The Freedom Papers
In 2007, a supervisor in the office of Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts came upon an 1816 ledger with the word “Negro” written on it. The book yielded 18th and 19th century accounts of legal transactions in Pittsburgh from the years 1792 to 1857 of slaves, freed Black people, never enslaved Blacks, and indentures.
The papers include accounts of transactions involving human property: slaves freed by their owners; slaves who paid for their own freedom; records of human sales in Pennsylvania and other states; requests for Freedom Papers and Certificates of Freedom; the indentures of Black girls and boys; and spousal and parental purchases to free their children.
McDonald Roberts turned the papers over to the Senator John Heinz History Center because of their historic significance.
Self-Evident Truths? The Declaration of Independence
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
These oft-quoted words from the Declaration of Independence seem to be so clear and unequivocal that Thomas Jefferson, the primary author, called the unalienable rights a self-evident truth. But Jefferson, who owned more than 200 slaves himself, equivocated on the issue in theory and in practice.
While he theoretically abhorred the institution, he believed Blacks were inferior, and worried about the ability of freed slaves to survive their freedom in a nation not completely ready, or willing, to grant them that unalienable right. As part of the political give-and-take that led to the 13 separate American colonies uniting in rebellion, an entire section of the grievances against King George III in Jefferson’s classic declaration was excised at the insistence of representatives of the Southern colonies:
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He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of a CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.
So the issue of slavery was sacrificed for political expediency in the effort to unite the colonies against the repression of King George, and the issue of slavery would be put off at least another 11 years, until the newly formed nation created its constitution.
The Constitution and Slavery
Although the United States was founded on the principle of liberty for all, the institution of slavery was well entrenched in the country when the delegates gathered in Philadelphia to write the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Every state except Massachusetts and the districts of Vermont and Maine counted slaves. In framing the Constitution, the founding fathers debated the slavery issue and struggled with the wording of the original document, which makes no mention of the word slave or slavery.
Although not explicitly stated, references to slavery occur in three areas of the Constitution. They are Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3; Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1; and Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3.
While not directly referencing slavery, Article 5 allows no amendment prior to 1808, the date designated in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1, to end the institution.
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The first article, the Legislative Branch, alludes to the institution of slavery in specifying the number of representatives permitted for each state. Large states wanted representation to be based on population while small states wanted each state to have the same number of representatives. This became a major point of discussion and was not resolved for two months. The decision was a compromise: The House of Representatives would be based on population and the Senate would have two members from each state. The Southern states wanted to count the slaves because it would increase their political power, but the Northern states disagreed. Again, the delegates compromised as spelled out in the Enumeration Clause—Section 2, Clause 3. Slaves were referred to as “other persons” and would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
The second reference in the first article—Section 9, Clause 1—relies on another euphemism, describing the slave trade as the “importation of such persons.” While many states had outlawed slavery, several states that allowed it threatened to leave the Convention if the slave trade were banned. Another compromise came into play. Congress would have the power to ban the importation, but not until January 1, 1808. Also outlined in this clause, a tax or duty not exceeding $10 for each person was to be imposed on such importation. To further underscore the existence of slavery until 1808, the authors state in Article 5 of the Constitution that there can be no amendment to Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1, which meant that the 1808 power to outlaw slavery could not be changed even by amendment to the Constitution itself.
The delegation addressed another issue. Southern states wanted escaped slaves to be returned. They didn’t have this guarantee under the Articles of Confederation. However Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, had passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the Northwest Territory and promised that slaves who escaped to the territories would be returned to their owners.
Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution adopts a similar clause, but again there is no mention of the actual word slave. The clause, known as the Fugitive Slave Clause, states that a “person held to service or labour” in one state who has escaped to another state is to be returned to the state from which the person fled. This was the result of a compromise with the New England states that received concessions on shipping and trade in exchange for the clause.
Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition of Slavery
The disintegration of slavery in Pennsylvania began with isolated individual acts of manumission. An “indisputable” case, and the first known example of record in the Commonwealth, occurred in 1701, when Lydia Wade of Chester County, Pa., by testament declared, “My will is that my negroes John and Jane his wife shall be set free one month after my decease.”
