Part 1: 1450-1750
Part 2: 1750-1805
<--Part 3: 1791-1831
Part 4: 1831-1865

Narrative | Resource Bank | Teacher's Guide

People & Events
Founding of Pennsylvania Abolition Society

Resource Bank Contents

Founding of Pennsylvania Abolition Society

As early as 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown near Philadelphia protested slavery in a resolution that condemned the "traffic of Men-body." By the 1770s, abolitionism was a full-scale movement in Pennsylvania. Led by such Quaker activists as Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, many Philadelphia slaveholders of all denominations had begun bowing to pressure to emancipate their slaves on religious, moral, and economic grounds.

In April 1775, Benezet called the first meeting of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondagevii at the Rising Sun Tavern. Thomas Paineviii was among the ten white Philadelphians who attended; seven of the group were Quakers. Often referred to as the Abolition Society, the group focused on intervention in the cases of blacks and Indians who claimed to have been illegally enslaved. Of the twenty-four men who attended the four meetings held before the Society disbanded, seventeen were Quakers.

Six of these original members were among the largely Quaker group of eighteen Philadelphians that reorganized in February 1784 as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondageix (commonly referred to as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, or PAS). Although still occupied with litigation on behalf of blacks who were illegally enslaved under existing laws, the new name reflected the Society's growing emphasis on abolition as a goal. Within two years, the group had grown to 82 members and inspired the establishment of anti-slavery organizations in other cities.

PAS reorganized once again in 1787. While previously, artisans and shopkeepers had been the core of the organization, PAS broadened its membership to include such prominent figures as Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, who helped write the Society's new constitution. PAS became much more aggressive in its strategy of litigation on behalf of free blacks, and attempted to work more closely with the Free African Society in a wide range of social, political and educational activity

In 1787, PAS organized local efforts to support the crusade to ban the international slave trade and petitioned the Constitutional Convention to institute a ban. The following year, in collaboration with the Society of Friends, PAS successfully petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to amend the gradual abolition act of 1780. As a result of the 2000-signature petition and other lobbying efforts, the legislature prohibited the transportation of slave children or pregnant women out of Pennsyvania, as well as the building, outfitting or sending of slave ships from Philadelphia. The amended act imposed heavier fines for slave kidnapping, and made it illegal to separate slave families by more than ten miles.

Despite its unwavering support of the black community, PAS revealed its uncertain feelings toward freed slaves in a 1789 broadside entitled Address to the Public, in which they wrote of the devastating effects of slavery, effects which they said often left blacks unable to function as full citizens. Although intended to be sympathetic, the PAS statement gave support to existing prejudices, and no doubt would have been refuted by PAS founder Anthony Benezet, who, before his death in 1784, wrote numerous pamphlets in which he challenged the notion of black inferiority.

In 1789, under its new president, Benjamin Franklin, PAS announced a plan to help free black people better their situation. In conjunction with the Free African Society, PAS attempted to create black schools, help free blacks obtain employment, and conduct house visits to foster morality and a strong work ethic in Philadelphia's black residents. PAS's Committee of Guardians, established in 1790, facilitated the placement of black children in indentures (a common practice of the time among Philadelphia's free blacks), monitored the conditions under which the children lived, and intervened with legal and material support when necessary.

In 1815, PAS supported Richard Allen of the Bethel Church in their successful legal battle against takeover by the white Methodist leadership. PAS was listed along with Allen in the certificate that formally transferred ownership of the property on which Bethel stood.

In the decade after the War of 1812, such factors as the post-war economic slump, the death of Rush and other leaders, and a decline in support for abolition by Philadelphia's elite led to increasing anti-black sentiment and the legal, physical, and emotional harassment and exclusion of black citizens. By December 1833, when the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia, PAS had become a small, embattled group with little public support.

Image Credit: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

previous | next

Related Entries:
"Address to the Public"
Anthony Benezet
Benjamin Rush
Sheriff's sale
Washington's letter to Robert Morris
Constitution and Minutes of the PAS

Part 3: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop

WGBH | PBS Online | ©