Effort to end slavery began in Pennsylvania

Nearly a century before the Emancipation Proclamation, the leading anti-slavery movement in the United States was centered in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was founded by Quakers in Philadelphia in 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence. Over the next 60 years, until the emergence of fiery anti-slavery advocates such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the Pennsylvania group's philosophy of gradual emancipation of slaves was the leading edge of the anti-slavery movement in America.

And unlike most other abolition groups, which went out of business after the Civil War, the Pennsylvania society still exists, handing out about $30,000 a year in grants for historical and equal rights purposes.

It is no accident that the society was founded by Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, said Rochester Institute of Technology historian Richard Newman.

When the Quakers began as a Christian reform movement in England in the 1600s, he said, they quickly faced persecution, in part because they did not respect the hierarchy of the Anglican Church or social classes of the time.

Even their use of "thee" and "thou" in addressing all people was a sore point for gentry who expected to be called m'lord and m'lady, Mr. Newman said.

Transplanted to Pennsylvania under William Penn's leadership, the Quakers were early advocates of freeing slaves, saying, "We as Quakers know what it means to be treated harshly," he said.

Jean Soderlund, a historian at Lehigh University, said the Quakers believed that every human being was inhabited by "God's inner light," and that made them more likely to push for equality.

Nevertheless, when the Pennsylvania Abolition Society began its work, it did not push for immediate emancipation of slaves, instead favoring a gradual approach.

There were a couple of reasons for that. One was a belief held by many American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, that slaves were not prepared to live as free people without a period of education and training.

Another was the natural spirit of compromise the Quakers had adopted within their own ranks. When they first came to Pennsylvania in the 1680s, many wealthier Quakers owned slaves. Over the next 90 years, Quakers first agreed to end the purchase of slaves, then involvement in the slave trade and, finally, in the 1770s, they declared no slave owners could remain in the Society of Friends.

So it made sense that the first major accomplishment of the abolition society was the passage of a Pennsylvania law that said that any slaves born in the state after 1780 would be emancipated at the age of 28.

Despite its gradualist approach, the law made a big impact.

Even though the law applied only to slaves born after March 1, 1780, many Pennsylvania slave owners decided to free slaves born before that date at age 28 as well, Ms. Soderlund said. Also, slaves from nearby states such as Virginia and Maryland fled to Pennsylvania, wrongly believing they would be free the minute they crossed the border.

Some of those cases ended up in the courts, where abolition society lawyers such as David Paul Brown were ready and willing to defend escaped slaves if they believed there was a case.

"It's remarkable how much these legal counselors did," said Chris Densmore, a present-day board member of the abolition society. "They were active for 20, 30, 40 years, being called out day and night in these cases. I've done a lot of looking at fugitive slave cases, and pretty much every time, there were lawyers on the scene immediately to defend a free black man or an escaped slave, and they were never going to see a dime in many cases."

While it seems conservative by today's standards, the 1780 law was one of the reasons why Southerners insisted on moving the nation's capital out of Philadelphia and to a southern state.

It also shaped Jefferson's views on emancipation.

"After seeing the Pennsylvania law, Jefferson doesn't think it's a great model for the American future," Mr. Newman said. "He doesn't see blacks and whites will live together peacefully in the future."

In an 1819 letter to abolitionist Edward Coles, the 76-year-old Jefferson asserted his belief in the need to free the slaves, but then added:

"I have seen no proposition so expedient on the whole, as ... emancipation of those born after a given day, and of their education and expatriation after a given age. This would ... lessen the severity of the shock which an operation so fundamental cannot fail to produce. For men probably of any color, but of this color we know, brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves."

As the years rolled by and the cotton industry took hold in the South, more assertive abolitionists said the gradualist philosophy of the Pennsylvania society wasn't doing enough to stop the explosion of the slave population below the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1820, there were about 1.5 million slaves in America. By 1860, there were nearly 4 million.

In the 1830s, abolitionists began to insist on immediate emancipation. In an 1831 speech, Garrison proclaimed:

"On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present."

Despite what appeared to be a rivalry between "immediatists" and gradualists of the Pennsylvania society, historians say that when the more radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1837, many of its members were people from the older abolition society.

Today, the abolition society confines itself to handing out small grants, such as the one it gave to a Girls Club in Coatesville, Pa., to restore an African-American cemetery that had fallen into disrepair.

The society now has a majority membership of African-Americans, Mr. Densmore said, and the group can "pretty much gather around a single table. On the other hand, we have a certain amount of moral capital; we were founded a week before the Battle of Lexington."

In fact, one of the society's annual awards for individual achievement is the John Parrish award, named for an 18th century abolitionist. The $1,500 grant comes from money that Mr. Parrish's family invested -- in 1808.

Mark Roth:, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar.

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