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Societal Impacts of the American Revolution

12a. The Impact of Slavery

Slaves at the Hermitage
More than 140 slaves lived and worked at Andrew Jackson's Hermitage plantation in Tennessee in the 1840's

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply did not seem consistent with the practice of chattel slavery. How could a group of people feel so passionate about these unalienable rights, yet maintain the brutal practice of human bondage? Somehow slavery would manage to survive the revolutionary era, but great changes were brought to this peculiar institution nevertheless.

The world's first antislavery society was founded in 1775 by Quakers in Philadelphia, the year the Revolution began. By 1788, at least thirteen of these clubs were known to exist in the American colonies. Some Northern states banned slavery outright, and some provided for the gradual end of slavery. At any rate, the climate of the Revolution made the institution unacceptable in the minds of many Northerners, who did not rely on forced labor as part of the economic system. Northerners did not, however, go as far as to grant equal rights to freed blacks. Nonetheless, this ignited the philosophical debate that would be waged throughout the next century.

Many slaves achieved their freedom during the Revolution without formal emancipation. The British army, eager to debase the colonial economy, freed many slaves as they moved through the American South. Many slaves in the North were granted their freedom if they agreed to fight for the American cause. Although a clear majority of African Americans remained in bondage, the growth of free black communities in America was greatly fostered by the War for American Independence. Revolutionary sentiments led to the banning of the importation of slaves in 1807.

Slavery did not end overnight in America. Before any meaningful reform could happen, people needed to recognize that the economic benefit was vastly overshadowed by the overwhelming repugnance, immorality, and inhumanity of slavery.

On the Web
Early Antislavery
This article from the National Park Service on the early anti-slavery movement covers some of the effects of the Revolution on the African-American population.
John G. Whittier: The Anti-Slavery Convention of 1833 1874
John G. Whittier attended the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1833 and later recorded his recollections of the event, excerpts of which are offered here.
Letter, Boston, April 20th, 1773
This letter, signed by Peter Bestes and 3 others, acknowledges the prohibition on the sale of slaves and gently hints that much more must be done for black men to secure their full rights. There also is the suggestion of a return-to-Africa movement.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke
The Grimke sisters, born to a prominent, wealthy, slave-owning Charleston, South Carolina, family became early leaders in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements.
The 1783 Quaker Petition to Congress regarding the Abolition of Slavery
The Quakers at their Annual Meeting of 1783 in Philadelphia, prepared a Petition to Congress calling for the abolition of slavery. Read the Petition at this website.
The efforts made by the legislative of this province in their last sessions to free themselves from slavery, gave us, who are in that deplorable state, a high degree of satisfaction. We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them. -letter from Peter Bestes and 3 other slaves, Boston, 1773
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