Laboring for Freedom: Emancipation in Philadelphia before the Civil War

Philadelphia, 1741-1780: The Fall of Slavery


Slavery remained a part of the fabric of the United States well in the middle of the nineteenth century.  The thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery was not passed until 1865; however, Pennsylvanians – more specifically Philadelphians – because of the influence of the Quakers, had begun eschewing slavery long before then.  Author Gary Nash, in Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840, claims that “ideally, Quakers hoped they might fit African slaves into a system of Christian servitude where familial relations would prevail – a “fraternal relationship of unequals.”[1]  Unfortunately, the reality proved quite different from the ideal.  The antislavery advocates protested slavery as incompatible with the Quaker credo, which pronounced the “unity of all mankind, the evil of and from violence in human affairs, and the sinfulness of ostentation and pride.” [2] For the Quakers, the ownership of fellow human beings signified all of those things.  At the Quaker Yearly Meeting in 1776, the Friends issued their epochal edict vowing “disownment of all members who did not free their slaves.” [3]  This pronouncement led the abolition movement in Pennsylvania.

Indentured Record; Pennsylvania Abolition Society Manumission and Indenture Records; Microfilm from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Indentured Record; Pennsylvania Abolition Society Manumission and Indenture Records; Microfilm from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

At this point, it is beneficial to establish the differences between African-Americans in 1740 and African-Americans in 1800.  These differences help chart the progression of African American’s rising freedom.  According to Nash, “by 1767 about 1,400 slaves lived within no more than about twenty blocks of developed urban space.”[4]  This number represents only a certain amount within a small area, not the whole of Philadelphia, but one can imagine just how large the figure would be for the entirety of the city.

In the early 1770s, before the American Revolution, the total black population in Philadelphia was in decline, yet the number of freed African-Americans grew.  Philadelphia manumissions (the freeing of slaves by owners), as well as the arrival of freed blacks from other parts of the Delaware River Valley contributed to this increase.[5]  As Nash claims, “it appears that the free black population had reached 200 or 300 by 1770.  In the remaining six years before the outbreak of revolution, this free black population probably doubled.  At least 175 slaves in Philadelphia received their freedom between 1771 and 1776.  Many free blacks probably moved to Philadelphia from outlying areas, where Quakers were freeing their slaves in large numbers.”[6]  The social fabric, racial landscape, and population of Philadelphia was changing rapidly.

In the early 1780s, a manumitting sentiment struck many of Pennsylvania’s slaveholders, leading to the release of hundreds of slaves.[7]  With these masters looking for a way to cure the new nation of the most noxious cancer that was slavery, manumitted African-Americans could enjoy immediate freedom.  Or, if not immediate, they could now at least look forward to a date when they would be free.  Yet those manumitted almost always took places at the bottom rung of society, having little to no personal property; that did not stop these African-Americans from wanting freedom.  By 1820, “almost all slaves had been manumitted.”[8] (See manumission record above right.)

Table of Indentures of Freed Blacks. “Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath,” Gary Nash.  Oxford University Press, 1991. Page 174.

Table of Indentures of Freed Blacks. “Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath,” Gary Nash. Oxford University Press, 1991. Page 174.

Many African-Americans signed indentures as a condition of their emancipation and manumission, indenturing themselves until the age of twenty-eight.  The rationale for this condition most likely stems from the 1780 gradual abolition law that specified “children born to slaves after March 1, 1780, should serve their mother’s owner for twenty-eight years.”[9]  Technically, this law freed not a single slave.  It held in slavery “for life all children born up to the day the law took effect.”[10]  However, signing themselves into indentured servitude, meant for slaves, that their children would not be born into slavery.[11]  In a ten-year period, the number of indentured African-Americans increased tenfold. (See table above left.)

 

Philadelphia, 1760-1813: The Rise of the Labor Market


Even though slavery continued to exist in the North, strides were taken in the favor of freedom, with the manumission of many slaves.  However, just because Philadelphians were attempting to avoid the use of slaves does not mean those homes were free of help.  This new, rising moral objections to slavery coincided, as Nash points out, with a “growing preference for free labor in the economic slump of the 1760s.”[13]  Many homes enlisted the assistance of this new labor market by employing servants, both free and indentured, to aid in the running of the household.

