First Emancipation


EmanFrom the late seventeenth century onwards, a few American colonists, mostly Quakers, had expressed their moral opposition to the spread of black slavery throughout British America. It was not until the coming of the Revolution, however, that the first concerted protests arose, first against the continued importation of slaves and then against slavery itself, as contrary to the liberties and natural rights for which the war was being fought. Some New England states adopted immediate emancipation: Vermont’s 1777 constitution explicitly outlawed slavery and in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, a series of judicial interpretations during the 1780s declared the institution in violation of the bills of rights contained in their new state constitutions. Elsewhere in the northern states, a policy of gradual emancipation was adopted, in Pennsylvania in 1780 and Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784, but not until 1799 and 1804 in New York and New Jersey. This legislation provided for those born into slavery after the act to be freed at a certain age (21 in Pennsylvania and 28 in New York), so that masters would still receive the bulk of their slaves’ working lives as compensation for their ultimate loss of “property.” Slavery was excluded from the territories north and west of the Ohio River. Still further north, British Canada harbored several thousand former slaves freed by British forces during the revolutionary war.

This “first emancipation” set slavery on a course towards extinction in the northern United States. As the first large-scale freeing of slaves in human history, it helped launch a movement that would in less than a century transform slavery from an accepted component of almost every human society since ancient times to something morally suspect, a “peculiar” institution. It marked a turning-point in the black experience in America.

More here. (Note: One post throughout February will be dedicated to Black History Month.)