The Impact of the Revolution on Slavery
The American Revolution generated unprecedented debates about morality of slavery and its compatibility with the founding creeds of the new nation. Though the Revolution did not lead to abolition of slavery, it set off a process of both immediate and gradual emancipation in northern states. The South’s slave system suffered because of the war, which resulted in a decline in production and a loss of thousands of slaves to the British. Though a small number of slaveholders, particularly in Virginia, emancipated their slaves after the Revolution, slavery remained entrenched in the southern states and would only become more profitable and spread further to the west and south during the late eighteenth and into the nineteenth century.
In 1775, the year the Revolutionary War began, Quakers founded the world’s first antislavery society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, are a pacifist Christian sect that believe all humans possess an inner light, that God dwells inside everyone. Consequently, most Quakers have espoused historically controversial ideas of racial and gender equality, and viewed slavery as an immoral and dehumanizing institution, despite the fact that some Quakers still owned slaves before the Revolution. Following the Quaker’s example, at least thirteen of anti-slavery societies came into existence in America by 1788. (5)
The fight for liberty led some American slaveholders to free their slaves, and most northern states soon passed gradual emancipation laws. (2) In 1777, Vermont created a new state constitution that outlawed slavery making it first place in the New World to do so. Six years later, Massachusetts and New Hampshire also outlawed slavery through judicial decisions. Further to the south, Pennsylvania passed a law outlining a process of gradual emancipation that said that the children born after March 1, 1780 to mothers who were slaves would be considered indentured servants and be completely free from their masters when they turned 28. New York and New Jersey, where slavery was more prevalent, did not pass gradual emancipation laws until 1799 and 1804, respectively. (Davis, 2006) While the state of Delaware would not abolish slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, 31 percent of its African American population were free by 1790 because of the anti-slavery activism of Quakers and Methodists. (Carson, 2019)
Some manumissions also occurred in the Upper South, most notably in Virginia. In 1782, near the end of the Revolution, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that removed restrictions on masters to free their slaves. The next year, the Assembly freed any slaves who had fought on behalf of the Continental Army during the war. These new laws led to the rapid growth of Virginia’s free black population. In 1780, there were 2,800 free black people and by 1810 there were 30,000 living in Virginia. Virginia also banned the foreign importation of slaves in 1778, though more out of fear of a growing black population and concern that a large surplus of slaves would diminish the market value of those the state’s slaveholders already owned. (Ford, 2009) (1)
On the other hand, the Lower South, particularly South Carolina and Georgia, remained passionately committed to the African slave trade and some masters in the region revoked their offers of freedom for war service while others forced freed black people back into bondage. (2)
Perhaps the most significant step to address the issue of slavery taken by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and before the ratification of the new United States Constitution, was the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which organized new territory west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance also prohibited slaveholders from bring in slaves into the Northwest Territory while permitting slaveholders who already lived in the area to maintain their human property. (Carson, Lapansky-Werner & Nash, 2019) (1)
The Revolution’s rhetoric of equality also created a “revolutionary generation” of slaves and free black Americans that would eventually galvanize the antislavery movement well into the nineteenth century. (2) The growing class of free blacks established their own social institutions including churches, schools, and benevolent societies. Black people associated with these institutions fought for the manumission of their less fortunate brothers and sisters, lobbied for an end to the slave trade and of the institution of slavery. They rooted their arguments in the language of natural rights and democratic principles and became the conscience of the nation. (3)
Although the rise of the free black population is one of the most notable achievements of the Revolutionary Era, it is important to note that the overall impact of the Revolution on slavery had negative consequences. In rice-growing regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the patriot victory confirmed the power of the master class. Doubts about slavery and legal modifications that occurred in the North and Upper South never took serious hold among whites in the Lower South. Even in Virginia, the move toward freeing some slaves was made more difficult by new legal restrictions in 1792. In the North, where slavery was on its way out, racism still persisted, as in a Massachusetts law of 1786 that prohibited whites from legally marrying African Americans, Indians, or people of mixed race. (5)
The Revolution clearly had a mixed impact on slavery and contradictory meanings for African Americans. (5) It failed to reconcile slavery with these new egalitarian republican societies, a tension that eventually boiled over in the 1830s and 1840s and effectively tore the nation in two in the 1850s and 1860s. (2)
Slavery and the Constitution
In the summer of 1787, political leaders of the United States met in Philadelphia to debate the creation of a new federal constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation reflected the ideals of the revolutionary generation who distrusted concentrated power and wanted to create a new nation that in no way resembled the monarchy they fought to overthrow. Ten years after America declared its independence from Britain, the intractable problems and glaring weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were on full display. Rather than a strong union, the United States of America resembled thirteen separate countries each concerned about its own sovereignty and well-being rather than that of the nation. Now that the Revolutionary War was over, what common cause and purpose held the states together? The nation, it seemed, was fraying apart at the seams, threatening to splinter into a series of regional confederacies rather than a united nation.
