The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery

Trying to abolish slavery outright was very difficult, and getting a bill passed for the abolition of slavery that was completely unanimous would have been impossible. An act was submitted before Pennsylvania legislature that suggested a gradual freeing of slaves over a span of almost 30 years. It outlined an idea that, if it worked, would have gradually freed slaves and given plantation owners and slaveholders the chance to slowly adapt.

It was monetarily more expedient to buy slaves for life than to pay wages to workers. It saved money and for businessmen, slaves were a very good investment. It would cost approximately $10/day or $3,800 a year to hire a common laborer by one man’s estimations. Slaves could cost anywhere from $1,000 upwards for a lifetime of labor. Even if a slave cost $5,000, with two years of labor, he saved his master $2,600. With this in mind, it’s a little easier to see why some men fought the abolition of slavery so hard.

It took some time for anything to be passed into law that even began to fight slavery. The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed by Pennsylvania legislature on March 1, 1780. It was the first act to begin successfully freeing slaves. (Read the full text of the Act here.)

The Act did not attack the rights of slave-owners, and those currently in slavery were not freed by the  Act. In summary:

  • Sections 1 and 2 outline the purpose of the Act.
  • Section three states that all persons born in the state of Pennsylvania after the act was passed are no longer slaves or “lifelong servants of any kind.”
  • In Section 4, it goes on to say that even though the children born were not “slaves”, they are required to remain in the service of their owners as a type of indentured servant or apprentice until that child is 28 years old. This was an improvement since as indentured servants/apprentices, they had the same privileges, punishments and relief of servitude in case of mistreatment that they did not have hope of as slaves.
  • Section 5 requires all slave-owners to register their slaves annually, names ages, and etc. in order to enforce that the slaves would be freed at age 28 and to keep track of which ones had already been freed. If owners failed to register their slaves, they would have to free them by default.
  • Section 6 reinforces that as soon as the slaves reach 28, owners were required to give them a bill of sale and free them.
  • Section 7 gives slave children (the indentured) the same rights in a court of law as other indentured servants, though as slaves, they were still not allowed to testify against whites.
  • Section 8 promises reimbursement for slave-owners whose slaves were given the death sentence in court, based on the jury’s evaluation of the slave’s worth.
  • Section 9 covers the punishment for harboring or assisting runaway slaves.
  • Section 10 banned all future slavery and protected every freed man from ever being enslaved again, but excluded visitors to the state or anyone staying less than 6 months. Some people did take advantage of this section by carefully not staying longer than 6 months, leaving, and coming back.
  • Section 11 frees slaves who have run away and been missing for more than 5 years, while allowing owners to recover slaves during this time period.
  • Sections 12 and 13 make longer forms of indentured servitude illegal, regardless of laws in other states.
  • Section 14 repeals any older laws inconsistent with this new law.

Naturally, some people put up quite a fight. Some fought in court. Some just tried to work around it. Some slave-owners moved out of state every six months to exploit the loophole made in Section 10. Some transported pregnant slaves over the state line to have their baby so that it was technically “born into slavery.” An amendment was made in 1788 to close this loophole, but it was overrulled as unconstitutional. Far from the 28 years planned, the last slaves in Pennsylvania weren’t freed until 1847, 67 years later.

One by one, other states began to adopt the Act. Several states including Massachusetts skipped the gradual and outlawed slavery entirely. The Act, though it didn’t work as originally planned, did succeed in legally kick-starting the abolition of slavery.

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