Pennsylvania may have been the first former colony to take steps to abolish slavery, but the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act was an extremely weak law.
It freed no one immediately, only the future children born to an enslaved black Pennsylvania mother, and the law required the children to work as indentured servants for her master until age 28. Slaveowners routinely took heavily pregnant women out of state so they would give birth in slave states such as Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, where the children would be sold.
Even George Washington took advantage of a loophole in the law, rotating the eight enslaved blacks he brought to Philadelphia to work in the President's House out of state every several months so they could never establish a six-month residency in Pennsylvania, and legally demand their freedom.
Lawler is the historian of the Independence Hall Association.