Antislavery Action in the North
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Around the time Quock Walker took the stand in Judge William Cushing’s court, anti-slavery gears started to accelerate. In the years before and after the landmark decision in Massachusetts, major waves in abolitionism were made in neighboring states and religious communities.
In 1791, Jonathan Edwards, a minister hailing from New Haven, Connecticut, presented a sermon called “The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of Africans.” Edwards served as a congregationalist minister in White Haven before presiding over the Union College in Schenectady, New York. In one of the earliest and strongest expressions of abolitionism, Edwards outlined ten common pro-slavery points and disproved them.
Here, Edwards, introducing the horrors of slavery, highlighted how color has become the backbone of prejudice. This show of support, spoken 10 years after Brom V. Bett, was presented before the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage.
In 1780, the Gradual Abolition Act passed the Pennsylvania General Assembly, becoming the first such act to extensively emancipate slaves in the United States. The word gradual, however, is key because slavery was not immediately made illegal, due to fears of upsetting the substantial number of slave owners in the state. Instead, newly born slaves were promised eventual freedom. Other Northern states soon followed Pennsylvania's lead: in 1784, Connecticut and Rhode Island enacted their own gradual emancipation acts.
Notably, however, the law did not put an end to major antislavery efforts in motion in Pennsylvania. On November 9, 1789, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin, published an address to the public to garner support, “To instruct; to advise; to qualify those who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty.” The letter, after acknowledging the success of antislavery efforts in Pennsylvania, called not only for national emancipation but also for societal support for the introduction of freedmen into society. The tone of the document takes on a slight superiority complex, touting a burden to take care of the neglected fellow. Regardless, the document clearly shows bold support of national abolition only years before emancipation in Massachusetts.
The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers, was the first organized religious group to reject the tenets of slavery, finding it in conflict with their religious and moral beliefs. While the Quaker community, since the 1600s, actively worked to ensure the socio-economic state of freedmen, they often also got politically involved in the quest to end slavery. In this document, a religious sub-group, the Quakers of New England, advocate for the development of an antislavery law in 1794. They clarify that they, “disclaimed any request or desire of legislative interference for the purpose of a general emancipation” but instead advocate that United States citizens should be prohibited from participating in the slave trade. This position was likely taken because slavery was picking up heat as a highly divisive issue at this time, with several states domino-ing into gradual abolition while others stayed staunch in the ways of slavery. However, the intention of the petition is clear, with the writers going as far as to propose a committee to regulate and prevent the building of slave ships in the United States. Congress would eventually ban the slave trade in its entirety in 1808.
Prominent opposition to slavery started to take hold in Northern states in the 18th Century, eventually spreading to early Southern abolitionists like the Grimke sisters in the early 19th Century. However, the sectionalism in the conflict persisted, eventually resulting in the Civil War. As for local abolitionists, not a single slave was counted in the 1790 census, solidifying Massachusetts as a free state.