The ardent nationalists, such as Virginia’s James Madison, met in Philadelphia in 1787 to propose a new federal constitution they hoped would create “a more perfect union.” They also had an opportunity to address the issue of slavery directly and, perhaps, set it on a path toward extinction since it clearly violated the principles of the American Revolution. Instead, the framers of the Constitution swept the problem of slavery under the rug with a series of compromises demanded by representatives from southern states in exchange for their support of the new constitution. These compromises ensured the constitutional protection of slavery while also setting the stage for future divisive debates over slavery that would threaten to break the union apart along sectional lines.
Of all the compromises that formed the Constitution, perhaps none would be more important than the compromise over the slave trade. Americans generally perceived the trans-Atlantic slave trade as more violent and immoral than slavery itself. Many Northerners opposed it on moral grounds. But they also understood that letting southern states import more Africans would increase their political power. The Constitution counted each black individual as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation, so in districts with many slaves, the white voters had extra influence.
On the other hand, the states of the Upper South also welcomed a ban on the Atlantic trade because they already had a surplus of slaves. Banning importation meant slave owners in Virginia and Maryland could get higher prices when they sold their slaves to states like South Carolina and Georgia that were dependent upon a continued slave trade.
New England and the Deep South agreed to what was called a “dirty compromise” at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. New Englanders agreed to include a constitutional provision that protected the foreign slave trade for twenty years; in exchange, South Carolina and Georgia delegates had agreed to support a constitutional clause that made it easier for Congress to pass commercial legislation. As a result, the Atlantic slave trade resumed until 1808 when it was outlawed for three reasons. First, Britain was also in the process of outlawing the slave trade in 1807, and the United States did not want to concede any moral high ground to its rival. Second, the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), a successful slave revolt against French colonial rule in the West Indies, had changed the stakes in the debate. The image of thousands of armed black revolutionaries terrified white Americans. Third, the Haitian Revolution had ended France’s plans to expand its presence in the Americas, so in 1803, the United States had purchased the Louisiana Territory from the French at a fire-sale price. This massive new territory, which had doubled the size of the United States, had put the question of slavery’s expansion at the top of the national agenda. Many white Americans, including President Thomas Jefferson, thought that ending the external slave trade and dispersing the domestic slave population would keep the United States a white man’s republic and perhaps even lead to the disappearance of slavery.
The ban on the slave trade, however, lacked effective enforcement measures and funding. Moreover, instead of freeing illegally imported Africans, the act left their fate to the individual states, and many of those states simply sold intercepted slaves at auction. Thus, the ban preserved the logic of property ownership in human beings. The new federal government protected slavery as much as it expanded democratic rights and privileges for white men. (2)
The Revolution brought change for some black people, although nothing approaching full equality. The courageous military service of African Americans and the revolutionary spirit ended slavery in New England almost immediately. The middle states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey adopted policies of gradual emancipation from 1780 to 1804. Many of the founders opposed slavery in principle (including some whose wealth was largely in human property). Individual manumissions increased following the Revolution.
Still, free blacks in both the North and South faced persistent discrimination in virtually every aspect of life, notably employment, housing, and education. Many of the founders hoped that slavery would eventually disappear in the American South. When cotton became king in the South after 1800, this hope died. There was just too much profit to be made working slaves on cotton plantations. The statement of human equality in the Declaration of Independence was never entirely forgotten, however. It remained as an ideal that could be appealed to by abolitionists and civil rights activists through the following decades. (5)