Movement for Emancipation and Abolition of Slavery in Early America


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College
Painting of slaves dancing on a plantation in the 1790.
The practice of slavery began to be questioned in the new American republic. (Image: Anonymous/Public domain)

The Population in 1790

The American population in 1790 numbered just over 3.9 million; in a republic whose boundaries embraced 864,746 square miles, that meant that the United States almost felt empty. Population density in the United States was 4.5 people per square mile, while in England, it was 150 people per square mile. Americans were not only thinly scattered, they were also overwhelmingly young.

At the time of the Philadelphia Convention, the median age was 16, and life expectancy at birth was in the low thirties. According to the instructions in the Constitution, the census did not enumerate “Indians not taxed,” and it was not until 1822 that the New England geographer, Jedidiah Morse, published specific estimates of the Indian population which amounted to only 471,175, in more than 150 recognizable tribes.

Americans were more-or-less evenly spaced into three zones—New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the South—and fully 90 percent of them were of English or Scottish and Scots-Irish extraction, followed by eight percent German.

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The Black Population

Oil pastel portrait of Mum Bett, an African American woman.
Mum Bett’s case was the first in which slavery was held to be against the Constitution. (Image: Susan Anne Ridley Sedgwick/Public domain)

However, one demographic group not so evenly spread was the mostly enslaved Africans; half of South Carolina’s population was black, and so was 40 percent of Virginia’s. That was after subtracting the 4,000 black slaves who absconded from Savannah with the British at the end of the Revolution, along with 5,300 from Charleston when the British evacuated South Carolina, and 2,775 black Loyalists who left New York with the British departure. Those who remained behind now took the struggle for freedom into their own hands.

In 1781, an enslaved woman in Sheffield, Massachusetts, known as Mum Bett, recruited a Stockbridge lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to assist her in bringing a suit for her freedom, on the grounds that the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution had declared “all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” The case took all of one day for the jury to hear and find in Mum Bett’s favor.

Erasing Slavery

A similar case was filed on behalf of a male slave, Quok Walker. This time the case worked its way up to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1783. “Our Constitution of Government,” announced Chief Justice William Cushing in his charge to the jury, “sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and this being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature.”

Slavery thus had its legal underpinnings erased in Massachusetts, and by 1790, there were no slaves remaining in the state. In 1783 and 1784, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island began the process of emancipating their slaves, followed by New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804.

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Abolition Movements

The pattern for all of these abolition movements was established in Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania legislature adopted a gradual emancipation program in 1780. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society began aggressively litigating for the emancipation of slaves brought from other states into Pennsylvania.

Even in the Southern states, slaveholders “seemed grieved at having slaves, and are constantly talking of abolishing slavery and of seeking other means of exploiting their lands.” The free black population of Maryland rose from 1800 in the mid-18th-century to 20,000 by 1799; in 1782, Virginia’s free black population amounted to only 1,800, but by the year 1800, it had swollen to 13,000.

Manumission societies sprang up in New York, founded by John Jay in 1785.

Learn more about Thomas Jefferson as a slave owner.

Racial Perspectives

This did not mean, even when passing from slavery to freedom, that life for black Americans was going to be as free as it might be for the whites. Whatever other traditional restraints and hierarchies the Enlightenment had thrown off, the bugaboo of race remained stubborn and persistent. David Hume, like Thomas Jefferson, could insist that all men are created equal; like Jefferson, however, Hume could not rid himself of the belief that blacks were inferior to the whites.

In terms reminiscent of Jefferson’s, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that the “blacks of Africa” have never offered any example of one “who has accomplished something great in art or science or shown any other praiseworthy quality.” Race would always draw a line of containment, even of contempt, around black aspirations for betterment. And yet, even that would be a vast step upwards from slavery, and in the 1790s, a tipping-point seemed within reach which would guarantee the elimination of slave labor entirely in the new republic.

Common Questions about Black People in Early America

Q: What was the American population and density like in 1790?

The American population in 1790 numbered just over 3.9 million; in a republic whose boundaries embraced 864,746 square miles, that meant that the population density was 4.5 persons per square mile.

Q: What was the population density of the black population in 1790?

Enslaved Africans were not evenly spread about; half of South Carolina’s population was black, and so was 40 percent of Virginia’s, not including slightly over 12000 black slaves who absconded when the British left.

Q: How did slaves begin to emancipate themselves in the new American republic?

Cases such as those of Mum Bett and Quok Walker, where the slaves demanded freedom on the basis of the Constitution of the United States, were among the first in which the court ruled that slavery was antithetical to the spirit of liberty of the American republic.

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