(Note: This is the eighth essay—second part—in a series on Slavery in Rhode Island. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on February 26, 2020.)
The process of emancipation of the enslaved began on a colony-wide basis with Quaker manumissions in 1773 and ended with the General Assembly abolishing slavery in 1842.
Change as transformational as the emancipation of a people requires the impetus of new ideas and the will and determination of human agents. The new ideas came from 18 hundred years of Christianity and the 18th century Enlightenment. The human agents of change were led by white Quakers, and white religious ministers and lay people of other faiths who freed their slaves and fought for the abolition of slavery. It also included the many enslaved and free blacks who enlisted and served with distinction in the War for Independence in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (“Black Regiment”).
Of the role that blacks played in the war, historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, writes: “The actions of the enslaved—running away, joining the military, and lobbying for freedom—in conjunction with an emerging abolition movement had torn at the fabric of slavery and challenged the morality and legitimacy of slaveholding in the new democracy.”
During and after the war, the final group of agents who brought about emancipation was the entire enslaved and free black population who—overtly and covertly, little by little, year in and year out, by acts of omission and commission—fought the system of slavery. Clark-Pujara states: “Enslaved northerners ran away in unprecedented numbers, volunteered for military service, and sued for, bargained for, and bought their freedom.” If achieved, freedom may have come quickly or it may have taken decades.
Beginning in the 1750s, these factors began to take effect. During that period, the Quakers began in earnest their criticisms of the trafficking of slaves. In 1769, at a meeting in Greenwich, RI, Quakers appointed a committee to begin manumissions, freeing 49 slaves between 1773 and 1803.
In early 1778, during the War for Independence, the Slave Enlistment Act was passed, providing for the enlistment of former slaves who “presented themselves.” Their masters were compensated between £30 and £120, depending on their age and skills.
In 1779, slaveholders lost the right to sell slaves out of state, a clear sign that slaveholders were losing control of their “property.”
After the War for Independence, the General Assembly—influenced by Quakers and black war veterans—took a major step forward by passing in February 1784, the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. All children born to slave mothers after March 1, 1784, were declared free. However, they would be indentured to the town of their birth for a period of time—18 years for women and 21 years for men. While a significant step, the law freed no one immediately and to those born before March 1, it meant nothing to them personally. Later amendments raised the number of years of indenture for women to 21 and also specified that former masters, and not towns, were responsible for educating and supporting freed children. While it gave freedom to future African Americans, the later legislation was designed clearly to avoid placing burdens on non-slaveholding whites.
Three years later, over great opposition from slave traders, the General Assembly passed the 1787 Act to Prevent, and to Encourage the Abolition of Slavery and Slave Trade. This act not only forbade citizens from the slave trade, it made clear the intimate connection between slaveholding and the slave trade. Public opinion was shifting against the system of slavery.
By 1810, 97% of blacks in Rhode Island were free; however, Clark-Pujara indicates that most were not freed by these laws, which “were not the catalyst for the disintegration of the institution. Instead, these laws further contributed to an environment in which enslaved people could better negotiate for their freedom….”
Regrettably, despite this legislation and the clear shift in public opinion, the slave trade within the state in the decades after the American Revolution increased and transformed. In the period 1789-1793, the slave trade in the state increased by 30%. Newport resumed its slave trading; however, with the city so devastated by the three-year British occupation, more of the trade shifted to Providence and Bristol. In Providence Moses Brown fought against slavery while brother John enriched himself with the business of slavery. During the period 1784-1807, Bristol slave merchant James DeWolf and his family underwrote 88 African slave voyages.
The drive for wealth clearly dominated the rule of law and of conscience.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.