In this investigation into the rising labor market, it is important to distinguish between the terms slave, indentured servant (indenture), servant, and worker.  Too often these words are used interchangeably, but they are very much different and distinct; their meanings should be distinguished; it is also important to understand the definition of free, particularly in contrast to slave/indentured/servant/and worker.  Their definitions also prove useful in the discussion of the labor market of Philadelphia between 1760 and 1820.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines these terms as such:

  • Slave: One who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights;[14]
  • Indenture: To bind by indentures, esp. as an apprentice or servant:[15]
  • Servant:  One who is under the obligation to render certain services to, and to obey the orders of, a person or a body of persons, esp. in return for wages or salary;[16]
  • Worker: One who works or does work of any kind; esp. one who works in a certain medium, at a specified trade or object of manufacture, or in a certain position or status; in early use also a maker or manufacturer; one who is employed for a wage, esp. in manual or industrial work;[17]
  • Free: Of or designating workers who are not slaves. Esp. in free labour.[18]

These terms and their subsequent definitions become integral to the discussion of the rising labor market in Philadelphia in the second half of the 1700s.  According to Robert Morris, indentured servants comprised the bulk of contract labor, with white immigrant indentures totaling almost eighty percent of the total British and continental immigration to America.  Convicts and thieves also helped populate this fledgling market.  If unable to make restitution, a prisoner was normally bound to service by the court.  Similarly, the courts helped contribute to the labor market by penalizing absentee or runaway servants, and requiring them to serve as many as ten days for every day’s unauthorized leave.  This law made no distinction between runaway indentured servants and free workers under contract.[19]

The terms of indentures curbed mobility and certain personal liberties, for some than others.  White bound labor existed in a nebulous space between freedom and slavery.  Both white and black indentures received no wages.  White servants were given certain amenities upon release, which could include clothing, a gun, and a hoe; African-Americans were lucky to receive enough land for a garden.[20]

Free laborers and workers, and even servants, had a seemingly easier time of service and work than did the indentured servants.  Both laborers and servants operated under a wage system similar to today’s standards.  However, in addition to money, employment contracts often included rum and food, and perhaps housing, depending on the employer or task.  These wage earners could contract themselves either seasonally or annually.[21]

It is extremely crucial to point out that African-Americans during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were indentured.  However, these people were not indentured as apprentices, with the intentions of learning a new trade to then start their own businesses; they were indentured as cheap, free laborers.  Even though it was extremely rare that African-Americans could themselves “free workers,” they worked equally as hard – if not harder – than whites, carving out a sense of freedom over their own lives.  They most certainly labored for their freedom.


ENDNOTES

[1] Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. 24.

[2] Nash, Forging Freedom, 25.

[3] Ibid, 31.

[4] Ibid, 14.

[5] Ibid, 34.

[6] Ibid, 36.

[7] Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 167.

[8] Nash, Freedom by Degrees, 173.

[9] Ibid, 177.

[10] Nash, Forging Freedom, 63.

[11] Nash, Freedom by Degrees, 167

[13] Nash, Forging Freedom, 32-3.

[14] Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 19, 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/181477?rskey=pjegRC&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

[15] Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 19, 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94314?rskey=jJVXoD&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

[16] Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 19, 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/176648?rskey=L7a0CX&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

[17] Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed May 2, 2014. http://www.oed.com.ezp1.villanova.edu/view/Entry/230228?redirectedFrom=worker#eid

[18] Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 25, 2014. http://www.oed.com.ezp1.villanova.edu/view/Entry/74375?rskey=teLbC8&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

[19] Morris, Richard B. “U.S. Department of Labor – History – The Emergence of American Labor.” U.S. Department of Labor –History –The Emergence of American Labor. Accesses May 2, 2014. http://www.dol.gov//dol/aboutdol/history/chapter1.htm.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.


 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Microfilm

Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers

Indentured and Manumissions Records, series 4 reel 3

Oxford English Dictionary

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. OED. Accessed May 2, 2014. http://www.oed.com.ezp1.villanova.edu/view/Entry/230228?       redirectedFrom=worker#eid.

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 19, 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/176648?rskey=L7a0CX&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 19, 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/181477?rskey=pjegRC&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 19, 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94314?rskey=jJVXoD&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Accessed March 25, 2014. http://www.oed.com.ezp1.villanova.edu/view/Entry/74375?rskey=teLbC8&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.

Secondary Sources

Articles

Morris, Richard B. “U.S. Department of Labor — History — The Emergence of American Labor.” U.S. Department of Labor — History —      The Emergence of American Labor. Accessed May 02, 2014. http://www.dol.gov/dol/aboutdol/history/chapter1.htm.

 Books

Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford     University Press, 1991.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard   University Press, 1988.

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