The revolutionary generation found slavery contradictory to their beliefs in liberty and equality. In 1776, people of African ancestry made up one-fifth of the total population of the United States.
Of these, 90 percent were slaves. Slavery was found in every state. In New England, slaves were only 3 percent of the population, contrasted with Virginia where 40 percent of the population were slaves. In coastal South Carolina, the majority of the population was held in bondage. For this reason, it was to the advantage of Southern slave-holding states to demand at the Constitutional Convention that slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person in the census. This counting allowed Southern states to have more congressional representation because the House of Representatives was based on state populations.
The American Revolution weakened slavery because many states allowed slaves to enlist in the Continental Army in return for freedom at the end of the war. In Virginia, 10 percent of the slaves received freedom. Furthermore, many of the American revolutionaries opposed slavery in principle. The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, condemned slavery.
The campaign to abolish slavery had begun before the American Revolution and following the revolution, Northern states began to abolish slavery. In Massachusetts, the state Supreme Court ruled that slavery violated the state’s constitution, which had been adopted during the revolution. In other states legislation was enacted that allowed the emancipation of slaves. In Pennsylvania, children born of slave mothers after 1780 were to become free at the age of 28. In New York, with a much larger slave population, legislation was enacted in 1799 similar to the Pennsylvania plan. This was a major victory for anti-slavery voices such as Alexander Hamilton who had faced opposition from wealthy Long Island slaveholders. New Jersey became the last northern state in 1846 to adopt gradual emancipation.
- While slavery was widespread around the world at the time of the American Revolution, no other country needed a Civil War to abolish it. What was different about America that made slavery so divisive?
- Given that the American Founders opposed slavery in principle, why didn’t they just abolish it? How would American history have been different, had slavery been abolished at the time of the revolution?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers. Click here to download the Common Sense American History materials.
22, Oct. 2018, A slave sale advertisement from 1769 [Digital image]. Retrieved from <learningenglish.voanews.com>.