to marry until he became free, which he did in 1769. He owned a bakery and supplied the Continental Army with bread during the revolution, earning a commendation from George Washington. A leading member of Philadelphia’s black community, Bustill was the patriarch of a family that continued to be active in abolitionist circles well into the nineteenth century. His daughter Grace Bustill Douglass and granddaughter Sarah Mapps Douglass were founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti Slavery Society. Adopting the Quaker garb and religion of his third master, who freed him and taught him the skills of a baker, Bustill urged temperance, obedience, and faithfulness. He reminded slaves that God was “no respecter of persons,” and his chosen people were “all ye that Labour and are havy Laden.” In fact, God himself was engaged in delivering African Americans “from the bond of Slavery, in [this] world and that which is to Come.” To Bustill, Christianity, especially the Quaker tradition of antislavery, was the religion of black liberation. One of the founding members of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, he died in 1806.26

While Hammon’s and Bustill’s views were in keeping with the moral strictures of Quaker abolitionism, others staked out bolder ground. Slaves in New York, as elsewhere, ran away in record numbers in the 1780s and 1790s, hastening the collapse of the institution. Even in writing, some black abolitionists went further. In an essay published in the American Museum in 1788, Othello criticized Americans’ “frigid silence” and “torpid indifference” to black slavery. He warned that America will be considered an “abandoned and deceitful country” in the eyes of the world because after having won its own freedom it “basely commences oppression in her turn.” The “luster” of the Constitutional Convention was forever diminished by its failure to end the slave trade, “this cruel species of reprobated villainy.” He urged New York to follow the abolitionist example of Pennsylvania rather than the conduct of South Carolina, which “can never be too strongly execrated.” Instead of abolition, South Carolinians had enacted a law prohibiting slaves from acquiring literacy in an “attempt to enslave” even “their minds.”27

The next year the American Museum published an exposition on racism written by A Free Negro. The letter was apparently first published in Britain. The author argued that the first order of the day was to remove racial prejudices, “which are so unjustly entertained against us.” He wrote that physical characteristics “of very little moment in themselves” had become “a source of the greatest misery” for Africans. Trying to highlight the absurdity of racism, he set out “to prove that we are men—a truth which is difficult to proof only because it is difficult to imagine by what argument it can be combated.” Paraphrasing Shylock’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice, he asked if a “Negro” had eyes, “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions.” Are they not fed with the same food, subject to the same diseases, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die?” Racism, he pointed out, was the lie that “our inhuman masters” have “so industriously and too successfully propagated in order to palliate their own guilt by blackening the helpless victims of it and to disguise their own cruelty under the semblance of justice.” Ideas about race were not the result of objective scholarship but the invention of self-interested parties: “We are examined, not by philosophers, but by interested traders; not as nature formed us, but as man depraved us.” A Free Negro also illustrated how racism vitiated revolutionary republicanism. The rights of man cease to operate when it comes to black people, and “patriotism in the heart of the African” becomes treason.28

White pamphleteers from the NYMS joined blacks in calling for emancipation. In 1796 the NYMS revised its constitution and reinvigorated its campaign for emancipation. It printed annual discourses delivered to its meetings representing the voice of organized antislavery in the state. In an oration of 1797 Samuel Miller, a Presbyterian minister, invoked the nation’s founding principles and called slavery a crime against humanity, justice, and religion. Trying to answer racist objections to emancipation, Miller vouched for the scholarly abilities of black children in the Free African schools founded by the society. He responded to the argument that abolition resulted in the infringement of slaveholders’ property rights: “The right which every man has to his personal liberty is paramount to all the laws of property. The right which everyone has to himself infinitely transcends all other human tenures.” Scripture revealed that “God has made of one blood all nations of men that dwell on the face of the earth.” Miller even quoted Jefferson, who, he noted, cannot be “suspected of undue partiality for the depressed Africans,” that God’s justice cannot sleep for long, and in a conflict between slaves and their enslavers God has no “attribute that can take side with us in such a conflict.” He recommended gradual emancipation but hailed the example of Massachusetts, where slaves “were all emancipated in a single day.”29

The following year E. H. Smith, the secretary of the NYMS and a physician who died of yellow fever, delivered an impassioned address for emancipation. Identifying slavery with the “reign of oppression” in human history, he said that “negro slavery . . . was wrought into a system of enterprising cruelty, and maintained by all the force of watchful and suspicious tyranny.” Smith argued that emancipation must be accomplished gradually only “if its [slavery’s] sudden removal be dangerous.” Calling slaveholders who contended that they had simply inherited the institution “miserable sophisters,” he warned them about the kind of compensation they could expect: “Would the tyrants demand triple recompense for their injustice? Recompence they shall have, and thrice threefold,—but let them tremble in expectation!” He did not shy away from referring to the Haitian Revolution to goad slaveholders. Looking beyond New York, he adverted to “the Legislators of America, you are the real upholders of slavery! You, yes you, Legislators of this Commonwealth, you foster and protect it here! Is it not recognized by your laws? And in the very face of your Constitution?”30

