Abolition of Slavery in the North

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The American Revolution is regarded as the precipitating factor in the abolition of northern slavery. However, more than a century of arguments and measures to restrict both the trade in slaves and the institution of slavery preceded the emergence of Revolutionary-era antislavery sentiment, and abolition met powerful resistance in nearly every northern colony and state.

colonial antislavery sentiment

Several colonies periodically attempted to restrict the importation of slaves out of fear of slave rebellions, to encourage European immigration, or to prevent miscegenation. There were also a few very early attempts to prohibit slavery outright, but these were widely ignored.

Among religious sects, the Society of Friends led the opposition to slavery, and by 1787 northern Quakers had become the one major sect whose members did not hold slaves on principle. Some Puritans, too, became convinced that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. Judge Samuel Sewall's pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph (1700), provoked a brief interest in abolition in Massachusetts but ultimately convinced few slaveholders to free their slaves. Nonetheless, religious opposition grew slowly through the eighteenth century.

People of color themselves were the most vehement opponents of slavery. Beginning in the early 1700s, slaves sent a steady stream of freedom petitions to colonial assemblies and pressed lawsuits seeking their freedom based on a variety of arguments.

abolition in the revolutionary era

The American Revolution finally produced conditions under which the cause of abolition could gain public support. Antislavery advocates argued that the Revolutionary ideology of natural rights applied equally well to slaves, and the war itself disrupted trade and made slavery less important economically. As first steps toward abolition, many colonies moved to prohibit the importation of slaves. In 1774 the first Continental Congress banned the importation of slaves into all the colonies as part of a general trade boycott designed to force Britain to repeal the Intolerable Acts. Other measures included banning the participation of state residents in the international slave trade and removing or softening restrictions on manumitting slaves. During the war a few states, notably Rhode Island and Connecticut, also offered freedom in exchange for enlistment.

Measures intended explicitly to bring slavery to an end took several forms, including constitutional prohibition, legislative enactment, and judicial decision. In Vermont, the constitution of 1777 declared all men to be born equally free and independent and is generally considered to have abolished slavery out-right; however, the first chapter of its bill of rights, stating that no person should be held as a "servant slave or apprentice" after reaching twenty-one years of age if male or eighteen if female, suggests that this was a conditional abolition.

After several failed attempts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut enacted post nati or "after birth" statutes that limited the period of servitude of children born to slaves after a specific date but left slaves born before that date enslaved for life. In Pennsylvania, the 1780 gradual abolition bill freed slaves' children at twenty-eight. It also freed slaves not registered by their owners by 1 November 1780. In 1840 there were still more than forty slaves in Pennsylvania, and a few persons may have remained enslaved there until the Civil War. Both Rhode Island and Connecticut freed children born to slaves after 1 March 1784 upon reaching their majority—eighteen for females and twenty-one for males in Rhode Island, twenty-five (reduced to twenty-one in 1797) for all children in Connecticut. Unlike Pennsylvania, these two states brought slavery to a definitive end by passing final abolition bills in 1842 and 1848, respectively.

Massachusetts and New Hampshire enacted state constitutions with declarations of rights that seemed to prohibit slavery. In Massachusetts, a series of freedom suits brought on behalf of Quok Walker eventually resulted in a 1783 court decision that the 1780 constitution granted rights incompatible with slavery and therefore slavery was abolished "as effectively as it can be without resorting to implication in constructing the constitution." The wording of this decision was so ambiguous that slaves continued to be sold in Massachusetts for several years. In New Hampshire, no records survive of legal cases construing a similar clause in the 1783 constitution. Slaves were taxed as property there until 1789, and 158 slaves were reported in the state census in 1790, although by then the institution was all but dead in the state.

abolition in the early republic

In New York and New Jersey, abolition was bitterly resisted and several abolition bills were defeated. New York finally passed an act providing that all children born to slaves after 4 July 1799 would be free at twenty-eight if male, twenty-five if female. Abandoned children were to be supported by the state (but could be bound out to masters, who would be paid for their support—a thinly disguised form of compensated emancipation repealed in 1804). In 1817 a new statute provided that all slaves born before 4 July 1799 would be free in 1827, thus ending slavery in the state in that year. In New Jersey, a gradual abolition statute was passed freeing children born to slaves after 1 July 1804, at the age of twenty-five if male and twenty-one if female. Here, too, an abandonment clause provided the equivalent of compensation to owners but was repealed later in the year. In 1846 the New Jersey legislature passed a bill that ostensibly emancipated all remaining slaves but placed them in a state of permanent apprenticeship. The last "apprentices" in New Jersey were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment.

There were slaves in the territories of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, too, even though slavery was formally prohibited there by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. When Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803, its new constitution outlawed slavery. The territorial governments of Indiana and Illinois recognized a "voluntary" system of servitude whereby slaves were indentured to their masters for long periods. While the Indiana constitution of 1816 and the Illinois constitution of 1818 officially prohibited slavery, the prohibitions were widely interpreted not to apply either to voluntary servitude or to descendants of French slaves present when the territories were organized. In Indiana, a few slaves were still reported in the census of 1840. In Illinois, slavery was finally abolished by the state supreme court in the case of Jarrot v. Jarrot in 1845.

Once free, many people of color continued to work for their former owners and also to live in their houses, but within a few years most moved elsewhere, forming communities on the margins of white society in northern cities and towns. The slow demise of slavery and the ambiguity surrounding the status of people of color fostered a transfer of whites' behaviors and attitudes toward slaves to an emerging population of free people of color. Throughout the North, state laws regulating the behavior, limiting the movement, and restricting the suffrage of free people of color came into effect as formal slavery ended, and more than one hundred violent attacks by whites on communities of color were recorded between 1820 and 1850. Nonetheless, many northern blacks succeeded in forming schools, churches, and other institutions and in mounting an aggressive rhetorical attack on southern slavery.

See alsoAbolition Societies; African Americans: Free Blacks in the North; Slavery: Slavery and the Founding Generation .


Barnhart, John D. Valley of Democracy: The Frontier versus the Plantation in the Ohio Valley, 1775–1818. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1953.

Dunn, Jacob P. Indiana: A Redemption from Slavery. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1888.

Harper, Douglas. "Slavery in the North." Available at http://www.slavenorth.com.

McManus, Edgar. Black Bondage in the North. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1973.

Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Joanne Pope Melish