Gradual emancipation (United States)

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Speech of the Hon. B. Gratz Brown, of St. Louis, on the subject of gradual emancipation in Missouri - delivered in the House of Representatives (Missouri) Feb 12, 1857

Gradual emancipation was a legal mechanism used by some states to abolish slavery over a period of time, such as An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery of 1780 in Pennsylvania.[1]


In the 16th century, Bartolomé de las Casas advocated ending enslavement. He stated that it was immoral, but there was pressure economically and politically to maintain slavery. Some of those who advocated for change wanted to end the transatlantic slave trade, because of how tortuous it was, but still supported slavery. Others wanted to end slavery entirely.[2]

Abolition of slavery in the various states of the US over time:
  Abolition of slavery during or shortly after the American Revolution
  The Northwest Ordinance, 1787
  Gradual emancipation in New York (starting 1799, ended 1827) and New Jersey (starting 1804, ended by Thirteenth Amendment, 1865)
  The Missouri Compromise, 1821
  Effective abolition of slavery by Mexican or joint US/British authority
  Abolition of slavery by Congressional action, 1861
  Abolition of slavery by Congressional action, 1862ff.
  Emancipation Proclamation as originally issued, 1 Jan 1863
  Subsequent operation of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863
  Abolition of slavery by state action during the Civil War
  Operation of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1864
  Operation of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865
  Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution, 18 Dec 1865
  Territory incorporated into the US after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment

The Age of Enlightenment of the late 17th century influenced increasing support for emancipation in the 18th century.[2] In the 1770s, Black people throughout New England began sending petitions to northern legislatures demanding freedom.[3] Pennsylvania's An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery of 1780 was the first legislative enactment in the United States.[4] It specified that

Every Negro and Mulatto child born within the State after the passing of the Act (1780) would be free upon reaching age twenty-eight."[4]

Once the Pennsylvania residents were freed, they were supposed to be treated the same as indentured servants who were contracted for four years of service. For instance, they were to receive tools of their trade or other privileges.[4]

Four other Northern self-declared states adopted policies to at least gradually abolish slavery: New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 1783, and Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. The Republic of Vermont had already limited slavery in its original constitution (1777), before it joined the United States as the 14th state in 1791. These state jurisdictions thus enacted the first abolition laws in the Americas.[3] By 1808, the importation of enslaved people was prohibited (though smuggling continued), and by the 1820s all Northern states enacted laws for either gradual or immediate emancipation.[5]

Abraham Lincoln proposed an amendment to the Constitution for gradual emancipation in 1861 and 1862, culminating with the Second Message to Congress in December 1862. However, he realized that immediate emancipation was what was needed, because there was increasing support for emancipation in the north and slaves helped the Confederates during the war. This led to the Emancipation Proclamation, which was formalized on January 1, 1863.[6] The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified at the end of the war, making slavery illegal in every state, and all enslaved people were freed.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Slavery and the Making of America . The Slave Experience: Freedom & Emancipation". Thirteen - PBS. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  2. ^ a b "Emancipation Movements". Slavery and Remembrance, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  3. ^ a b Foner, Eric (2010). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-19-513755-2.
  4. ^ a b c "Abolition of Slavery". PHMC - Our Documentary Heritage. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  5. ^ Newman, Richard S.; Finkelman, Paul; Prince, Carl E. (2006). "Abolitionism". African American Studies Center. Oxford African American Studies Center. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195301731.013.44512. ISBN 978-0-19-530173-1. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  6. ^ "Emancipation". Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  7. ^ "The Slave Experience: Freedom & Emancipation". PBS - Slavery and the Making of America. Retrieved 2021-05-08.