Northeast States Abolish Slavery

Eight northeastern states emancipated their slaves and ended slavery during and in the wake of the American Revolution. Most of the states chose to phase out slavery gradually, and the slave population of the North decreased during the next few decades until abolition was accomplished.

Summary of Event

In 1775, Pennsylvania’s Provincial Congress Provincial Congress;Pennsylvania called for an end to the importation of slaves Slavery;Pennsylvania and the gradual emancipation of all slaves in the colony. Two years later, on July 2, 1777, Slavery;Vermont Vermont became the first state to abolish Slavery;of Africans[Africans]
African slaves slavery fully. Its 1777 Constitution outlawed “holding anyone by law to serve any person” as a servant, slave, or apprentice after he or she reached twenty-one years of age. [kw]Northeast States Abolish Slavery (July 2, 1777-1804)
[kw]Slavery, Northeast States Abolish (July 2, 1777-1804)
[kw]Abolish Slavery, Northeast States (July 2, 1777-1804)
[kw]States Abolish Slavery, Northeast (July 2, 1777-1804)
Antislavery movement
Abolition movement;United States
[g]United States;July 2, 1777-1804: Northeast States Abolish Slavery[2300]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 2, 1777-1804: Northeast States Abolish Slavery[2300]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 2, 1777-1804: Northeast States Abolish Slavery[2300]
Brown, Moses
Burr, Aaron
Cushing, Caleb
Walker, Quork

Despite the earlier call of its Provincial Congress, Pennsylvania waited until 1780 to pass a law gradually ending the slave system, because some leaders argued that abolishing slavery during the Revolutionary War American Revolution (1775-1783);slavery would divide the colonies and hamper the war effort: Any radical attack against human bondage would antagonize the South, where slavery was a deeply embedded institution. Pennsylvania, like the other Northern states, had allowed slavery since its beginning as a colony, but slaves had never become an important part of the workforce there. In 1780, only 3,761 of Pennsylvania’s 435,150 inhabitants were slaves, and most of them were household servants. White workers argued successfully that free labor cost less than slavery, because slave masters had to take care of their slaves even if they were not working.

Pennsylvania’s 1780 law called for a gradual end to slavery. Property rights were respected, and children born slaves in 1780 would remain in service to their owners until they were twenty-eight years of age. This length of service was to compensate masters for the cost of raising slave children. The law required owners to register their slaves by the end of the year. Any African Americans not registered would be freed immediately. The law also ended years of discrimination against people of color: They could now testify against Caucasians in courts, the separate courts established for them were abolished, and interracial marriage became legal. Pennsylvania became the only Northern state to provide for this kind of equality. Conservatives, who could not accept the idea of equality for African Americans, resisted all these measures and successfully defeated a proposal granting freed slaves the right to vote.

Massachusetts Slavery;Massachusetts acted slowly on the slavery question. In 1777, opponents defeated a gradual emancipation bill, arguing as they had in Pennsylvania that such a bill would divide the new nation by antagonizing the South. Three years later, voters turned down a new constitution that declared all men free and equal and provided voting rights for free blacks. In 1781, however, a slave named Quork Walker sued for his freedom in a state court because his owner had severely abused him. The trial judge, Caleb Cushing, instructed the jury that the idea of slavery conflicted with state law, so Walker was ordered freed. Although the legislature refused to act, by 1790, as a result of similar court actions in dozens of other cases, slavery no longer existed in Massachusetts.

More than six hundred slaves lived in Slavery;New Hampshire New Hampshire prior to the American Revolution. During the war, the state legislature granted freedom to any slave who volunteered for the militia. Other slaves gained their liberty by running away and joining the British military, which also promised freedom to slaves who fought with them. Thus, when the state’s 1783 constitution declared all men equal and independent from birth, only fifty slaves remained the property of masters in New Hampshire. Although slavery was never abolished legally, slave property was removed from tax rolls in 1789, and eleven years later only eight slaves remained in the state.

Rhode Island Slavery;Rhode Island acted in 1783, after Moses Brown and five other Quakers Quakers;antislavery stance petitioned its assembly for the immediate liberation of all human beings kept as property. The cautious legislators passed a gradual emancipation bill instead. Under its provisions, all slave children born after March 1 would be apprentices. Girls became free at the age of eighteen years, while boys could be kept until they reached twenty-one years of age. Until then, the apprentices would get food and economic support from the towns in which they lived. After slaves were freed, their masters were required to post bonds with the state guaranteeing that the former slaves would never require public assistance.