If not the legislators of America, those of New York at least did finally succumb to abolitionist pressure. In a public letter to Gov. John Jay in 1796 urging emancipation, the black abolitionist William Hamilton, alleged to be Alexander Hamilton’s illegitimate son, wrote, “How falsely & contradictory do the Americans speak when this land a land of Liberty & equality a christian country when almost every part of it abounds with slavery and oppression.” Africans had never harmed or injured Americans and had an “indisputable right” to freedom, as they were enslaved against their will. As elsewhere in the North, freedom came to black New Yorkers in halting steps. While slaveholding interests held fast against abolition, the New York city delegation and new northern and western counties of the state comprised an antislavery majority in the legislature. In 1799, with Federalists like NYMS’s Governor Jay and Republicans like Burr uniting behind emancipation, New York finally passed a gradual emancipation law freeing children of slaves born after July 4, 1799, once they had served their masters until the age of twenty-eight for men and twenty-five for women. The NYMS now lobbied for complete abolition, and in 1817 New York passed a law freeing all slaves in the state on July 4, 1827. Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins, a member of the NYMS, recommended passage of the law. Slaves born between 1817 and 1827 would have to serve their masters until the age of twenty-one, and those born earlier were still subject to the provisions of the act of 1799. But the law also contained protections for bound children, and the NYMS continued to assist them, hastening the process of emancipation.

The Connecticut abolition society, founded in 1790, had lobbied for a similar general emancipation law and nearly succeeded in 1794. Three years later the state legislature reduced the length of servitude of slave children and repealed the state’s colonial slave code. Connecticut did not pass a complete abolition law until 1848, and Rhode Island’s state constitution of 1843 freed all remaining slaves. When slaveholding refugees from Haiti petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to keep their slaves, the PAS and Quakers lobbied for a new law providing for total abolition. Revealing the depth of African Americans’ commitment to emancipation, two groups of free blacks even volunteered to be subject to a special tax in order to purchase the freedom of those still held as slaves. Abolitionists in Pennsylvania failed to procure a general emancipation law or judicial decision despite making several tries. They did, however, succeed in preventing their state from passing laws restricting black migration and freedom. New York was the only northern state to pass a law freeing those not covered by gradual emancipation before the antebellum era, a testimony to the antislavery commitment of some state leaders and to the abolitionist activism of blacks and their allies in the NYMS.31

New Jersey, the last northern state to abolish slavery, underwent a more protracted process of emancipation, and a few slaves resided in the state until the Civil War. Slave labor in New Jersey, as in New York, was widespread in its small-farming eastern counties, leading at least one historian to call it a slave society despite the lack of a plantation system. During the revolution most of the state’s African Americans had allied themselves with the British, earning the ire of New Jersey’s patriots. The legislature freed those who had fought with the patriots, and after the revolution individual manumissions increased. The revolutionary governor of the state, William Livingston, a man of antislavery convictions, proposed abolition as early as 1778. Two years later the Quaker abolitionist John Cooper made a strong argument for immediate abolition and rejected gradualism: “If we keep our present slaves in bondage, and only enact laws that their posterity might be free . . . we save that part of our tyranny . . . which to us . . . is of the most value.”

In 1785 David Cooper and other Quakers such as Samuel Allinson petitioned the legislature for emancipation. As in New York, a gradual abolition bill failed despite the support of Livingston. The legislature instead passed a law in 1786 that facilitated manumissions, required masters to educate their slaves, increased penalties for slave abuse, and banned the slave trade. Restrictions on black freedom of movement and rights tacked on to the law gave it a proslavery cast. In 1788 Livingston managed to get the legislature to pass a stronger law against the slave trade to the state and the kidnapping of free blacks. Slaves also could not be sold out of the state without their consent, a stipulation violated by unscrupulous masters. African Americans, for their part, sued Loyalist masters for freedom, and many ran away to the anonymity of New York City.32

