May 18, 1652: Rhode Island Bans Slavery




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.


Published in: on May 18, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 18, 1652: Rhode Island Bans Slavery  
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Was Lincoln a Reluctant Abolitionist?


Lincoln was first and foremost a politician, and the sincerity of politicians is always subject to question, but it is impossible after examining his speeches and private letters not to be convinced of his deep and abiding hatred of slavery.

His attitude towards slavery was well set forth in the following letter to A.G. Hodges on April 4, 1864: (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Was Lincoln a Reluctant Abolitionist?  
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Amistad Closing Argument


The closing argument in the Amistad case by John Quincy Adams as represented in the movie Amistad.  This is a greatly condensed version of course, as Adams spoke for eight and a half hours, not unusual for legal proceedings of that day.

The text of Adams’ argument may be read here.  The case involved the successful mutiny of slaves on board the Spanish ship Amistad.  The mutiny occurred on July 1, 1839.  The slaves killed the members of the crew except for two crewmen who were promised their lives if they would return the Africans to their home in Africa.  Instead, the crewmen steered the unsuspecting slaves to America, where they were taken into custody half a mile off eastern Long Island on August 24, 1839.

The case quickly became a cause celebre, with abolitionists filing a petition  in federal court in Connecticut to have the slaves freed and returned to Africa.  Pro-slavery forces in response rallied around the Spanish government which filed a petition for return of the slaves.  The abolitionists argued that Spain had signed a treaty with Great Britain in 1817 to abolish the Atlantic slave trade and that therefore the Africans could not be slaves, but were rather victims of kidnapping.  In January 1840, the District Court agreed. President Martin Van Buren, who did not want to anger slave holding sentiment in the Democrat party, ordered the US Attorney for Connecticut to appeal.  The District Court’s judgment was affirmed in April 1840. (more…)

Published in: on January 8, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Amistad Closing Argument  
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January 1, 1808: Importation of Slaves into the US is Banned


When the Constitution was drafted Congress was granted the power to ban the international slave trade into the US, but the power could not be exercised until January 1, 1808.  President Thomas Jefferson in his annual message to Congress of December 2, 1806, noted that January 1, 1808 was approaching:

I congratulate you, fellow citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe. Although no law you may pass can take prohibitory effect Ôtil the 1st day of the year 1808, yet the intervening period is not too long to prevent by timely notice expeditions which can not be completed before that day.

Congress in 1794 had passed an act to prohibit American ships from participating in the slave trade, so ships bringing slaves into the US could do so legally only if they were foreign ships.  Congress acted promptly in 1807 and a law banning the importation of slaves was signed by Jefferson on March 2, 1807.  Considering the furor that surrounded slavery in the coming decades, it should be noted that the banning of the international slave trade was not controversial and enjoyed broad support in Congress.


Published in: on January 1, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on January 1, 1808: Importation of Slaves into the US is Banned  
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April 16, 1862: District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act


It is sometimes asked why compensated emancipation wasn’t attempted instead of fighting a Civil War, as if that had been the choice.  Although Lincoln was in favor of compensated emancipation, neither the slave states nor the border states, in spite of Lincoln’s vigorous efforts, were interested.  There was one area, however, where Congress had the power to impose compensated emancipation, and that was in the District of Columbia which was under the direct control of Congress.  On April 16, 1862 President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emanipation Act.  Under the Act some 3,185 slaves were emancipated with the owners receiving approximately a million dollars in compensation.  The Civil War cost about two and a half million dollars a day for the Union.  In purchasing power a million Civil War era Union dollars has the spending power of about 27 million dollars today.

Pennsylvania 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery

1780 Act


In 1780 the State of Pennsylvania passed the first law in the Western hemisphere for the gradual abolition of slavery.  All slaves prior to the passage of the Act remained slaves.  (An Act passed in 1847 freed the few survivors of this group.)  However, all children of these slaves were to be freed when they attained the age of 28, and no new slaves who would reside in Pennsylvania for  longer than six months could be brought into the State without being granted their freedom after the six month period.  Legislation passed in 1788 cut off loopholes such as masters selling pregnant slaves out of state.  It wasn’t a perfect Act, but it succeeded in eliminating slavery in the Keystone State.  Would that such legislation had resolved the question of slavery peacefully throughout the country!  Here is the text of the Act: (more…)

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (7)  
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Get Off The Track!

Something for the weekend.  Get Off The Track! by the Hutchinson Family Singers, a family group of singers who were very popular in the North during the 1840’s, 1850’s and 1860’s.  They were fiery abolitionists and this song became the anthem of the crusade against slavery in the US. (more…)

The First Free State

The beginning of a new series looking at the ending of slavery in the North.  In many states it was a lengthy and convulted process.  Not so in Vermont where the constitution of 1777 abolished slavery outright: (more…)

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The First Free State  
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