Connecticut, the New England state with the largest population of African Americans, granted freedom to slaves who fought against England, but three times—in 1777, 1779, and 1780—the legislature rejected gradual emancipation. Some lawmakers feared a race riot if blacks were freed. In 1784, however, the legislature finally declared an end to slavery. The law declared that African American and mulatto Mulattoes (mixed-race) children would become free at twenty-five years of age. Persons being held as slaves at the time would be freed by the end of the year. At the same time, discriminatory colonial laws similar to those found in Massachusetts became part of the state legal code. Free people of color could not vote, could not serve on juries, and could not marry Caucasians. African Americans were free but not equal.

New York Slavery;New York and New Jersey Slavery;New Jersey were the last Northern states to act on the slavery question. Both of these states freed African Americans who served in the army, but opponents of emancipation warned against doing anything more, so as to respect property rights. Some opponents used openly racist arguments, saying that free blacks would not work unless forced to do so. They argued that blacks were lazy, ignorant, and criminal, and that slavery protected whites from an onslaught of savagery. New York’s legislature rejected gradual emancipation in 1777. Eight years later, a freedom bill supported by the New York Manumission Society New York Manumission Society, whose membership included Hamilton, Alexander Alexander Hamilton, Jay, John John Jay, and Burr, Aaron Aaron Burr, went down to defeat. Although proposals to discriminate legally against blacks failed, the legislature did agree to deny African Americans the right to vote. Voting rights;free slaves

In 1785, New York prohibited the sale and importation of slaves and allowed masters to manumit (free) their slaves, but only if they guaranteed that they would not require public assistance. The next year, New Jersey passed similar laws. In 1788, New York declared that slaves would no longer be judged or punished under standards different from those used to judge whites.

Still, freedom did not come. In the 1790’s, the New York Manumission Society fought a constant war against the slave system. It sent petitions with thousands of signatures to the state legislature. The Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (United States) Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in New Jersey conducted a similar campaign. In both states, antislavery groups organized boycotts of businesses that had any connection with slavery, such as newspapers that advertised slave auctions and companies that built slave ships. Auctions of slaves ended in both states by 1790. Only in 1799, however, did New York pass an emancipation bill. Owners could free their slaves regardless of age or condition, although children could still be kept as property—boys until twenty-eight years of age and girls until the age of twenty-five. In 1804, New Jersey became the last of the original Northern states to end slavery legally. Neither New York nor New Jersey allowed free African Americans to vote.


The 1810 census found that the five New England states—Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island—had 418 slaves out of an African American population totaling more than 20,000. New York and New Jersey, on the other hand, had nearly 18,000 slaves, because their laws provided longer time periods for emancipating children and were passed much later. Pennsylvania, the first state to provide for gradual emancipation, had fewer than 50 slaves.

Thus, despite racist attitudes and the desire of many legislators to protect property rights, slavery was close to an end in the North by the second decade of the nineteenth century. It would take a bloody civil war to end slavery in the South fifty years later. Emancipation in the North did not mean equality for African Americans, however. Laws discriminating against free people of color were passed, usually alongside or shortly after bills calling for the end of slavery. Prejudice remained high in Northern states, although they had very small African American populations—less than 1 percent in most cities and towns. Efforts to end slavery did not eliminate racism and belief in white supremacy.

Further Reading

  • Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A study of the first free African Americans, tracing their lives from the colonial slave trade through the antebellum era. Includes information about the American Revolution and the abolition of northern slavery. Features biographical sketches and describes how the freed Northern blacks struggled to assimilate yet maintain a unique cultural identity.
  • Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Describes prejudice against African Americans in the Northeast, but points out that free blacks, despite second-class status in the North, were at least free and not someone’s property.
  • Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Describes the movement toward gradual freedom for slaves; discusses the racism underlying opposition to complete abolition.
  • Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolition: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. History of the American abolition movement from the 1770’s through the 1830’s. Focuses on antislavery activities in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
  • White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. Demonstrates that freedom did not lead to equality.
  • Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. An excellent general survey, which provides a state-by-state account of the movement toward abolition. Describes supporters and opponents of abolition.

Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade

New York City Slave Revolt

Slaves Capture St. John’s Island

Stono Rebellion

Caribbean Slave Rebellions

Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded

Declaration of Independence

Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade

First Fugitive Slave Law

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

Olaudah Equiano; Alexander Hamilton; John Jay. Antislavery movement
Abolition movement;United States