Slavery in the North

Northern Emancipation

Denying the Past



Massachusetts Slavery

Massachusetts Emancipation

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York Slavery

New York Emancipation

Pennsylvania Slavery

Pennsylvania Emancipation

Race Relations in Pennsylvania

Rhode Island


A Missed Chance

Northern Profits from Slavery

Fugitive Slaves





Back to Africa

Keeping the North White



The labor system in Pennsylvania had shifted in the 1700s, away from indentured servants and slaves and toward wage labor. As more and more immigrants arrived, wages fell and employers began to appreciate the advantages of wage laborers, who did not need to be provided for when they got old or sick, as bound servants and slaves did. Thus employers began to seek labor in "smaller packages," choosing from the growing pool of free laborers and hiring them by the year, by the day, or by the task. By the mid-1700s, bonded servants made up only a quarter of the Philadelphia labor force; on the eve of the Revolution they were no more than 8 percent.

Yet the passage of the 1780 act ending slavery in the state reversed this trend and started indentured labor on a sudden, sharp recovery. From fewer than 400 at the end of the Revolution, Philadelphia's indentured servant population reached 2,000 by the end of the century.

Many of these were manumitted slaves. Others were slaves' children born after 1780, who acquired this status under the state law. As an economic institution, indentured labor was not limited to blacks and mulattos, and there are examples of Indian, German, Irish, Dutch, and Scottish indentured servants in these years. But it was noted in contemporary sources that the institution had become strongly associated with blacks, and whites would consent to the stigma in only the severest circumstances.

The indenture system in Pennsylvania became more severe after 1780, because the terms of service were longer. Formerly it had been limited to about seven years, and it rarely exceeded four among immigrants. Indentures generally had not lasted past age 21, for males, and 18, for females. This allowed at least the pretense of the bondsman or woman learning a trade (housework, almost always, in the case of the women) in exchange for their labor and being sent out into the world with at least a decade of productive labor or family life ahead. This was no quibble in an age when debility at 40 was common and many laboring people did not live to see 30.

Yet in Pennsylvania after 1780, the bound labor contract began to take 28 as the age of freedom. The abolition act had made it so, setting this as the age of release of children of slaves, and it would have seemed unjustified not to also do so in other cases. Shortly after the act was passed, the overseers of the poorhouse in Philadelphia began binding out children of black paupers up to age 28. This further strengthened that age as the proper length of indentures. Previously they had done so only to the standard "majority" ages of 21 for males, 18 for females.

Most Quakers continued to follow the Society of Friends' guidelines on manumission and set slaves free at 21 and 18, but the Quakers had largely cleared themselves of slave-owning by this time. And Quaker-dominated institutions, like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society had to accede to the new reality, as it did in 55 percent of the indentures it arranged in the 1780s.

The new system blurred the distinction between contract labor and outright slavery. Just like slave-owners, masters and mistresses had property rights in their bondsmen and women. They could beat or punish them within the allowances of the law. They could sell them at their whim or pass them down in their wills. The Philadelphia newspapers are full of advertisements for bonded laborers, including many children as young as 4 years old, sold individually, not in family groups. The buying, trading, and selling of these people became a regular line of business in some ways indistinguishable from the slave trade. Baker's General Intelligence Office in Philadelphia advertised in Chester County the sale of 13 black servants, seven of whom would serve till age 28 or longer, including "an excellent house girl ... good tempered, &c."[1]

Pennsylvanians paid "about half the usual price of a slave" in the South "for this limited assignment." Slave owners all through the region, including New Jersey, Delaware, and Eastern Shore Maryland, set their slaves free in exchange for long-term indentures and had them sent to Philadelphia to be sold. The owner in that case could salve his conscience for having done a humanitarian deed, could claim the name of liberator, and could recoup his investment nicely. He had shed a stigma as well as a kind of property that was increasingly difficult to keep. It was "philanthropy at a bargain price." Slave owners in the fading economy of the Upper Chesapeake could sell their slaves down to the Gulf Coast, and face the stigma of having done this, or for slightly less money they could send them up the Delaware and give them "freedom." Adam King of Georgetown, Del., sent two slaves north to Philadelphia with orders to "dispose" them as indentured servants, the boy until age 28 and the girl till 21, or longer "if the Laws of the State will Admit of it."[2]

