SLAVERY in PENNSYLVANIA
In the early 1600s, the Delaware Valley was an outlying region of the New Netherland colony on the Hudson, governed by the Dutch West India Company and populated by Dutch and Swedes more interested in fur trapping than farming. It faced the same labor shortage that plagued New Netherland, and it found the same solution. African slaves were working there as early as 1639. In 1664, the Delaware settlers contracted the West India Company "to transport hither a lot of Negroes for agricultural purposes."
The demand for slaves continued when the English assumed rule in 1664. The town magistrates of New Castle (in modern Delaware), then the major settlement of the region, petitioned "that liberty of trade may be granted us with the neighboring colony of Maryland for the supplying us with Negroes ... without which we cannot subsist."
William Penn was granted his colony in Pennsylvania in 1681, and added Delaware to it in 1682. Though he flooded the "Holy Experiment" with Quakers whose descendants would later find their faith incompatible with slaveholding, the original Quakers had no qualms about it. Penn himself owned slaves, and used them to work his estate, Pennsbury. He wrote that he preferred them to white indentured servants, "for then a man has them while they live."
In Penn's new city of Philadelphia, African slaves were at work by 1684, and in rural Chester County by 1687. Between 1729 and 1758, Chester County had 104 slaves on 58 farms, with 70 percent of the slaveowners likely Quakers. By 1693, Africans were so numerous in the colony's capital that the Philadelphia Council complained of "the tumultuous gatherings of the Negroes in the town of Philadelphia."
Except for the cargo of 150 slaves aboard the "Bristol" (1684), most black importation was a matter of small lots brought up from Barbados and Jamaica by local merchants who traded with the sugar islands. Prominent Philadelphia Quaker families like the Carpenters, Dickinsons, Norrises, and Claypooles brought slaves to the colony in this way. By 1700, one in 10 Philadelphians owned slaves. Slaves were used in the manufacturing sector, notably the iron works, and in shipbuilding.
But by 1720, a wheat-based economy had sprung up, and the good reputation of Pennsylvania in Europe was luring Scots-Irish and German immigrants, who were willing to hire on as indentured servants in exchange for passage across the Atlantic. It's estimated that half the immigrants to colonial America arrived this way, and in Pennsylvania about 58,000 Germans and 16,500 Scots-Irish sailed up the Delaware between 1727 and 1754. The Quaker farmers turned to these for work on their farms. On a relatively small farm growing grain, it was cheaper to do it this way than to own slaves.
Indentured servitude was a long-term extension of the old English one-year hire for agricultural labor. Terms ranged from 1 to 17 years (children served the longest indentures), with a typical one being 4 or 5 years. The difference between indentured servants and slaves, on a day-to-day basis, was hard to define. During that time, the worker's labor, if not the worker himself, was a commodity that could be sold or traded or inherited, on the discretion of his owner. The discipline records of the Quaker meetings cover cases of members called to account for cruelty to indentured servants, and these tales tell of servants whipped, beaten and locked up for laziness.
Wars in the 1750s disrupted immigration patterns and cut down on the indentured servant pool. From 1749 to 1754, some 115 ships carrying almost 35,000 German immigrants reached Philadelphia. But in 1755-56 only three ships docked, and only one more arrived before 1763. The French and Indian War also drew indentured male farm workers into the military. The Quakers again began to buy slaves. The importation of slaves into Philadelphia peaked 1759-1765. Pennsylvania's slave population had risen gradually, from about 5,000 in 1721 to an estimated 11,000 in 1754. By 1766, it was believed to number 30,000. But the end of the French and Indian War opened up a fresh flood of European immigration. Slave importation fell off sharply.
Not only was colonial Pennsylvania a slave-owning society, but the lives of free blacks in the colony were controlled by law. The restrictions on slaves were mild, by Northern standards, but those on freemen were comparatively strict. The restrictions had begun almost with the colony itself. After 1700, when Pennsylvania was not yet 20 years old, blacks, free or slave, were tried in special courts, without the benefit of a jury.
For a people who later protested against the fugitive slave laws, Pennsylvanians, when they had slaves themselves as property, used the full power of the law to protect them. "An Act for the better Regulation of Negroes" passed in the 1725-26 session, set especially high penalties for free blacks who harbored runaway slaves or received property stolen from masters. The penalties in such cases were potentially much higher than those applied to whites, and if the considerable fines that might accrue could not be paid, the justices had the power to order a free black person put into servitude.
Under other provisions of the 1725-26 act, free negroes who married whites were to be sold into slavery for life; for mere fornication or adultery involving blacks and whites, the penalty for the black person was to be sold as a servant for seven years. Whites in such cases faced different or lighter punishment. The law effectively blocked marriage between the races in Pennsylvania, but fornication continued, as the state's burgeoning mulatto population attested.
