On 1 March 1780, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the first legislation abolishing Slavery in modern history.
Although the law did not apply to those born before 1780 who retained their status as Slaves, it nevertheless paved the way for the eventual abolishment of Slavery in the United States.
Below is the full text of the Act as well as an accompanying documentary:
Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780
SECTION 1. WHEN we contemplate our abhorrence of that condition to which the arms and tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us; when we look back on the variety of dangers to which we have been expofed, and how miraculously our wants in many inftances have been fupplied, and our deliverances wrought, when even hope and human fortitude have become unequal to the conflict; we are unavoidably led to a ferious and grateful fence of the manifold bleffings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect gift cometh. Impreffed with there ideas, we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our power to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us; and a releafe from that state of thraldom to which we ourfelves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every profpect of being delivered. It is not for us to enquire why, in the creation of mankind, the inhabitants of the feveral parts of the earth were diftinguifhed by a difference in feature or complexion. It is fufficient to know that all are the work of an Almighty Hand. We find in the distribution of the human fpecies, that the moft fertile as well as the moft barren parts of the earth are inhabited by men of complexions different from ours, and from each other; from whence we may reasonably, as well as religiously, infer, that He who placed them in their various situations, hath extended equally his care and protection to all, and that it becometh not us to counteract his mercies. We efteem it a peculiar bleffing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more ftep to univerfal civilization, by removing as much as poffible the forrows of thofe w ho have lived in undeferved bondage, and from which, by the assumed authority of the kings of Great Britain, no effectual, legal relief could be obtained. Weaned by a long courfe of experience from thofe narrower prejudices and partialities we had imbibed, we find our hearts enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards men of all conditions and nations; and we conceive ourfelves at this particular period extraordinarily called upon, by the bleffings which we have received, to manifeft the fincerity of our profeffion, and to give a Substantial proof of our gratitude.
SECT. 2. And whereas the condition of thofe perfons who have heretofore been denominated Negro and Mulatto flaves, has been attended with circumftances which not only deprived them of the common bleffings that they were by nature entitled to, but has caft them into the deepeft afflictions, by an unnatural feparation and fale of hufband and wife from each other and from their children; an injury, the greatnefs of which can only be conceived by fuppofing that we were in the fame unhappy cafe. In juftice therefore to perfons So unhappily circumftanced, and who, having no profpect before them whereon they may reft their forrows and their hopes, have no reasonable inducement to render their fervice to fociety, which they otherwise might; and also in grateful commemoration of our own happy deliverance from that ftate of unconditional fubmiffion to which we were doomed by the tyranny of Britain.
SECT. 3. Be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted, by the reprefentatives of the freeman of the commonwealth of Pennfylvania, in general affembly met, and by the authority of the fame, That all perfons, as well Negroes and Mulattoes as others, who fhall be born within this ftate from and after the paffing of this act, fhall not be deemed and confidered as fervants for life, or flaves; and that all fervitude for life, or flavery of children, in confequence of the flavery of their mothers, in the cafe of all children born within this ftate, from and after the paffing of this act as aforefaid, fhall be, and hereby is utterly taken away, extinguifhed and for ever abolifhed.
SECT. 4. Provided always, and be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That every Negro and Mulatto child born within this ftate after the paffing of this act as aforefaid (who would, in cafe this act had not been made, have been born a fervent for years, or life, or a flave) fhall be deemed to be and fhall be by virtue of this act the fervant of fuch perfon or his or her affigns, who would in fuch cafe have been entitled to the fervice of fuch child, until fuch child fhall attain unto the age of twenty eight years, in the manner and on the conditions whereon fervants bound by indenture for four years are or may be retained and holder; and fhall be liable to like correction and punifhment, and entitled to like relief in cafe he or fhe be evilly treated by his or her mafter or miftrefs, and to like freedom dues and other privileges as fervants bound by indenture for four years are or may be entitled, unlefs the perfon to whom the fervice of any fuch child fhall belong fhall abandon his or her claim to the fame; in which cafe the overfeers of the poor of the city, township or diftrict refpectively, where fuch child fhall be So abandoned, fhall by indenture bind out every child fo abandoned, as an apprentice for a time not exceeding the age herein before limited for the fervice of fuch children.
SECT. 5. And be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That every person, who is or fhall be the owner of any Negro or Mulatto flave or fervant for life or till the age of thirty one years, now within this ftate, or his lawful attorney, fhall on or before the faid firft day of November next deliver or calm to be delivered in writing to the clerk of the peace of the county, or to the clerk of the court of record of the city of Philadelphia, in which he or fhe fhall respectively inhabit, the name and furname and occupation or profeffion of fuch owner, and the name of the county and townfhip, diftrict or ward wherein he or fhe refideth; and alfo the name and names of any fuch flave and flaves, and fervant and fervants for life or till the age of thirty one years, together with their ages and fexes feverally and refpectively fet forth and annexed, by fuch perfon owned or ftatedly employed and then being within this ftate, in order to afcertain and diftinguifh the flaves and fervants for life, and till the age of thirty one years, within this ftate, who fhall be fuch on the faid firft day of November next, from all other perfons; which particulars fhall by faid clerk of the feffions asked clerk of the faid city court be entered in books to be provided for that purpofe by the faid clerks; and that no Negro or Mulatto, now within this ftate, fhall from and after the faid firft day of November, be deemed a flave or fervant for life, or till the age of thirty one years, unlefs his or her name fhall be entered as aforefaid on fuch record, except fuch Negro and Mulatto flaves and fervants as are herein after excepted; the faid clerk to be entitled to a fee of two dollars for each flave or fervant fo entered as aforefaid from the treafurer of the county, to be allowed to him in his accounts.