Organized antislavery in New Jersey was a late bloomer, though the pioneering Quaker abolitionist John Woolman hailed from the state, and its revolutionary governor William Livingston was antislavery. In 1793 the New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery was founded at the prompting of the PAS by Joseph Bloomfield, a patriot and future abolitionist governor of the state, and Elias Boudinot, New Jersey’s representative to Congress and a future Supreme Court justice, a prime example of the Quaker strategy of involving prominent non-Quakers in the abolitionist enterprise. It was a mostly Quaker organization in west New Jersey. Overall, the Quaker-dominated western counties near Pennsylvania were more favorable to abolition than the slavery-dominated east New Jersey. Abolitionists’ repeated efforts to get the state to pass a gradual emancipation law in the 1790s failed, though their attempts at increasing manumissions helped many slaves negotiate with their masters for freedom. Allinson’s son, William, toured the state trying to convince individual slaveholders to manumit their slaves, and abolitionist lawyers helped to prosecute freedom suits and antikidnapping cases. Nevertheless, the slave population in New Jersey grew, and in 1798 a revised slave code recognized the enslavement of blacks and Indians. Although the state’s revolutionary constitution of 1776 contained no bar against black voting, which was explicitly prohibited in 1807, a host of laws against free blacks restricted their rights.

In 1804, under Bloomfield’s leadership, New Jersey finally enacted a gradual emancipation law supported by Federalists and Republicans that freed all slave children born after July 4 once they had served their masters until the age of twenty-five for males and twenty-one for females. The large vote for abolition despite strong proslavery opposition arose from the support of Jeffersonian Republicans and an abandonment clause, modeled after a similar provision in the New York emancipation law. This clause provided backhanded compensation for slaveholders who claimed state funds after abandoning and then reemploying their slaves as servants. Such duplicity was a drain on the state treasury until it was done away with in 1811. In 1846 New Jersey finally declared all remaining slaves apprentices for life and freed the children of apprentices born after 1846 instantly. In the last federal census before the Civil War, the state was still home to eighteen “lifetime” apprentices. Despite the passage of laws in 1788 and 1812 that required the consent of the enslaved and term slaves for sale or transport outside the state, instances of an illegal trade to the South compromised abolition. A law in 1818 strengthened the earlier laws prohibiting out-of-state sales but, unlike those of other northern states, New Jersey’s abolition law did not apply to slaves visiting from the South. The quick demise of the state’s abolition society further aggravated the plight of New Jersey slaves, who now had few allies except for the far-off PAS and NYMS to plead their cause in unsympathetic state courts.33 Emancipation in New Jersey proved to be painfully gradual.

In the North it was the enslaved—most of whom were required by law to serve their masters until they were adults—rather than slaveholders or the state that bore the burden of emancipation. Gradual emancipation, like many revolutionary-era manumissions, was self-purchase by enslaved African Americans writ large. In return, they received an uneven education and some apprenticeship training on abolitionist insistence, rather than freedom dues, or compensation for generations of unpaid labor.


If the process of emancipation ground out slowly in the lower north, it came to a complete halt in the South. Slave resistance, revolutionary ideology, and the decline of the tobacco economy spurred individual manumission rather than emancipation in the upper south states. Virginia, the new nation’s oldest and largest slave society, led the way with a law in 1782 that allowed individual masters to free their slaves, overturning its legal restriction on manumissions. Black initiative played a role, as a freedom petition from a slave named George to the state assembly preceded the law. Antislavery pressure from southern Quakers like Robert Pleasants, who founded the state’s abolition society, Warner Mifflin, and John Parrish also expedited the passage of the manumission law. In 1780 Virginia’s Yearly Meeting had petitioned the legislature for the repeal of a law from 1723 against manumissions. Two years later they renewed their petition. Even earlier, Virginian Quakers had made slaveholding a disownable offense and, after passage of the manumission law, most freed their slaves. Mifflin attributed his antislavery beliefs not just to his Quakerism but also to a young male slave who had asked him whether it was right for slaves to work in order to send him to school; the young man reminded Mifflin that his children would also be forced to do the same for Mifflin’s children.

While slaveholders used manumission as a way to reward slave loyalty and service, African Americans seized the opportunity to buy themselves and their relatives out of slavery. Many also brought freedom suits against their masters, but, although slaveholders could serve on the juries for such suits, members of antislavery societies were discouraged both from representing blacks in 1795 by being fined in unsuccessful suits and, three years later, from sitting on juries of freedom suits. In the 1790s the state assembly passed a number of laws that narrowed the grounds for freedom suits, and abolition societies in Winchester and Alexandria were forced to curtail their activities. In most cases, only white or Indian ancestry resulted in the freedom of the enslaved plaintiffs. In 1793 the legislature also barred the entry of free blacks into the state. Between 1782 and 1806, when Virginia passed an antimanumission law requiring all freed slaves to leave the state, around ten thousand slaves acquired their freedom through manumissions. Purchase of self and family members by African Americans and negotiated agreements with masters rather than slaveholder benevolence caused a surge in manumissions. It did not lead to emancipation and was quickly halted when it threatened the stability of slavery in the state.34