Pennsylvania’s formal abolition of slavery began in 1780 with the enactment of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The language of the law denounced the institution of slavery and acknowledged that slavery “not only deprived [Negro and mulatto slaves] of the common blessings that they were by nature entitled to, but has cast them into the deepest afflictions, by an unnatural separation and sale of husband and wife from each other and from their children. …”
By the 1770s, it was clear that Pennsylvania and Virginia had conflicting claims upon the western lands, encompassing Pittsburgh.
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In 1773, Pennsylvania designated the land west of the Alleghenies, including Pittsburgh, as Westmoreland County. In 1776, Virginia created what it called the District of West Augusta, which encompassed three counties: Monongalia, Ohio, and Yohogania, which also included Pittsburgh.
Many residents of the area were stymied. Those who favored Virginia tended to register their deeds and record their marriages and births with Virginia. Others registered transactions with Pennsylvania. Some even registered with both.
In 1779, the Mason-Dixon Line was extended to what is now the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, and the land that had been West Augusta became Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, and Washington counties in Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh fell 50 miles north of the line and was determined to be in Westmoreland County, Pa.
This decision had important implications for slavery in the region. As the two states were approving the border deal in 1780, Pennsylvania was enacting its Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act. In contrast, slavery in Virginia continued to flourish until 1863.
Ending the Slave Trade
An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States (Enacted 1807; took effect January 1, 1808)
Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution prevented Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves into the United States before 1808. Acting with dispatch, Congress passed and on March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law legislation stipulating that, effective January 1, 1808, “it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to servitude or labour.”
Although the law had its weaknesses and was laxly enforced, it nevertheless resulted in a sharp reduction in the number of slaves brought into the United States.
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In the single decade of 1790-1800, for instance, it is reported that more than 79,000 Africans were transported to North America; from 1810 through the 1860s, that number was estimated to be approximately 50,000.
The U.S. domestic slave trade boomed in the wake of the 1808 law, reportedly resulting in close to a million slaves being sold across state borders, mainly from the upper South to the deep South, where “King Cotton” created a massive demand for slave labor. And this number of course does not include intrastate slave transactions. The domestic U.S. slave trade broke up thousands of families, as husbands often were sold separately from wives and children separately from parents. The sight of slave auctions and sales in the South outraged sensitive souls and was a major factor promoting antislavery sentiment in the North.
The sharp reduction of slave imports to the United States drove up the price of slaves, which led to an improvement in the way they were treated so that they could survive and reproduce. In countries like Brazil and Cuba, on the other hand, the continuing importation of slaves kept prices so low that slaveholders were tempted to work slaves to death and simply replace them with fresh shiploads from Africa. Life, alas, was much shorter and brutish for slaves in the West Indies and Brazil than in the United States, where, as we know, conditions were brutal enough. However, the downside in the United States was that this shortage encouraged a form of slave breeding in which slaveholders forced slave women to reproduce.
Allegheny County Registry of the Children of Slaves
Children in Pennsylvania born to slave parents after March 1, 1780, were to be considered indentured servants rather than slaves. To help ensure this, the Act of Gradual Abolition required that slaveholders register their slaves in the county courthouse. To get around this law, some Pennsylvania slaveholders sent pregnant slave women to the South to give birth. In 1788, the Legislature prohibited such practices and, to help with enforcement, mandated that slaveholders go to the county courthouse to register the children of slaves born after March 1, 1780.
The registry of children of slaves in Allegheny County came into the possession of Thomas Waite Sr. of Bellevue and was made available to Edwin N. Schenkel, principal of Bellevue High School. In 1931, Schenkel, inspired by his professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, Russell Jennings Ferguson, copied these records, which ultimately were deposited at the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society.
Between 1789 and 1813, some 65 Allegheny County owners of slaves registered a total of 185 children. Those registering included doctors, lawyers, innkeepers, farmers, merchants, and widows and included such prominent names as John and Presley Neville, Conrad Winebiddle, Jacob Beltzhoover, and Abraham Kirkpatrick.