Other colonial Pennsylvania laws forbid blacks from gathering in "tippling-houses," carrying arms, or assembling in companies. These, however, were loosely or unevenly enforced. But throughout Pennsylvania colony, the children of free blacks, without exception, were bound out by the local justices of the peace until age 24 (if male) or 21 (if female). All in all, the "free" blacks of colonial Pennsylvania led severely circumscribed lives; they had no control even over their own family arrangements, and they could be put back into servitude for "laziness" or petty crimes, at the mercy of the local authorities.
Quakers felt uneasy about slavery; in part because they had doubts about the propriety of owning another person, but also because they feared it was a luxury that marked them as worldly, and in part because they feared Africans would be a bad influence on their families. Pennsylvania Mennonites had expressed concerns about slavery since the 17th century, but it was only in 1758 that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends made buying or selling a slave a bar to leadership in the Quaker meetings. In 1774 it became cause for disowning. Moral arguments were advanced against slave-owning. But the main motive for the Society's shift against slavery seems to have been an internal clash of values between the few wealthy Quakers who owned the slaves and the many poor ones who did not.
The surrender of slavery was a minor disruption to most Pennsylvania Quakers' lives. Slavery in Pennsylvania had died of the market economy long before Quaker morality shifted against it. Despite the spike in the 1760s, there was never enough critical mass of slaveholding in Pennsylvania to produce a slave-based agricultural economy. In 1730, about one in 11 Pennsylvanians had been slaves; by 1779 the figure was no more than one in 30. The lack of a support structure by this time prevented it from catching on, even during the peak of slave importation.
Abolition debates in the Pennsylvania Assembly began in 1778, using the language of the Declaration of Independence. It is also probably not a coincidence that the discussion began after the "Lower Counties" were finally separated from Pennsylvania as the independent state of Delaware (1776). This removed perhaps three-fourths of the slaves who would have been affected by any act of the Pennsylvania Assembly. "[M]oral arguments against slavery were buttressed by the practical consideration that slaves no longer played an important role in the economy. Quakers were not involved politically. As a conservative and pacifist element, they had been shoved from power in the colony by the revolution of 1776. But they certainly supported from the sidelines the efforts of the Presbyterian Scots-Irish who were in charge in Philadelphia.
The law for gradual emancipation in Pennsylvania passed on February 1780, and that's when the Mason-Dixon line began to acquire its metaphoric meaning as the boundary between North and South. But the law was no proclamation of emancipation. It was deeply conservative. The 6,000 or so Pennsylvania slaves in 1780 stayed slaves. Even those born a few days before the passage of the act had to wait 28 years before the law set them free. This allowed their masters to recoup the cost of raising them.
The abolition bill was made more restrictive during the debates over it -- it originally freed daughters of slave women at 18, sons at 21. By the time it passed, it was upped to a flat 28. That meant it was possible for a Pennsylvania slave's daughter born in February 1780 to live her life in bondage, and if she had a child at 40, the child would remain a slave until 1848. There's no record of this happening, but the "emancipation" law allowed it. It was, as the title of one article has it, "philanthropy at bargain prices."
Despite the lack of economic interest in slavery, and the absence of a political party to defend it, the Pennsylvania abolition law met serious opposition. The bill also made blacks equal under the state's laws, removed the prohibition on interracial marriage, and allowed free blacks to testify against whites in state courts. The implications of this aroused indignation in many quarters.
The 1780 abolition law actually had more immediate impact on the free blacks than the enslaved ones. The abolition of slavery was very gradual, while the restrictive laws on free blacks were lifted at once. The only rights of free whites that were not extended to them were those of voting and of serving in the state militia. There was actually some doubt about the voting, and on this point the act was interpreted differently in different places. In Philadelphia, blacks seemingly never voted. But in some of the western counties they did so in small numbers. York and Westmoreland were mentioned among these counties.
The act that abolished slavery in Pennsylvania freed no slaves outright, and relics of slavery may have lingered in the state almost until the Civil War. There were 795 slaves in Pennsylvania in 1810, 211 in 1820, 403 or 386 (the count was disputed) in 1830, and 64 in 1840, the last year census worksheets in the northern states included a line for "slaves." The definition of slavery seems to have blurred in the later counts. The two "slaves" counted in 1840 in Lancaster County turned out to have been freed years before, though they were still living on the properties of their former masters.
1. Gary B. Nash & Jean R. Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath, Oxford Univ. Press, 1991, p.55.