Proslavery sentiment and fear of a large free black population doomed emancipation in the upper south. Nearly half of Virginia’s white population owned slaves at this time, and the weak antislavery of the state’s leading men was no match for its strong slavery interests. Pleasants, who founded the Virginia Abolition Society in 1790, and Warner’s father, Daniel Mifflin, Virginian Quakers who had freed their slaves, failed to persuade Henry, Madison, or Washington to endorse the abolition movement. The revolutionary hero the Marquis de Lafayette, who freed and settled his slaves on land given to him by a grateful American government, also failed to convert Washington and Jefferson to the cause of emancipation. As president, Washington sought to recover his runaway slave Ona Judge from New Hampshire. Remarkably, local officials rebuffed him. Instead, religious radicals carried the torch of abolition in revolutionary Virginia. Evangelical preachers such as the Baptists John Leland and David Barrow, who freed his slaves, the Presbyterian David Rice, and the Methodists Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, James O’Kelly, and the itinerant Freeborn Garrettson of Maryland preached against slavery, thereby courting personal persecution. In 1785 Asbury and Coke unsuccessfully tried to solicit Washington’s signature for an antislavery petition to the Virginia assembly asking for “the immediate or Gradual Exterpation of Slavery.” The Methodist petition argued that “Negroes in this State have been robbed of” their right to liberty and that the proslavery “Argument drawn from the difference of Hair, Features, and Colour, are so beneath a Man of Sense, much more the Christian.” Several proslavery petitions countered this petition, which was voted down handily. When Virginian Quakers formed an abolition society, none of the state’s leading men joined it. Methodists and Baptists mostly failed to implement antislavery rules for their denominations. Asbury soon called only for Christianization and better treatment of slaves.35

No one reflected the situation in Virginia better than Jefferson, whose antislavery was severely compromised by his racism. Jefferson had written a gradual emancipation and colonization amendment to the laws of Virginia that would have freed and deported children of slaves after they had served their master to a certain age. He never submitted the plan to the General Assembly for consideration. This proposal was coupled with antiblack provisions that would have outlawed or forced all freed slaves and white women who bore children of black or mulatto men to leave Virginia and prohibited free blacks from entering the state.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in Paris in 1785, Jefferson touted his emancipation cum deportation proposal. He argued that blacks could not be incorporated into the state because white prejudices and black recollections of “injuries they have sustained” would permanently divide them. Slavery transformed whites into despots and blacks into enemies who lacked “amor patriae.” Blacks could never become citizens of the Republic because they would not love their country after suffering enslavement, and a slave may legitimately take “a little from one, who has taken all from him, as he may slay one who may slay him.” In answer to Query XVIII in the Notes and with an eye on French antislavery sentiment, Jefferson famously condemned slavery as unrepublican, “the perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” Jefferson trembled for his country when he remembered that “God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever” and that God had no “attribute that can take side with us in such a contest.” Writing before the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution, he concluded that the revolution already portended “total emancipation” and hoped it would come “with the consent of the masters” rather than their “extirpation.” Jefferson did not doubt the capacity of black slaves to rebel, though he belittled it as foolhardy bravery devoid of forethought.

Racism vitiated Jefferson’s rhetoric on the injustice of slavery. His Notes was also a disquisition on race that questioned black equality and citizenship in the United States. According to him, natural and physical and moral distinctions, which he enumerated in a racist catalog about color, smell, beauty, sexuality, and even capacities for sleep, imagination, reason, and art, made black removal necessary. He flirted with the most crude speculations of the racial pseudoscience of his day, including the fantastic idea touted by the Jamaican planter and historian Edward Long that orangutans copulated with Africans. Jefferson claimed that male orangutans revealed a uniform preference for African women, just as African men supposedly coveted white women. His racism allowed him to blame the victims of enslavement rather than the enslavers for the degraded conditions of slaves. Jefferson differentiated between white slaves from antiquity and black slaves and offered the opinion, albeit with “great diffidence,” that blacks “are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination.” Jefferson’s suspicion that black people were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he admitted, acted as a “powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” If blacks were to be freed, they must “be removed beyond the reach of mixture.” He entered into a long-term relationship with one of his female slaves, Sally Hemings, the half sister of his deceased wife, and probably fathered all six of her children, contributing to the “mixture” he deplored in theory.36

