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Background Essay: Post Revolutionary War Emancipation and Entrenchment

To what extent did events during and following the Revolutionary War confront the conflict between slavery and Founding principles of liberty, equality, and justice? How did the actions of individuals and groups during this time period work in concert with or against Founding ideals?

Written by: The Bill of Rights Institute

After the Revolutionary War, a widespread movement toward emancipation showed the influence of revolutionary principles that “all men are created equal” with “unalienable rights.” Several states freed enslaved people outright, while others did so gradually. Guided by Revolutionary and Christian principles, numerous slaveholders admitted the evils of enslavement and manumitted, or privately freed, their slaves. Enslaved people also confronted the institution by appealing to those ideals and claiming their rights in courts and legislatures.  

The North led the way in emancipating slaves. In New England, 80 percent of African Americans living there were enslaved in 1774, but that figure dropped to only 5 percent by 1800. Vermont was the first to forbid slavery in 1777 (although it joined the Union in 1791). 

Because of the clause in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution that “all men are born free and equal,” several enslaved persons filed “freedom suits” in the courts. Elizabeth Freeman and then Quock Walker sued for their freedom and won. In the 1783 Walker decision, Justice William Cushing wrote, “Slavery is in my judgment as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence.” Slavery was effectively destroyed in New Hampshire because of a similar clause for natural rights in the state constitution.

Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, aged 70. Painted by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, aged 23. Watercolor on ivory, painted circa 1812. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston

Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman.

Sedgwick, Susan Ridley. Elizabeth Freeman. Circa 1812. Painting. Wikipedia.

Other northern states passed laws gradually emancipating enslaved persons born after a certain date, and typically when they reached a certain age. Each state had its internal debates over the most prudent manner of freeing the enslaved. Pennsylvania adopted a gradual emancipation law in 1780, and Rhode Island and Connecticut soon passed their own laws in 1784. After much debate, New York passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799, as did New Jersey in 1804. Gradual emancipation laws allowed slavery to persist for a few decades in these states but resulted in diminishing numbers of slaves and greater freedom.  

The story was different in the plantation societies of the southern states. Although leaders such as Thomas Jefferson advocated for gradual emancipation, the Virginia and Maryland legislatures refused to consider such laws. They did, however, permit slaveholders to manumit their slaves privately and thousands of people gained their freedom. Sometimes enslaved persons worked to buy their freedom or received their freedom for serving in the war. At other times, they were freed immediately. Some masters provided an education, land, or money for retirement for the freed people, but others did not.  

Wealthy Virginian Robert Carter III was influenced by his recent Baptist conversion and his belief that “tolerating slavery shows great depravity” to free almost 500 enslaved persons as he put principle above profit. George Washington directed that his slaves be freed after his death and the passing of his wife, Martha. Virginian Richard Randolph freed nearly 100 slaves upon his death in 1796 and granted them each some land, which the courts protected. On a smaller scale that was more typical, a Baltimore butcher allowed his three slaves to purchase their freedom and manumitted them in the early 1800s.

Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall, 1753 Thomas Hudson (1701–1779) Oil on canvas Gift of Louise Anderson Patten, 1972.17

The Revolutionary War principles of liberty and equality moved many Americans to recognize slavery as a great evil. Some, like Robert Carter III, emancipated their slaves despite the lucrative benefits that they earned from them.

Hudson, Thomas. Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall. 1753. Painting. Wikipedia.

The story was quite different further south in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Few slaveholders in those states manumitted their slaves. Georgia banned manumission in 1800 after Gabriel’s Revolt in Virginia. Gabriel was an enslaved blacksmith inspired by Revolutionary ideals of freedom who planned a slave rebellion to liberate all the enslaved in the state, but it was discovered and ruthlessly suppressed. The conspiracy frightened slaveholders throughout the South and led to greater restrictions on all African Americans, free and enslaved, including travel, assembly, and education. South Carolina reopened the slave trade to replenish the number of runaway slaves during the Revolutionary War and departed with the British at the end of the war. Slavery became even more entrenched on the plantations of the Deep South. The institution of slavery even expanded there due to natural population increase and, after the invention of the cotton gin, the boom in cotton cultivation.  

Americans began to flood the west beyond the Appalachians to the Mississippi River after the signing of the 1783 Peace Treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. The westward migration had profound implications for slavery and the national union. As the Congress under the Articles of Confederation created plans for the orderly settlement of the West, delegates made key decisions regarding the future of slavery.  

Congress debated and adopted the Land Ordinance of 1784, and Jefferson’s draft of the measure would have banned slavery in the West after 1800. His version of the bill lost by only one vote. The history of the country could have been very different if the proposal had passed.  

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided a path to statehood for the territories of the Northwest Territory. Article VI proclaimed that “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” While it provided for the return of fugitive slaves, the five large northern states carved out of the territory prohibited slavery. Slaveholders petitioned Congress and tried to amend state constitutions to permit slavery but lost.  

The story turned out very differently to the south of the Ohio River. Southern farmers and planters rapidly settled the West, and many brought their slaves. After North Carolina ceded its western lands south of the Ohio River to the federal government, Congress passed a law related to the Southwest Ordinance (1790) that confirmed the legality of slavery in the territory. The law stated that “no regulations made or to be made by Congress, shall tend to emancipate slaves.” As a result, Kentucky entered the Union as a slave state in 1792 and Tennessee did so in 1796. 

Despite the freedom suits, emancipation laws, and private manumissions, the injustice of slavery endured in the new nation. The principles of the Revolution had motivated significant change, but thousands of slaveholders were driven more by self-interest than those principles as they remained committed to preserving and defending the institution. Slavery spread rapidly westward from the southern part of the country. The demand for slave labor increased with rapid expansion of cotton production after the invention of the cotton gin. The number of enslaved persons grew quickly with the natural increase of the population. However, the sectional conflict that marked the nation’s history for several decades only occurred because the northern states abolished slavery and advanced freedom. The country increasingly had to grapple with a future in which the nation was a house divided: half-slave, half-free.

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