SECT. 6. Provided always, That any perfon, in whom the ownerfhip or right to the fervice of any Negro or Mulatto fhall be vefted at the paffing of this act, other than fuch as are herein before excepted, his or her heirs, executors, adminiftrators and affigns, and all and every of them feverally fhall be liable to the overfeers of the poor of the city, townfhip or diftrict to which any fuch Negro or Mulatto fhall become chargeable, for fuch neceffary expence, with cofts of fuit thereon, as fuch overfeers may be put to, through the neglect of the owner, mafter or miftrefs of fuch Negro or Mulatto; notwithfhanding the name and other defcriptions of fuch Negro or Mulatto fhall not be entered and recorded as aforefaid; unlefs his or her maftcr or owner fhall before fuch flave or fervant attain his or her twenty eighth year execute and record in the proper county a deed or inftrumcnt, fecuring to fuch flave or or fervant his or her freedom.
SECT. 7. And be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That the offences and crimes of Negroes and Mulattoes, as well flaves and fervants as freemen, fhall be enquired of, adjudged, corrected and punifhed in like manner as the offences and crimes of the other inhabitants of this ftate are and fhall be enquired of, adjudged, corrected and punifhed, and not otherwife; except that a flave fhall not be admitted to bear witnefs againft a freeman.
SECT. 8. And be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That in all cafes wherein fentence of death fhall be pronounced againft a flave, the jury before whom he or fhe fhall be tried, fhall appraife and declare the value of fuch flave; and in cafe fuch fentence be executed, the court fhall make an order on the ftate treasurer, payable to the owner for the fame and for the cofts of profecution; but cafe of remiffion or mitigation, for the cofts only.
SECT. 9. And be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That the reward for taking up runaway and abfconding Negro and Mulatto flaves and fervants, and the penalties for enticing away, dealing with, or harbouring, concealing or employing Negro and Mulatto flaves and fervants, fhall be the fame, and fhall be recovered in like manner as in cafe of fervants bound for four years.
SECT. 10. And be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That no man or woman of any nation or colour, except the Negroes or Mulattoes who fhall be regiftered as aforefaid, fhall at any time hereafter be deemed, adjudged, or holden within the territories of this commonwealth as flaves or fervants for life, but as free men and free women; except the domestic flaves attending upon delegates in congrefs from the other American ftates, foreign minifters and confuls, and perfons paffing through or fojourning in this ftate, and not becoming refident therein; and feamen employed in fhips not belonging to any inhabitant of this ftate, nor employed in any fhip owned by any fuch inhabitant. Provided fuch domeftic flaves be not aliened or fold to any inhabitants nor (except in the cafe of members of congrefs, foreign minifters and confuls) retained in this ftate longer than fix months.
SECT. 11. Provided always; And be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That this act or any thing in it contained fhall not give any relief or fhelter to any abfconding or runaway Negro or Mulatto flave or fervant, who has absented himfelf or fhall absent himfelf from his or her owner, mafter or miftrefs refiding in any other ftate or country, but fuch owner, mafter or miftrefs fhall have like right and aid to demand, claim and take away his flave or fervant, as he might have had in cafe this act had not been made: And that all Negro and Mulatto flaves now owned and heretofore refident in this ftate, who have abfented themfelves, or been clandeftinely carried away, or who may be employed abroad as feamen and have not returned or been brought back to their owners, mafters or miftreffes, before the paffing of this act, may within five years be regiftered as effectually as is ordered by this act concerning thofe who are now within the ftate, on producing fuch flave before any two juftices of the peace, and fatisfying the faid juftices by due proof of the former refidence, abfconding, taking away, or abfence of fuch flaves as aforefaid; who thereupon fhall direct and order the said flave to be entered on the record as aforefaid.
SECT. 12. And whereas attempts maybe made to evade this act, by introducing into this ftate Negroes and Mulatoes bound by covenant to ferve for long and unreafonable terms of years, if the fame be not prevented:
SECT. 13. Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforefaid, That no covenant of perfonal fervitude or apprenticefhip whatfoever fhall be valid or binding on a Negro or Mulatto for a longer time than feven years, unlefs fuch fervant or apprentice were at the commencement of fuch fervitude or apprenticefhip under the age of twenty one years; in which cafe fuch Negro or Mulatto may be holden as a fervant or apprentice refpectively, according to the covenant, as the cafe fhall be, until he or fhe fhall attain the age of twenty eight years, but no longer.
SECT. 14. And be it further enacted by the authority aforefaid, That an act of affembly of die province of Pennfylvania, paffed in the year one thousand Seven hundred and five, intitled, “an Act for the trial of Negroes;” and another act of affembly of the faid province, paffed in the year one thousand feven hundred and twenty five, intitled, “An Act for the better regulating of Negroes in this province; ” and another act of affembly of the faid province, paffed in the year one thousand feven hundred and fixty one, intitled, .. An Act for laying a duty on Negro and Mulatto flaves imported into this province; ” and also another act of affembly of the faid province, paffed in the year one thousand feven hundred and feventy three, inititled, “An Act making perpetual an Act laying a duty on Negro and Mulatto flaves imported into this province, and for laying an additional duty faid flaves,” fhall be and are hereby repealed, annulled and made void.
JOHN BAYARD, SPEAKER
Enabled into a law at Philadelphia, on Wednefday, the firft day of March, A.D. 1780