Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
GRADUAL EMANCIPATION

Formal opposition to slavery, through societies organized for that purpose, began in 1787, but on a very limited scale. Slavery had been abolished completely in Vermont ( 1777), Massachusetts ( 1780), and New Hampshire ( 1784) by constitutional provisions. Those three states, therefore, experienced none of the complex problems of gradual emancipation. They had relatively few Negroes, and their remoteness from the slave states relieved them of the associated complications of fugitives and kidnapping. There was no need for antislavery societies, and very little for organized effort to aid free Negroes. The assistance of those three nonslaveholding states, consequently, was denied to the over-all antislavery movement at this critical period by lack of interest and organization.

There were no new nonslaveholding states for a long time. Pennsylvania had adopted gradual emancipation in 1780, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. New York and New Jersey did not adopt gradual emancipation until 1799 and 1804. Maryland and Delaware never quite reached the point of emancipation. They remained slave states in theory until the Civil War, but the number of free Negroes increased very rapidly. Of these states Connecticut and Rhode Island were deeply involved in the foreign slave trade. Maryland and Delaware were overrun by kidnappers. Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey encountered all of the problems connected with gradual emancipation. Organized effort was essential in all of these states to deal with the problems of Negroes illegally held in bondage, of child indentures, of kidnapping, of violations of state laws against importations, of economic assistance to free Negroes, and of fugitive slaves; and to promote emancipation in the four states which had not acted, printing and distributing literature, and sending memorials to congress and to legislatures of the slave states on matters of broad national policy.

State organizations were formed for these purposes, and then were brought together in a loose federation. The great handicap, however, was the countless distractions presented by the meetings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the several state conventions called to ratify or reject the Constitution, and the first Congress, charged with the responsibility of creating governmental agencies and defining public policy. There were many men of influence, courage, and real ability, who were bitterly opposed to slavery, but who were unable to do much for its abolition because their energies and attention were completely absorbed by political affairs.

The first of the state organizations was a Quaker society in Pennsylvania. It met for the first time in 1775, suspended operations during the war, and became active again in 1784. A new constitution was adopted by the Society in April, 1787, just prior to the meeting of the federal Constitutional Convention, and people other than Quakers were brought into membership. Finally, it was incorporated by the state legislature in 1789 as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Ne-

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