Pennsylvania Abolition Society
Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley
Front Street below Chestnut Street
The group stopped holding regular meetings during the Revolutionary War, but the movement for abolition continued to grow, and on March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a law calling for the gradual emancipation of slavery. The new law, the first legislative act against slavery in the United States, did not free those who were enslaved at the time.But the measure did stipulate that all "Negro and Mulatto children born within the state after the passage of the act on March 1, 1780" were bound for twenty-eight years as indentured servants, and that if they had children before age twenty-eight the children, too, would serve for twenty-eight years.
Benezet's society reorganized in 1784, and three years later became the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS). (Later that year, several of its African American members helped to begin the Free African Society. As the anti-slavery movement gained nearly nationwide support, the PAS, led by Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, did more than any other group to assist slaves seeking freedom.
The "gradual" nature of emancipation meant that slavery still existed in Pennsylvania into the 1830s, although the numbers of slaves declined steadily. Of the 14,564 African Americans residing in Pennsylvania in 1800, 1,706, or 10.5 percent were slaves. By 1820, a statewide population of 30,202 African Americans included only 211 slaves. By 1840, only 64 slaves remained in a state-wide black population of 47,854.
The passage of the Gradual Abolition Act made Pennsylvania a destination of choice for many fugitives escaping bondage from northern Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware on the clandestine route to freedom that later became known as the "Underground Railroad." Free blacks from those states also found that Philadelphia offered more opportunities and its free black community better protection than their own southern homes.
To discourage slaves' flight to free states, Congress in 1793 passed a fugitive slave law that gave slave owners or their agents the authority to reclaim their fugitives in the local courts and fined anyone harboring runaways $500. Growing abolitionist activity in the state and the increased influence of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society made the law difficult to enforce. PAS members, many of whom were lawyers, defended runaways in the courts and lobbied the state legislature to broaden the scope of the 1780 law to include complete emancipation. In the late 1700s, they were taking on forty to sixty cases a year in Pennsylvania courts to prevent those who had escaped from being returned to slavery; to ensure that masters freed their slaves when their indentures expired, and to prevent black Pennsylvanians from being sold into slave states.
The PAS continued this work until the Civil War, and acquired a nation-wide reputation as the place where abolitionists and African Americans could go if they believed someone had been enslaved unjustly. The society also repeatedly petitioned to end slavery. The PAS acquired a nation-wide reputation for its work; African Americans from throughout the United States appealed to it and were rarely turned down. The Society also fostered friendly relations between black and white abolitionists, as Alexander Addison of Washington County noted in 1793: "In Pennsylvania, at least, it will not be thought fanatical to protect a man, though black, and improve him, though born in Africa. Those cruel prejudices which have so long given a property in man seem to wear out faster than their friends could have supposed."
The very year that Addison made his optimistic statement; however, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which helped revitalize slavery in the South. In the decades that followed, the PAS and new anti-slavery organizations would carry on the struggle against slavery until the Civil War finally realized their goal.
Dee Andrews, "Reconsidering the First Emancipation: Evidence From the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Correspondence," Pennsylvania History: Special Issue, Essays in Honor of Richard S. Dunn, 63 (1997): 230–249.