Slavery and Religion in New Republic

Learning Objectives

  • Describe slavery in the new republic
  • Examine the role of religion in the new republic
After the Revolution, the balance of power between women and men and between White, Black, and Indigenous people remained largely unchanged. Yet revolutionary principles, including the call for universal equality in the Declaration of Independence, inspired and emboldened many. Abigail Adams and others pressed for greater rights for women, while the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and New York Manumission Society worked toward the abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, for Blacks, women, and native peoples, the revolutionary ideals of equality fell far short of reality. In the new republic, full citizenship—including the right to vote—did not extend to nonwhites or to women.

By the time of the Revolution, slavery had been firmly in place in America for over one hundred years. In many ways, the Revolution served to reinforce the assumptions about race among White Americans. They viewed the new nation as a White republic; Blacks were slaves, and Indians had no place. Racial hatred of Black people increased during the Revolution because many of the enslaved fled their White masters for the freedom offered by the British. The same was true for Indians who allied themselves with the British; Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that separation from the Empire was necessary because George III had incited “the merciless Indian savages” to destroy the White inhabitants on the frontier. Similarly, Thomas Paine argued in Common Sense that Great Britain was guilty of inciting “the Indians and Negroes to destroy us.” For his part, Benjamin Franklin wrote in the 1780s that, in time, alcoholism would wipe out the Indians, leaving the land free for White settlers.

Phillis Wheatley: “On Being Brought from Africa to America”

Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa in 1753 and sold as a slave to the Wheatley family of Boston; her African name is lost to posterity. Although most enslaved people in the eighteenth century had no opportunities to learn to read and write, Wheatley achieved full literacy and went on to become one of the best-known poets of the time, although many doubted the authorship of her poems because of her race.

A portrait of Phillis Wheatley from the frontispiece of Poems on various subjects is shown. The image, which depicts Wheatley writing at a desk, is framed with the words “Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston.”

Figure 1. This portrait of Phillis Wheatley from the frontispiece of Poems on various subjects, religious and moral shows the writer at work. Despite her status as a slave, her poems won great renown in America and in Europe.

Wheatley’s poems reflected her deep Christian beliefs. In the poem below, how do her views on Christianity affect her views on slavery?

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.—Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”


Slavery offered the most glaring contradiction between the idea of equality stated in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) and the reality of race relations in the late eighteenth century.

Slavery helped shape White views of Blacks. Although he penned the Declaration of Independence and had a brilliant political mind that accomplished much, Thomas Jefferson owned more than one hundred slaves, of whom he freed only a few either during his lifetime or in his will. He thought Black people were inferior to White people, dismissing Phillis Wheatley by arguing, “Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet.” White enslavers took their female slaves as mistresses, as most historians agree that Jefferson did with one of his enslaved women, Sally Hemings. It is believed that together they had several children.

Link to Learning

Browse the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society to examine Jefferson’s “farm books,” in which he kept records of his land holdings, animal husbandry, and slaves, including specific references to Sally Hemings.

A handwritten page from Thomas Jefferson’s record book lists the slaves in his possession.

Figure 2. This page, taken from one of Thomas Jefferson’s record books from 1795, lists his slaves.

Jefferson understood the contradiction fully, and his writings reveal hard-edged racist assumptions that were a product of his time. In his Notes on the State of Virginia in the 1780s, Jefferson urged the end of slavery in Virginia and the removal of Black people from that state. He wrote: “It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the Blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of White settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the Whites; ten thousand recollections, by the Blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. —To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral.” Jefferson envisioned an “empire of liberty” for White farmers and relied on the argument of sending Black people out of the United States, even if doing so would completely destroy the enslavers’ wealth in their human property.

The first page of a broadside, headed “To the Citizens of the Southern States,” is shown.

Figure 3. This 1796 broadside to “the Citizens of the Southern States” by “a Southern Planter” argued that Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy of the emancipation of slaves in his Notes on the State of Virginia posed a threat to the safety, the prosperity, and even the existence of the southern states.

Southern planters strongly objected to Jefferson’s views on abolishing slavery and removing Black people from America. When Jefferson was a candidate for president in 1796, an anonymous “Southern Planter” wrote, “If this wild project succeeds, under the auspices of Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, and three hundred thousand slaves are set free in Virginia, farewell to the safety, prosperity, the importance, perhaps the very existence of the Southern States.” Enslavers and many other Americans protected and defended the institution.


While racial thinking permeated the new country, and slavery existed in all the new states, the ideals of the Revolution generated a movement toward the abolition of slavery. Private manumissions, by which enslavers freed their enslaved laborers, provided one pathway from bondage. Slaveholders in Virginia freed some ten thousand slaves. In Massachusetts, the Wheatley family manumitted Phillis in 1773 when she was twenty-one.

Other revolutionaries formed societies dedicated to abolishing slavery. One of the earliest efforts began in 1775 in Philadelphia, where Dr. Benjamin Rush and other Philadelphia Quakers formed what became the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Similarly, wealthy New Yorkers formed the New York Manumission Society in 1785. This society worked to educate Black children and devoted funds to protect free Blacks from kidnapping.

