More than two centuries before slavery was abolished in the United States, Rhode Island passed the first anti-slavery statute in the English speaking colonies on May 18, 1652:
Whereas, it is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy
negers, to that end they have them for service or slave forever: let it be
ordered, no blacke mankind or white being forced by covenant bond, or
otherwise, to serve any man or his assighnes longer than ten years or until
they come to bee twentie four yearsof age, if they be taken in under
fourteen, from the time of their cominge with the liberties of this
The Act limited the time to ten years for whites and blacks being held as indentured servants. Unfortunately, the Act quickly became a dead letter, and by the middle of the Eighteenth Century slaves constituted eleven percent of the population of Rhode Island. The permanent abolition of slavery did not begin until the Rhode Island legislature passed a plan for gradual emancipation in February 1784. All slaves born after March 1, 1784 were to be freed, girls at age 18 and boys at age 21. By 1800 there were 384 slaves remaining in Rhode Island. In 1840 these numbers were down to 5 quite elderly slaves, twelve years prior to the 200th anniversary of the first attempt to abolish slavery in Rhode Island.