On the road to freedom, one (gradual) step at a time

Another fascinating piece of history arrived at the Constitution Center last week – Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery passed by the General Assembly on March 1, 1780. It is on loan from the Pennsylvania State Archives and will be on display in our core exhibition through July.

Original record from: Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA

There are several reasons why the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery is a remarkable document. First, a fun fact: It’s signed by Thomas Paine of Common Sense fame, who was Clerk of the General Assembly at the time. Paine also became a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the country’s first anti-slavery organization.

More importantly, it is the first legislative act that abolished slavery anywhere in the United States. (Another fun fact: Vermont abolished slavery in its constitution when it declared its independence from New Hampshire and New York in 1777, but it would be another 14 years before Vermont joined the Union as our 14th state.) Inspired by the spirit of the American Revolution, Pennsylvania led the way for a series of laws passed by northern states between 1780 and 1804 that emancipated slaves.

Not that Pennsylvania did that particularly well. The key word is “gradual.” According to the provisions of the Act, very few who were enslaved at the time it was passed were immediately freed. Children born into slavery after 1780 would only be free once they reached 28 years of age. At its peak in 1750, there were approximately 6,000 slaves in Pennsylvania. It would be 100 years later (1850) before there were none under the terms of gradual abolition.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was an important step. The Act pointed out the hypocrisy of slavery existing in a nation fighting for liberty from the “Arms and Tyranny of Great Britain.” It also had an impact upon the number of slaves in Pennsylvania, dropping from 3,737 in 1790 to 1,706 in 1800. Eventually, Pennsylvania did achieve its goal:

“[T]o add one more Step to universal Civilization by removing as much as possible the Sorrows of those, who have lived in undeserved Bondage.”

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