Afrolumens Project  home pageslavery
Share |

County index

Educational articles

How to use this site

PA slavery FAQs

Site map

Slaves, chained together in a coffle, are paraded through the streets of Washington D.C. on their way to the slave market. Detail from a larger print in the Library of Congress.

A series of pages exploring
various aspects of slavery in Pennsylvania


1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery
and Cato's 1780 Letter Protesting Revisions

From Pennsylvania Law Book, vol. i, p. 339. This text was taken from William Henry Egle, M.D., M.A.; History of the Counties of Dauphin and Lebanon in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Biographical and Genealogical;, page 50; reprinted by Higginson Book Company, Salem, Massachusetts, 1991.



"I. 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 exposed, and how miraculously our wants in many instances have been supplied, and our deliverances wrought, when even hope and human fortitude have become unequal to the conflict, we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful sense of the manifold blessings, which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect gift cometh. Impressed with these 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 release from that state of thraldom to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we now have every prospect of being delivered. It is not for us to inquire why in the creation of mankind the inhabitants of several parts of the earth were distinguished by a difference in feature or complexion. It is sufficient to know that all are the work of an Almighty Hand. We find in the distribution of the human species that the most fertile as well as the most 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 esteem it a peculiar blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization, by removing as much as possible the sorrows of those who have lived in undeserved 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 course of experience, from those narrow prejudices and partialities we have imbibed, we find our hearts enlarged with kindness and benevolence toward men of all conditions and nations, and we perceive ourselves at this particular period extraordinarily called upon by the blessings which we have received, to manifest the sincerity of our profession to give substantial proof of our gratitude.

II. And, whereas, the condition of those persons who have heretofore been denominated Negro and Mulatto slaves, has been attended with circumstances which not only deprived them of the common blessings that they were by nature entitled to, but has cast them into the deepest afflictions by an unnatural separation and sale of husband and wife from each other and from their children, an injury the greatness of which can only be conceived by supposing that we were in the same unhappy case. In justice, therefore, to persons so unhappily circumstanced, and who, having no prospect before them whereon they may rest their sorrows and hopes, have no reasonable inducement to render their services to society, which they otherwise might, and also in grateful commemoration of our own happy deliverance from that state of unconditional submission to which we were doomed by the tyranny of Britain.

"III. Be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted, That all persons as well Negroes and Mulattoes, as others, who shall be born within this State from and after the passing of this Act shall not be deemed and considered as servants for life, or slaves; and that all servitude for life, or slavery of children in consequence of the slavery of their mothers, in the case of all children born within this State from and after the passing of this Act, as aforesaid, shall be, and hereby is, utterly taken away, extinguished, and forever abolished.

"IV. Provided always, and be it further enacted, That every Negro and Mulatto child, born within this State after the passing of this act as aforesaid (who would, in case this act had not been made, have been born a servant for years, or life, or a slave) shall be deemed to be, and shall be, by virtue of this act, the servant of such person, or his or her assigns, who would in such case have been entitled to the service of such child, until such child shall attain the age of twenty-eight years, in the manner, and on the conditions, whereon servants bound, by indenture for four years are or may be retained and holden; and shall be liable to like corrections and punishment, and entitled to like relief, in case he or she be evilly treated by his or her master or mistress, and to like freedom dues and other privileges, as servants bound by indenture for four years are or may be entitled, unless the person, to whom the service of any such child shall belong, shall abandon his or her claim to the same; in which case the Overseers of the Poor of the city, township, or district, respectively, where such child shall be abandoned, shall, by indenture, bind out every child so abandoned, as an apprentice, for a time not exceeding the age herein before limited for the service of such children.

"V. And be it further enacted, That every person, who is or shall be the owner of any Negro or Mulatto slave or servant for life, or till the age of thirty-one years, now within this State, or his lawful attorney, shall, on or before the said first day of November next, deliver, or cause to be delivered, in writing, to the Clerk of the peace of the county, or to Clerk of the court of record of the city of Philadelphia, in which he or she shall respectively inhabit, the name and surname, and occupation or profession of such owner, and the name of the county and township, district or ward, wherein he or she resideth; and also the name and names of such slave and slaves, and servant and servants for life, or till the age of thirty-one years, together with their ages and sexes, severally and respectively set forth and annexed, by such persons owned or statedly employed, and then being within this State, in order to ascertain and distinguish the slaves and servants for life, and till the age of thirty-one years, within this State, who shall be such on the said first day of November next, from all other persons; which particulars shall, by said Clerk of the sessions and Clerk of the said city court, be entered in books to be provided for that purpose by the said Clerks; and that no Negro or Mulatto, now within this State, shall, from and after the said first day of November, be deemed a slave or servant for life, or till the age of thirty-one years, unless his or her name shall be entered as aforesaid on such record, except such Negro and Mulatto slaves and servants as herein excepted; the said Clerk to be entitled to a fee of two dollars for each slave or servant so entered as aforesaid, from the Treasurer of the county to be allowed to him in his accounts.