The most deliberate refutations of Jefferson’s views on race came from his admirers. The cosmopolitan Gilbert Imlay, born in New Jersey and a veteran of the Continental Army with Jacobin sympathies, was Mary Wollstonecraft’s lover and the father of her child. He published A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America in London in 1792. It was republished the next year in New York and in an enlarged edition in 1797. He was ashamed, Imlay wrote, to learn that the most “enlightened and benevolent” of his countrymen entertained “disgraceful prejudices” against the “unfortunate Negro.” He attributed each one of Jefferson’s arguments on race to prejudice and recommended gradual emancipation, which would allow African Americans to accumulate property and acquire an education and white racism to abate. While complimenting Jefferson on his antislavery views, Imlay expressed disbelief and disgust at his speculations on black women and orangutans. In supporting intermarriage and voicing his admiration of black bodies and intellect Imlay directly contradicted Jefferson. Why would Jefferson propose banishing people of color when they could be made useful citizens, he wondered. Imlay quoted Wheatley’s poem “On Imagination” and vigorously defended her and the Afro-British writer Ignatius Sancho from Jefferson’s criticisms. He hoped that philanthropy would destroy domestic tyranny and that odium would stick not to black people but to “leachers of human blood, as flagrant as they are contemptible.” Like Imlay, William Short, who freed his slaves and, as the American chargé d’affaires in Paris, joined the Société Amis des Noirs, disputed his mentor’s racism and advocated intermarriage and black citizenship. Short’s express hope that Jefferson would lead a movement for abolition was met with silence.

Racism suited proslavery aims and crippled antislavery efforts. It compelled others to engage Jefferson on the slippery terrain of race theory. The Presbyterian clergyman Samuel Stanhope Smith, the president of the College of New Jersey, later Prince ton University, used arguments drawn from climate, civilization, class, and condition to explain racial differences. But he defended monogenesis, criticizing Lord Kames, a polygenist who believed that the races constituted distinct species, and Jefferson’s speculations on innate racial differences. Jefferson influenced the antislavery geographer Jedidiah Morse, who quoted him to deplore racial intermixture and proposed plans for emancipation and colonization. In 1797 even Rush contended that the color, features, and smell of Africans were due to a curable leprosy. Once blacks ceased being black, there would be no rationale to oppress them.37

Acute contradictions marred Jefferson’s ideas, and his political career followed a downward trajectory from passively antislavery to explicitly proslavery. His best antislavery actions came when he was a young man and lacked the political power to implement them. Jefferson proposed a resolution to allow manumissions as early as 1769 and unsuccessfully represented a mixed-race, nearly white indentured servant in his quest for freedom. During the revolution Jefferson withheld his plan for emancipation and deportation from the Virginia House of Delegates, noting that the “public mind” was not ready for the proposition. When a state convention met to write Virginia’s constitution in 1783, he again proposed gradual emancipation and colonization, which, unlike the manumission law of 1782, required freed blacks to leave the state. In 1784 Jefferson proposed the original federal ordinance to prevent the spread of slavery into western territories that met with virtually unanimous southern opposition. Jefferson’s ban would have allowed for the continuation of slavery in the west until 1800, but it would also have included territories in the old southwest, which would have profoundly altered the course of American history if enforced. The history of the United States reveals, however, that all territories open to slavery became slave states. Three years later Federalists such as Rufus King, Timothy Pickering, and Nathan Dane wrote an immediate ban on slavery in territories north of the Ohio River in the Northwest Ordinance. The law exempted the southwest from the slavery prohibition and contained a fugitive slave clause.

Jefferson supported plans to convert slaves to tenants and wage laborers in plantations, notions that were popular among French abolitionists such as Condorcet and Lafayette, but he did nothing to implement them. He refused to act on the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kościuszko’s bequest, which would have compensated him for freeing, educating, and settling his own slaves. Despite attempts to use the money to found a black school under the auspices of the American Colonization Society nothing came of Kościuszko’s plan. Well into the nineteenth century black abolitionists like Samuel Cornish, William Cooper Nell, and Frederick Douglass demanded that Kościuszko’s dying wishes be fulfilled. Jefferson’s proslavery actions came when he had attained fame and the office of president. They shaped the course of the new Republic. With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, he was responsible for the greatest territorial expansion of slavery in the nation’s history. His “empire of liberty” became one of slavery. However, Jefferson did take the initiative in December 1806, calling for the constitutionally permissible ban on the Atlantic slave trade in his message to Congress. Like most slaveholders from the upper south suspected of fostering the domestic slave trade, he opposed the foreign slave trade. As a slave owner, Jefferson was an active participant in the interstate slave trade. A recent exposé of Jefferson as a slaveholder portrays him as a calculating master who put profits and his personal comforts before the liberty of his slaves and national wealth before national ideals as well as engaged in the casual cruelty of slaveholding on a daily basis. Jefferson owned around six hundred slaves through the course of his life, many of whom he sold. He never freed his slaves except for Hemings’s children and two other favored slaves. During the political crisis over the admission of Missouri as a slave state, Jefferson endorsed slavery expansion in the guise of the ostensibly antislavery diffusion theory. Diffusing the slave population into the west, he argued implausibly, given the expansion and growing strength of southern slavery, would lead to the demise of slavery and the disappearance of Africans.38