For the employers, this system was an improvement on slavery, since they obtained the most productive years of servants and dodged the obligation to support them, as under slavery, as physical resources dwindled. The terms were strictly enforced by the law. In a Chester County case where an indentured black servant man ran off rather than be sold, the court added seven months to his term of service as a recompense for his absence.

As late as 1820, three-fourths of young black men and 58 percent of young black women in Philadelphia worked in the households of whites. The indentured blacks, furthermore, were overwhelmingly domestics. Single women (24%), merchants (21%) and proprietors (14%) accounted for the bulk of blacks living in white Philadelphia households in the 1820 census, while artisans made up a mere 13.7%. It is unlikely that the majority of indentured blacks were learning a craft or a trade of any sort.

By the early 1790s, the market had soaked up the local population of former slaves and Philadelphians were importing indentured blacks from other states and even overseas. The labor force got a big boost in 1791 when rebellion erupted in the French slave-owning colony of St. Dominique. Refugees began arriving in Philadelphia by the shipload in 1792, and they found that the state would not extend the clause that allowed non-resident slave owners to dwell no longer than six months in Pennsylvania with their human property.

As a result, many manumitted their slaves just before their six months were up and simultaneously signed them to long indentures. French slave owners disposed of more than 400 slaves in Philadelphia in this way between 1791 and 1795. According to Pennsylvania Abolition Society records, of 508 total French slaves manumitted in the city in the period 1787 to 1810, only 45 were given freedom outright. Some of the indentures of the rest lasted well into the 1820s.

Rural farmers in Pennsylvania followed the same pattern as Philadelphians, buying up indentured blacks from out of state. The black population of Chester and Delaware counties tripled between 1783 and 1800. Their share of the total population rose from 2.7 percent in 1790 to 6.5 percent in 1820. Some farmers in these places bought slave children in the South, freed them upon entering Pennsylvania as required, and then indentured them to age 28. Families that could not afford slaves could profit from young bound apprentices or servants, and ordinary farmers and artisans in the countryside begin to turn up in the records as owners of black apprentices.

The chances for advancement in the countryside were even worse than in the city. There could be even less pretense of learning a trade in such cases of indenture. They learned farm work, and in southeastern Pennsylvania all the land had been taken up generations before and inflation had put a farm out of reach of any man without means or credit. Only one black person in Chester and Delaware counties owned land outright before 1790, and he may have got it from marrying a white woman in the 1780s.

The likely destiny of such indentured blacks, after they reached 28, was to join the growing ranks of "cottagers," marginal people, black and white, who worked from year to year on different farms in a system somewhat similar to more recent sharecropping. In fact, the cottager system was promoted in some quarters as the best successor to slavery when, as it was widely predicted in those days, that system of involuntary labor died out in the United States.

Under the cottager system, landowners rented to free farm laborers "a small very confined house called a cottage," which for a family with children consisted of two floors, 12 by 16 feet. The cottagers were bound to do certain work for the landowner, who got his chores done with no responsibility for feeding or clothing his renters. "A small garden is allowed to the cottage; which gives employment and comfort to the wife and children; but not an inch of ground is otherwise allowed for cultivation of any sort, which might tend to draw the cottager from the farmer's business to attend to an enlarged employment of his own."[3]

1. "Chester and Delaware Federalist," Sept. 15, 1813.
2. Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund, "Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath," Oxford University Press, 1991, p.180.
3. John Beale Bordley, "Essays and Notes on Husbandry and Rural Affairs," Philadelphia, 1801.

2003 - Slavery in the North - About the Author