Slavery persisted in the North, however, and the example of Massachusetts highlights the complexity of the situation. The 1780 Massachusetts constitution technically freed all enslaved persons. Nonetheless, several hundred individuals remained enslaved in the state. In the 1780s, a series of court decisions undermined slavery in Massachusetts when several slaves, citing assault by their masters, successfully sought their freedom in court. These individuals refused to be treated as slaves in the wake of the American Revolution. Despite these legal victories, about eleven hundred Blacks continued to be enslaved in the New England states in 1800. The contradictions illustrate the difference between the letter and the spirit of the laws abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. In all, over thirty-six thousand enslaved people remained in the North, with the highest concentrations in New Jersey and New York. New York gradually phased out slavery, with the last enslaved people emancipated in the late 1820s.

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Religion and the State

Prior to the Revolution, several colonies had official, tax-supported churches. After the Revolution, some questioned the validity of state-authorized churches; the limitation of public office-holding to those of a particular faith; and the payment of taxes to support churches. In other states, especially in New England where the older Puritan heritage cast a long shadow, religion and state remained intertwined.

During the colonial era in Virginia, the established church had been the Church of England, which did not tolerate Catholics, Baptists, or followers of other religions. In 1786, as a revolutionary response against the privileged status of the Church of England, Virginia’s lawmakers approved the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, which ended the Church of England’s hold and allowed religious liberty. Under the statute, no one could be forced to attend or support a specific church or be prosecuted for his or her beliefs.

Pennsylvania’s original constitution limited officeholders in the state legislature to those who professed a belief in both the Old and the New Testaments. This religious test prohibited Jews from holding that office, as the New Testament is not part of Jewish belief. In 1790, however, Pennsylvania removed this qualification from its constitution.

Due to their religious beginning, the New England states were slower to embrace freedom of religion. In the former Puritan colonies, the Congregational Church (established by seventeenth-century Puritans) remained the church of most inhabitants. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire all required the public support of Christian churches. Article III of the Massachusetts constitution blended the goal of republicanism with the goal of promoting Protestant Christianity. It reads:

As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of GOD, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this Commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of GOD, and for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily. . . .

And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good subjects of the Commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law: And no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.

Gradual Disestablishment

In 1776, none of the American state governments observed the separation of church and state. On the contrary, all thirteen states either had established, official, and tax-supported state churches, or at least required their officeholders to profess a certain faith. Most officials believed this was necessary to protect morality and social order. Over the next six decades, however, that changed. In 1833, the final state, Massachusetts, stopped supporting an official religious denomination. Historians call that gradual process disestablishment.

In many states, the process of disestablishment had started before the creation of the Constitution. South Carolina, for example, had been nominally Anglican before the Revolution, but it had dropped denominational restrictions in its 1778 constitution. Instead, it now allowed any church consisting of at least fifteen adult males to become “incorporated,” or recognized for tax purposes as a state-supported church. Churches needed only to agree to a set of basic Christian theological tenets, which were vague enough that most denominations could support them.

South Carolina tried to balance religious freedom with the religious practice that was supposed to be necessary for social order. Officeholders were still expected to be Christians; their oaths were witnessed by God, they were compelled by their religious beliefs to tell the truth, and they were called to live according to the Bible. This list of minimal requirements came to define acceptable Christianity in many states. As new Christian denominations proliferated between 1780 and 1840, however, more and more Christians fell outside this definition.

South Carolina continued its general establishment law until 1790, when a constitutional revision removed the establishment clause and religious restrictions on officeholders. Many other states, though, continued to support an established church well into the nineteenth century. The federal Constitution did not prevent this. The religious freedom clause in the Bill of Rights during these decades limited the federal government but not state governments. It was not until 1833 that a state supreme court decision ended Massachusetts’s support for the Congregational Church.

Many political leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, favored disestablishment because they saw the relationship between church and state as a tool of oppression. Jefferson proposed a Statute for Religious Freedom in the Virginia state assembly in 1779, but his bill failed in the overwhelmingly Anglican legislature. Madison proposed it again in 1785, and it defeated a rival bill that would have given equal revenue to all Protestant churches. Instead, Virginia would not use public money to support religion. “The Religion then of every man,” Jefferson wrote, “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”[1]

At the federal level, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 easily agreed that the national government should not have an official religion. This principle was upheld in 1791 when the First Amendment was ratified, with its guarantee of religious liberty. The limits of federal disestablishment, however, required discussion. The federal government, for example, supported Native American missionaries and congressional chaplains. Well into the nineteenth century, debate raged over whether the postal service should operate on Sundays, and whether non-Christians could act as witnesses in federal courts. Americans continued to struggle to understand what it meant for Congress not to “establish” a religion.

Link to learning

Read more about religion and state governments at the Religion and the Founding of the American Republic exhibition page on the Library of Congress site. What was the meaning of the term “nursing fathers” of the church? 

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Review Question

How would you characterize Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on race and slavery?


disestablishment: the act of terminating the connection between church and state

manumission: the freeing of an enslaved person by his or her enslaver

  1. Thomas Jefferson, An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 16 January 1786, Manuscript, Records of the General Assembly, Enrolled Bills, Record Group 78, Library of Virginia.