All gradual emancipation plans in Virginia like Jefferson’s remained just plans, coupled with proposals for deportation. In 1789 Madison, considering the consequences of emancipation, proposed that freed slaves be colonized in the “wilderness of America” or the “Coast of Africa,” offering that the latter might be most suitable. The next year Ferdinando Fairfax, a substantial planter and Washington’s protégé and neighbor, also proposed emancipation and colonization in Africa. In 1796 the Virginian jurist St. George Tucker’s scheme, though it rejected colonization, included provisions to deport freed slaves out of the state and denied all political and civil rights to free blacks. In a list of queries he sent to Jeremy Belknap, the pastor of a Boston church and a known advocate of emancipation, Tucker wanted to know how Massachusetts had abolished slavery and what was the condition of free blacks, their rights, conduct, and rates of intermarriage with whites. Belknap circulated his queries and compiled a response to them. Tucker was interested in getting rid of both slavery and black people in Virginia.

After a lengthy discussion of the history and laws of slavery in Virginia, Tucker concluded in his Dissertation on Slavery that the institution could not be defended. But quoting Jefferson on race, he also maintained that free blacks could not be incorporated into Virginia society even though Belknap had assured him that “it is neither birth nor colour, but education and habit, which form the human character.” Tucker’s plan stipulated the freeing only of female slaves at the age of twenty-eight and their progeny, with the children serving the master until they were twenty-eight. The freed people would live in a state of semiservitude with severely curtailed rights, a stipulation aimed at forcing them to emigrate out of the state. Tucker’s plan was so gradual that had it been put into effect, slavery in Virginia would have lasted for another hundred years, longer than the abolition of slavery during the Civil War. While abolitionists like Pleasants objected to both its gradualism and its assault on black rights, the Virginia House of Delegates rejected it outright. In freedom suits that came before him, Judge Tucker came down firmly on the side of slaveholders’ property interests. He did not free his own slaves and sold many in the domestic slave trade. It is overly generous to call Tucker an emancipationist. By the time of his death, he, like Jefferson, had cast his lot with the Virginian slaveholding planter class, whose veneer of paternalism barely hid the crass commercialism of American slavery.

A few years later, in 1801, in the aftermath of Gabriel’s rebellion, St. George’s namesake and cousin George Tucker published a pamphlet against slavery, calling it an “eating sore” and “growing evil” that would lead to greater unrest. This Tucker called for emancipating the slaves and removing them to the west. After the Virginia slave conspiracies of 1800 and 1802, the legislature and Gov. James Monroe proposed colonizing free blacks and freed slaves, not just the indicted slave rebels, outside the country. But the failure to find a suitable place, despite repeated requests to President Jefferson, caused this incipient plan for gradual emancipation and colonization to be dead on arrival. Given a chance to implement his favored scheme, Jefferson remained passive.39

Unlike Virginia, Maryland and Delaware proceeded unchecked with manumissions through the nineteenth century, but they too failed to pass emancipation laws. Quaker- and Methodist-dominated antislavery societies in these states, as in Virginia, fought unsuccessfully for emancipation. In 1787 Delaware passed a promanumission law that allowed masters to free slaves without posting a bond for them. The state’s active Quaker abolitionists, such as David Ferris and the Virginia transplant Warner Mifflin, did much to promote manumission. Mifflin was often a party to freedom suits brought by Delaware slaves. Maryland, with its much larger black population, passed a manumission law in 1790 and another in 1796 that recognized so-called delayed manumissions. Many of Maryland’s manumitters were not slaveholders but free black people who had saved enough money to buy relatives out of slavery. In both Maryland and Delaware masters and slaves entered into delayed manumission agreements that created a population of term slaves resembling those in the North who had to reach majority before attaining their freedom. But in slave states like Maryland, terms of servitude could be extended as punishment, the children of female term slaves were born into slavery, and, except in Delaware, those who proved recalcitrant could always be sold south. In Delaware, John Dickinson, known for his antislavery beliefs, supported an end to the African trade as well as to the interstate slave trade. Slaves had recourse as well to freedom suits or running away to Pennsylvania, but most bore the price of delayed manumissions.