"VI. Provided always, That any person, in whom the ownership or right to the service of any Negro or Mulatto shall be vested at the passing of this act, other than such as are hereinbefore accepted, his or her heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns, and all and every of them, severally, shall be liable to the Overseers of the city, township, or district, to which any such Negro or Mulatto shall become chargeable, for such necessary expense, with costs of suit thereon, as such Overseers may be put to through the neglect of the owner, master, or mistress of such Negro or Mulatto, notwithstanding the name and other descriptions of such Negro or Mulatto shall not be entered as aforesaid, unless his or her master or owner shall, before such slave or servant attain his or her twenty-eighth year, execute and record in the proper county, a deed or instrument, securing to such slave or servant his or her freedom.

"VII. And be it further enacted, That the offences and crimes of Negroes and Mulattoes, as well slaves and servants as freemen, shall be enquired of , adjudged, corrected, and punished, in like manner as the offences and crimes of the other inhabitants of this State are, and shall be enquired of, adjudged, corrected, and punished, and not otherwise, except that a slave shall not be admitted to bear witness against a freeman.

"VIII. And be it further enacted, That in all cases wherein sentence of death shall be pronounced against a slave, the jury before whom he or she shall be tried shall appraise and declare the value of such slave; and in such case sentence be executed, the court shall make an order on the State Treasurer, payable to the owner for the same, and for the costs of prosecution, but in case of remission or mitigation, for costs only.

"IX. And be it further enacted, That the reward for taking up runaway and absconding Negro and Mulatto slaves and servants, and the penalties for enticing away, dealing with or harboring, concealing or employing Negro and Mulatto slaves and servants, shall be the same, and shall be recovered in like manner, as in case of servants bound for four years.

"X. And be it further enacted, That no man or woman of any nation, or color, except the Negroes or Mulattoes who shall be registered as aforesaid, shall, at any time, be deemed, adjudged, and holden within the territories of this commonwealth as slaves and servants for life, but as free men and free women; except the domestic slaves attending upon Delegates in Congress from other American States, foreign Ministers and Consuls, and persons passing through or sojourning in this State, and not becoming resident therein, and seamen employed in ships not belonging to any inhabitant of this State, nor employed in any ship owned by such inhabitants; provided such domestic slaves be not aliened or sold to any inhabitant, nor (except in the case of Members of Congress, foreign Ministers and Consuls) retained in this State longer than six months.

"XI. Provided always, and be it further enacted, That this act, or anything in it contained, shall not give any relief or shelter to any absconding or runaway Negro or Mulatto slave or servant, who has absented himself or shall absent himself, from his or her owner, master or mistress, residing in any other State or country, but such owner, master or mistress, shall have like right and aid to demand, claim, and take away his slave or servant, as he might have had in case this act had not been made; and that all Negro and Mulatto slaves now owned and heretofore resident in this State, who have absented themselves, or been clandestinely carried away, or who may be employed abroad as seamen, and have not returned or been brought back to their owner, masters or mistresses, before the passing of this act, may, within five years, be registered, as effectually as is ordered by this act concerning those who are now within the State, on producing such slave before any two Justices of the Peace, and satisfying the said Justices, by due proof, of the former residence, absconding, taking away, or absence of such slaves as aforesaid, who thereupon shall direct and order the said slave to be entered on the record as aforesaid.

"XII. And whereas attempts may be made to evade this act, by introducing into this State Negroes and Mulattoes bound by covenant to serve for long and unreasonable terms of years, if the same be not prevented.

"XIII. Be it therefore enacted, That no covenant of personal servitude or apprenticeship whatsoever shall be valid or binding on a Negro or Mulatto for a longer time than seven years, unless such servant or apprentice were, at the commencement of such servitude or apprenticeship, under the age of twenty-one years, in which case such Negro or Mulatto may be holden as a servant or apprentice, respectively, according to the covenant, as the case shall be, until he or she shall attain the age of twenty-eight years, but no longer.

"XIV. And be it further enacted, That an act of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and five, entitled An Act for the trial of Negroes; and another act of Assembly of the said Province, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and twenty-five, entitled An Act for the better regulating of Negroes in this Province; and another act of Assembly of the said Province, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and sixty-one, entitled An Act for laying a duty on Negro and Mulatto slaves imported into this Province; and also another act of Assembly of the said Province, passed in the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-three, entitled An Act for making perpetual an act for laying a duty on Negro and Mulatto slaves imported into this Province, and for laying an additional duty on said slaves, shall be, and are hereby, repealed, annulled, and made void."

