The truth about slavery in the Keystone State

Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania, by Beverly C. Tomek

5 minute read
A historic illustration that appears to show Black people in a covered wagon aiming pistols at white men with rifles.

The shorthand thinking on enslavement in Pennsylvania goes like this: Pennsylvania = Quakers = abolition. True, as far as it goes, which isn’t as far as Pennsylvanians may think. They may know that Pennsylvania was the first state to pass a law abolishing slavery—except it didn’t, says Beverly C. Tomek in her new book Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania. In practice, the 1780 act merely curtailed slavery, and was easily avoided.

Tomek, associate professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria, synthesizes existing scholarship on two centuries of enslavement and antislavery movements in Pennsylvania. Writing to dispel an oversimplified narrative, she explains, “This false sense of moral superiority too often allows us to overlook the fact that slavery was ubiquitous and that there were many people who benefited from it and fought to keep it, even as the abolition movement grew in the nineteenth century.”

Not exactly abolition

Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery required enslavers to provide care for, and register, enslaved laborers; failure to do so resulted in the laborers’ immediate freedom. The law also promised freedom to children of the enslaved who were born after its passage—when they reached age 28. The enslaved were also entitled to relief for mistreatment. Finally, the act nullified the existing separate adjudication system for Black defendants, and granted them jury trials.

“The gradual nature of abolition in Pennsylvania advantaged slaveholders by minimizing their losses as much as possible,” Tomek writes. “This amounted to reparations for the enslaver … courts and legislature further coddled slaveholders by aiding in the process of stalling freedom, consistently refusing to move beyond gradualism and adopt total and complete abolition until 1847.”

In the book, the latest in the Pennsylvania Historical Association’s series on state history, Tomek details how key individuals, fragmentation among abolitionists, and decades of legislative gridlock and shortfall affected the course of slavery in the state. The account ends at the precipice of the Civil War, the point at which most readers’ awareness of abolition and slavery begins.

Slavery in state roots

Enslaved Africans were in the region long before William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1682. Soon after his arrival, Penn purchased 150 Africans, and at least a dozen worked at Pennsbury, his Delaware River estate. By 1767, about 1,400 enslaved persons lived in Philadelphia, more than eight percent of the city population. Philadelphia was a prominent port of entry. London Coffee House, which stood at Front and Market streets, hosted auctions of enslaved people. In the city and beyond, enslaved persons provided skilled and unskilled labor, creating wealth for those who owned, traded, and indirectly benefitted from the economy these workers built.

Enslaved people were a more reliable, less expensive alternative to indentured servants. Animosity deepened between the groups as competition for work intensified. The indentured, and the waves of immigrants who followed them, pushed enslaved persons out of skilled trades, and employers used that competition as a cudgel to keep immigrants in check. The tactic was perfected in the iron industry: “Through its use of enslaved labor,” Tomek writes, “the Pennsylvania iron industry led the way in instituting a type of worker control that has been used to divide workers along racial lines and foster racism ever since.”

Abolitionist factions

It’s true that the Society of Friends (Quakers) were instrumental to abolition. Yet even Quakers, who viewed enslavement as inconsistent with their beliefs, exhibited a range of attitudes and behaviors.

Some, like Penn, participated directly in enslavement. In Pennsylvania, these Quakers tended to be English, while German Quakers were likely abolitionist. Beginning in 1700, the Quaker-led colonial government placed import taxes on enslaved labor to stem the practice. In 1758, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends stated its opposition to importing, selling, and owning enslaved persons.

During the second half of the 18th century, enslaving Friends increasingly freed their laborers. Some Quakers purchased them expressly to free them. Others repeatedly implored their neighbors to release enslaved people, presenting spiritual and ethical arguments against the practice.

Progress was gradual, backlash occurred, and even like-minded abolitionists disagreed about how to proceed. Tomek contrasts moderates like John Woolman, who worked within the Quaker establishment, with radicals such as Benjamin Lay, who “drew further attention to himself and his mission by fasting for almost a month, kidnapping the child of a local slaveholder to show him how slaves felt when their children were taken from them, and stabbing a Bible with a sword to release red juice all over a meeting of Quaker congregants.”

The truth about progress

Ultimately, ending slavery in Pennsylvania was a victory of incremental gains rather than sweeping change. It required cooperation among groups, including the mostly white Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and the Black community, which coalesced around churches, the Free African Society, and leaders such as Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.

The book is a reminder that no cause occurs in a vacuum. Abolitionists were impacted by a maelstrom of forces, such as class bias, which prevented newly free Blacks from fully trusting well-meaning elites, and caused middle-class Blacks to feel threatened by new arrivals, even as they recognized the need to help them. Immigration was another complicating factor, and not just European immigration. White refugees arriving to the mid-Atlantic after escaping a rebellion of enslaved people in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) further inflamed racial tensions. Whether driven by altruism or racism, support developed for removing Black people entirely, either through emigration to Africa or resettlement in the west.

In just over 100 pages, Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania is an excellent overview and guide for further reading. By piercing illusions, and showing how progress required cooperative effort and persistence, Tomek offers a nuanced exploration that speaks directly to our own time.

What, When, Where

Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania. By Beverly C. Tomek. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, October 21, 2021. 144 pages, softcover; $19.95. Get it from Temple University Press.

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