Again unlike Virginia, Maryland and Delaware had established abolition societies earlier, and they lasted longer. In 1789 Luther Martin helped found the Maryland Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage (MAS), but it was promptly censured by the state legislature. In the same year the eminent lawyer William Pinckney, who had represented slaves in freedom suits, made an eloquent plea for repealing the state law that prohibited emancipation. In an address before the MAS dedicated to Jefferson, George Buchanan argued that variations in human type and color were “flimsy pretexts” to enslave others. After dwelling on the horrors of the slave trade, he cited the examples of Sancho and Wheatley to illustrate the injustice of racial slavery. Three years later another abolition society was founded in Chestertown. In the 1790s the state abolition society had over two hundred members. Even though repeated attempts to pass an emancipation law failed, abolitionists assisted the enslaved in presenting freedom petitions. In Maryland free black people came to constitute nearly half of the black population, and in Delaware just over 90 percent of the black population was free on the eve of the Civil War, but slavery remained legal in both states. Individual manumissions came closest to a general emancipation in Delaware, where Quakers established two abolition societies in 1788, one in Dover and the other in Wilmington. Richard Bassett, a devout Methodist who cofounded the Dover society with Mifflin, got the state to pass a law prohibiting the sale of slaves to the lower south a year earlier. By 1810 New York and New Jersey had more slaves in their population than Delaware. The state’s abolitionists worked hard to prevent kidnappings and illegal sale of slaves out of the state. In Maryland and Virginia the prolific interstate slave trade to the expanding Cotton Kingdom gave a new lease on life to slavery despite the decline in tobacco cultivation. As they did elsewhere, African Americans bargained for their freedom and ran away. Delaware’s large free black population was known to assist fugitive slaves and abolition. In 1825 Abraham Dorcas left one hundred dollars to the Wilmington abolition society.40

In the face of evangelical Christianity’s retreat on the slavery question in the South, antislavery there lost ground rapidly. The institution was legal in the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee, which were composed of lands ceded by Virginia and North Carolina. Virginian evangelicals such as the Baptist David Barrow, the Methodist William McKendree, and the Presbyterian David Rice carried their antislavery preaching to Kentucky. In his address of 1792 to the Kentucky constitutional convention, Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy, Rice called slaveholders “licensed robbers” who did not have any property rights in their slaves. Slavery, he asserted, was a “national vice of Virginia,” and Kentucky, as a separate state, now had the choice either to adopt it as our “national crime” or to bear “testimony against it.” He admiringly referred to the slave rebels of Saint-Domingue as “fired with a generous resentment of the greatest injuries, and bravely sacrificing their lives on the altar of liberty.” Despite Rice’s appeal, in the end Kentucky’s constitution contained an article that prevented the legislature from passing a gradual emancipation law without the consent of slaveholders and compensation to them. In 1799, when antislavery advocates joined the constitutional reform movement, the young Henry Clay came out in favor of eliminating the constitutional clause on slavery and of instituting gradual emancipation. “All America acknowledges the existence of slavery as an evil,” he stated. But the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee made their commitment to slavery clear. In 1797 a Quaker migrant from Pennsylvania, Thomas Embree, managed to organize antislavery societies in two eastern Tennessee counties, which petitioned for manumission and gradual emancipation laws. The state’s slaveholders, however, still needed the approval of the state legislature and, in 1801, the county courts in order to manumit their slaves. State laws discouraged rather than encouraged manumission in the two new slave states.41

In the Carolinas and Georgia neither manumission nor emancipation was ever on the agenda. Bucking the revolutionary trend, these states increased rather than liberalized restrictions on manumission. In 1784 the North Carolina legislature freed a slave named Ned Griffin, who had petitioned for his freedom because his master, in whose place he had served during the Revolutionary War, had reneged on his promise to free him. That year North Carolina ceded its western territories but repealed the act when the “state of Franklin” seceded from the state. Throughout this dispute the continued enslavement of Africans was never an issue, as western leaders were just as eager to acquire land and slaves as those in the East. In 1790 North Carolina asked the federal government explicitly not to prohibit slavery in lands ceded to it, lands which became the state of Tennessee. The state legislature also protected slavery at home, denouncing its Quaker citizens’ practice of manumitting slaves as “evil and pernicious.” Instead of passing a manumission law, the legislature authorized county sheriffs to seize and sell any freed slave manumitted in violation of state law. The state required all free blacks entering the state to post bond with the local sheriff.42

The lower south came down even harder on challenges to racial slavery. South Carolina and Georgia were the only states that did not have an antislavery society in the revolutionary era, and representatives from both became vocal proslavery proponents in the national political arena. In the Constitutional Convention the two states threatened disunion at the hint of opposition to slavery, delayed the ban on the African slave trade, and in the early Republic they emerged as staunch proslavery opponents of Quaker, African American, and abolition societies’ petitions to restrict the slave trade and end slavery. In 1800 South Carolina passed an antimanumission law requiring masters to seek permission from a magistrate and a jury before freeing slaves. Three years later the Palmetto state proclaimed its unequivocal commitment to racial slavery by reopening the African slave trade until its federal prohibition in 1808, drawing abolitionist condemnations from across the Atlantic world. South Carolina imported well over fifty thousand Africans during this period.