 Historian Egle wrote, of the above law: "Following is the full text of the act which doomed slavery in Pennsylvania. Enacted on March 1st, 1780, with a vote of 34 to 21, this law was partially the work of William Brown, a Pennsylvania legislator from Lancaster County." Of course many additional people worked on the bill, and one is identified by the site manager of Historic Strawberry Mansion, in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. She writes:

My name is Katybeth Jerome and I am the Site Manager at the Historic Strawberry Mansion in Fairmount Park. You may or may not be aware of William Lewis, Esq. and his role with the 1780 Abolition act, but as the builder of the Historic Strawberry Mansion and a recognized draughtsman of the act, I am always sleuthing for information regarding the act and its authors. I couldn't help but notice on your website that authorship of the act is at least partially attributed to WIlliam Brown of Lancaster County.

I did indeed find the Egle citation giving Brown the proverbial pat on the back for his unnamed role in the act, but I am wondering if you have personally come across any additional information regarding this attribution? It would be interesting to know if that would be a possible lead for more information about the bill and its champions. Also, I would like to inquire about the possibility of including William Lewis as an attributed author of the bill on your website. I can provide you with several historical references crediting Lewis with the draftsmanship of the bill if you need them.

Katybeth Jerome
Site Manager
The Committee of 1926 and Historic Strawberry Mansion
2450 Strawberry Mansion Drive
Philadelphia, PA 19132

"Cato's" letter in response to an attempt
to revise the Gradual Abolition Law

According to the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, any slave not registered by the deadline of November 01, 1780 must be immediately emancipated. Such good fortune due to the neglect of some slaveholders affected quite a few slaves in Pennsylvania. One such person was "Cato," whose entire family was given their freedom because their owner failed to comply with the law.

Rural slaveholders, however, pressured the Pennsylvania Assembly to amend the law to return such prematurely freed slaves to their masters and to extend the registration period until January, 1782. The Assembly refused to bow to the rural pressures, though, and the bill failed. One reason, according to historian Philip S. Foner, is the pleas of African Americans such as Cato, whose eloquent letter appeared in the Freedman's Journal, September 21, 1780. The entire text of the letter was first reprinted in Foner's article "A Plea Against Reenslavement" (Pennsylvania History; Vol. 39 [1972] pp 239-241). Paragraph breaks in the following letter were added for clarity in reading:


 I am a poor negro, who with myself and children have had the good fortune to get my freedom, by means of an act of assembly passed on the first of March, 1780, and should now with my family be as happy a set of people as any on the face of the earth, but I am told the assembly are going to pass a law to send us all back to our masters.

Why dear Mr. Printer, this would be the cruelest act that ever a set of worthy good gentlemen, could be guilty of. To make a law to hang us all, would be "merciful," when compared with this law; for many of our masters would treat us with unheard barbarity, for daring to take advantage (as we have done) of the law made in our favor. Our lot in "slavery" were hard enough to bear; but having tasted the sweets of "freedom," we should now be miserable indeed. Surely no Christian gentleman can be so cruel! I cannot believe they will pass such a law.

I have read the act which made me free, and I always read it with joy--and I always dwell with particular pleasure on the following words, spoken by the assembly on the top of the said law. "We esteem it a particular blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization by removing as much as possible the sorrows of those who have lived in 'undeserved' bondage, and from which by the assumed authority of the kings of Great Britain, no effectual legal relief could be obtained." See it was the king of Great Britain that kept us in slavery before. Now surely, after saying so, it cannot be possible for them to make slaves of us again--nobody, but the king of England can do it--and I sincerely pray, that he may never have it in his power.

It cannot be, that the assembly will take from us the liberty they have given, because a little further they go on and say, "we conceive ourselves, at this particular period, extra-ordinarily called upon, by the blessings which 'we' have received, to make manifest the sincerity of our professions, and to give a substantial proof of our gratitude." If after all this, 'we,' who by virtue of this very law (which has those very words in it which I have copied,) are now enjoying the sweets of that "substantial proof of gratitude," I say if we should be plunged back into slavery what must we think of the meaning of all those words in the beginning of said law, which seem to be a kind of creed respecting slavery, but what is more serious than all, what will our great Father think of such doings. But I pray that he may be pleased to turn the hearts of the honorable assembly from this cruel law; and that he will be pleased to make us poor blacks deserving of his mercies.




About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | Archives