The manumission societies of the first half of the century after American independence were eventually eclipsed by the more radical antislavery organizations of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. While the manumission societies looked to a day when the slave system would be uprooted and destroyed, they, unlike the "immediatists" in the camp of William Lloyd Garrison, were prepared to see emancipation proceed gradually. The rhetoric was also strikingly different. The later generation of abolitionists would denounce slave owners as "man-stealers" and "woman-whippers," while the earlier generation saw them not as moral degenerates but as misguided individuals who needed to be shown the error of their ways.
There was also the issue of who should participate in the work of emancipation. The manumission societies were exclusively male and exclusively white. There was none of the involvement of white women and African Americans that would characterize Garrisonian abolition and outrage its opponents. And yet, despite the differences, the older organizations prepared the way for their more outspoken successors, while the "gradualist" impulse was not entirely absent from the later phase of the antislavery struggle.
The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was a Quaker monopoly when it was established in 1775. It initially focused on rescuing free people unlawfully held as slaves. Moribund during the Revolutionary War, it was revived in 1784 by individuals from various religious denominations. In the interval Pennsylvania had enacted a gradual-abolition law, and monitoring its enforcement became a major part of the society's work. Other states and cities followed the lead of Pennsylvania. From 1784 to 1791 manumission societies were established in every state except the Carolinas and Georgia, and by 1814 societies could be found as far west as Tennessee and Kentucky.
The socioeconomic status of the abolitionists varied from region to region. In the North, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Rush joined the antislavery ranks. In contrast, the Kentucky Abolition Society was composed of men in "low or … middling circumstances" (Berlin, p. 28). The Maryland Abolition Society was made up of local merchants and skilled craftsmen—those least likely to use slaves or to lose money and prestige if slavery were abolished.
Policy on admitting slaveholders to membership varied. The Pennsylvania and Providence, Rhode Island, societies excluded them altogether. The Maryland society made them eligible for some offices. The Alexandria, Virginia, society admitted them, as did the New York Manumission Society. Indeed, as Shane White (1991) points out, some New Yorkers acquired slaves after joining. White contends that for some years the emphasis of the New Yorkers was not so much on challenging slavery as on removing the worst abuses in the slave system. They saw themselves as humane masters who were reacting against what they regarded as appalling acts of cruelty perpetrated by southern and Caribbean slave owners, and occasionally by those in their own state.
As the character of the membership varied, so did the goals of the individual societies. On some things they were agreed. The foreign slave trade must be outlawed; abusive treatment of slaves should be punished; where they had been enacted, manumission laws should be enforced. In New York, New Jersey, and the upper South, where gradual-emancipation laws had not been passed, the societies attempted to exert pressure on lawmakers. There were some notable successes, although it is debatable how much was due to the humanitarian impulse. In the upper South, economic dislocation after the Revolutionary War had brought changes in labor requirements and patterns of agricultural production. In 1782 Virginia legislators repealed the ban on private manumissions, and Maryland and Delaware quickly followed suit.
The manumission societies made efforts to address the plight of free people of color, since there was general agreement that their freedom must be safeguarded. Free blacks were offered advice about their conduct and encouraged to use their influence with slave kinfolk and friends to urge them to endure patiently. There was also practical assistance. The Pennsylvania and New York societies sponsored schools that trained a generation of African-American community leaders. The Pennsylvanians in particular developed a number of economic initiatives: would-be entrepreneurs received assistance, employment offices were established, and prosperous African Americans and sympathetic whites were encouraged to hire black indentured servants.
In 1791 there was a concerted effort by nine manumission societies to petition Congress to limit the foreign slave trade. When that effort failed, the New York society proposed the formation of a national convention to coordinate future action. In 1794 a convention was held in Philadelphia to organize the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race.
Conventions were annual until 1806, after which they became less frequent. At each meeting, member societies presented reports on their progress. Representatives from more distant societies were often unable to attend, but they submitted reports. There were contacts with foreign organizations, such as the London-based African Institution and Les Amis des Noirs in Paris. Delegates occasionally heard from influential African Americans, such as James Forten. As for policy decisions, in 1818 Forten denounced the work of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in an address to the convention. In 1821 the convention expressed its disapproval of the Liberian scheme, but in 1829, after many individual societies had already endorsed the ACS, the convention announced its approval of voluntary emigration.
Gradually the power and influence of the manumission societies declined. For more than two decades, the abolitionist impulse remained strong in the upper South. In 1827, for instance, the American Convention reported that while the free states had twenty-four societies, the slave states had 130. Many factors led to the demise of abolition societies in the region, including slave rebellions and the spread of the plantation economy south and west, which meant a lively market for "surplus" slaves.
In the North the crisis surrounding the Missouri Compromise took a toll. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, for instance, suffered a wave of resignations in the early 1820s. As for the American Convention, it met for the last time in 1832 and was formally dissolved in 1838, by which time it had been supplanted by a new and, in many respects, more radical antislavery movement.
Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Fogel, Robert. Without Consent or Contract. New York: Norton, 1989.
Litwack, Leon. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770–1810. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
julie winch (1996)
Updated by author 2005