Antislavery made a belated and brief appearance in South Carolina in 1810, when Lewis Dupré published a pamphlet in Charleston. Contradictory antislavery and racialist assumptions suffused the work. In his warning to southerners, the author compared “intellectually . . . degraded and brutified” slaveholders with “industrious starving slaves” and “degraded Africa” with “rapacious sons of refined Europe.” And while divine retribution awaited slaveholders, in South Carolina, Dupré affirmed, African color and features had been “improved” at the cost of European Christians. In a subsequent pamphlet Dupré proposed a “rational and benevolent plan” for emancipation under the auspices of a “Virginia and Carolina Emancipation Society” open in membership to blacks and whites. The society would buy slaves, who could then compensate it by hiring themselves out. But slaves were required to be vegetarians, and those who proved to be “unworthy of freedom” could be “exchanged.” Dupré’s was a lone, eccentric antislavery voice, and his plans for a southern abolition society came to naught.43

Besides the failure of abolition in the South, the new federal government enacted laws that seemed to write black people out of the Republic. In 1790 and 1792 Congress passed naturalization and militia laws that explicitly excluded people of African descent. In 1793 it passed a stringent Fugitive Slave Law implementing the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution. The law was passed to address a dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania stemming from the kidnapping and enslavement of a free black man, John Davis, by three Virginian bounty hunters. Davis’s Virginian master had not complied with Pennsylvania’s registration law, and the PAS had tracked Davis back to Virginia and freed him until his master had him brought back forcibly. The fact that the first federal Fugitive Slave Law was passed in response to a case that fudged the line between kidnapping and fugitive slave rendition made the freedom of all African Americans tenuous. Davis died in slavery. For the federal government, slaveholding claims trumped black freedom, until some northern states rose in revolt. Free blacks were prohibited even from carrying the U.S. mail. Not only would southern slavery persist and expand after the cotton revolution of the 1790s, but the slaveholding Republic rejected the idea of black freedom and citizenship in large and petty ways alike.44

Abolitionists drew attention to the manner in which the persistence of southern slavery cast a pall over freedom in the country. In an early antislavery article, Hopkins called slavery a “national sin” of the “first magnitude.” He argued that in denying Africans liberty the American Republic was guilty of “wicked contradiction and inconsistence.” He wrote, “Instead of rising to honor, dignity and respect among the nations, we have suddenly sunk into disgrace and contempt.” While Americans were horrified when Barbary pirates carried a few seamen into Algerian captivity, most ignored the thousands of Africans enslaved at home. Mifflin complained that many free blacks had been kidnapped from Maryland and his adopted state of Delaware into slavery. A new domestic slave trade that linked states in the upper south to lower south states like Georgia tore “Familes . . . asunder” and violated the “Marriage Tie.” Though “salutary Laws have been enacted in some States . . . yet still the evil [slavery] is continued in other parts of America in a most glaring degree.” Similarly, the Irish Methodist preacher James O’Kelly, in his Essay on Negro Slavery (1789), wrote, “Arbitrary power over the unalienable rights of thousands prevails” in the new Republic. According to Buchanan, the history of slavery “to the eternal infamy of our country . . . will be handed down to posterity, written with the blood of African innocence.” Americans had become “apostates to their principles, and riveted the fetters of slavery upon unfortunate Africans.” The Republic could rise to “eminence among mankind” and a “new theatre of glory” by abolishing slavery or be “stigmatized with the infamous reproach of oppression, and her citizens be called Tyrants.”45

First-wave abolitionists did not acquiesce to the limits of emancipation in the new Republic but renewed their organizational efforts. Besides the failure of general emancipation and an immediate ban on the African slave trade, the implementation of gradual emancipation in the North and the fight for black rights consumed the energies of early abolition societies. Northern emancipation and upper south manumissions had been achieved not through the unfolding of some inexorable revolutionary logic but through ongoing contestations between slaveholders’ power and legal prerogatives and enslaved black people and their abolitionist allies. They were about the meaning and parameters of black freedom and American democracy.

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