The Forgotten First Step Toward Freedom

Although few know it, the anniversary of one of the world great human rights milestones occurs today. On March 1, 1780, the government of Pennsylvania became the first in the world to pass a law against slavery, affirming that no child born after that date could be permanently enslaved.

The British, who did not form their first antislavery organization until seven years later, are usually credited with this accomplishment, having banished slavery in their remaining colonies a half century later. It’s time to reclaim this achievement.

The legislative authority of the people of Pennsylvania, a sovereign state before the creation of the U.S. Constitution, struck down an institution as old as the Bible — one that many had inveighed against, but few had imagined so vulnerable. Only the sustained turbulence of race relations in the United States can explain the neglect of this landmark law.

The American Revolution had provided the impetus for America’s first antislavery movement. The tension generated by demanding liberty yet tolerating human bondage provoked an avalanche of words. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” the famed English lexicographer Samuel Johnson asked. Mindful of this debate, enslaved men and women in the North began petitioning successfully for their freedom.

A system of coerced labor that had spread in the British colonies with scarcely a murmur of opposition suddenly appeared like a blot on the escutcheon of the new republic. Action supplanted high-minded talk in the years that followed. From the simple preamble of the Massachusetts state constitution to more intricate statutes elsewhere, every Northern state found a way to phase out unfree labor. New Jersey was the last to do so, in 1804.

In New York City, where one quarter of the laborers at that time were enslaved, abolition represented the largest peaceful intrusion upon private property in the annals of government. New York’s law also demonstrated the power of a democratic people to deliberate and move in novel areas.

To be sure, these path-breaking acts compromised with the grim reality of slave owners’ property rights that came with legalized human property. The Pennsylvania statute required the children of slave women born after March 1, 1780, to serve their masters until they reached the age of 28.

Gradualism represented the politics of the possible. Even so, emancipation tested the law-enforcement skills of Northern states compelled to check the felonious dispatch of slaves to the South.

The successes of these measures removed the incubus of slavery from Northerners and left white Southerners with a “peculiar institution.” The old surveyors’ boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania — the Mason-Dixon line — became a symbolic divide between free labor and slavery.

For a while it seemed possible that principle might trump skin color as the basis of American nationality. A freed slave, James Mars, exuded confidence in his diary that “the time is not far distant when the colored man will have his rights in Connecticut.”

The possibility of achieving freedom lured many Southern slaves to liberate themselves by escaping to the North. New African-American churches, schools and mutual help associations sprang into existence, but racial prejudice intensified with the increase in the number of freed men and women. The doors to full citizenship that had seemed to be opening wide in 1780 slowly swung shut. Emancipation appeared to many white Americans a dubious accomplishment.

A small minority of reviled abolitionists kept the cause of human freedom alive while Southern planters’ drive to expand slavery’s realm brought on the Civil War. The North’s victory put an end to slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation became the icon for the future.

Reconstructing the rebellious states and preparing freed men for citizenship exhausted the nation’s moral energy. When white Southern representatives returned to Congress, they pressed hard for acceptance of their white supremacist views.

Racial prejudice reappeared in the virulent form of legal segregation in the South and informal segregation in the North. With a new, white consensus that emancipation had been a political necessity but a social failure, there were no calls for celebrating the nation’s first path-breaking acts to extend freedom to all. School books rarely mentioned Northern abolition, preferring to emphasize the climatic conditions that made slavery less attractive in the North.

Reintegrating the South into the union came at the cost of any serious study of its peculiar institution. At the most advanced center for historical scholarship of the day, Johns Hopkins University, historians construed slavery as a boon to the slaves and a responsibility for slave masters.

When historians in recent years turned their attention to the North’s experiment with abolition, the virulence of anti-black hostility and the gradualness of the process of emancipation loomed larger than the legislative measures themselves. And so Pennsylvania’s ground-breaking law again went uncelebrated.

Playing the race card in the United States has always entailed downplaying the historic campaigns to rid the nation of slavery, for to praise the abolitionist was to demean the Southern grandee who held men and women in bondage. Eager after the Civil War to rehabilitate the defeated Southerners, American leaders neglected one of our proudest achievements — being the first people in the world to legislate against slavery. When all of us finally agree that citizenship should have not have a color, we’ll be ready to commemorate March 1, 1780.

Joyce Appleby, UCLA emerita professor, is author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism" (2010).