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As well as directly using slave labour, the American colonies, including Pennsylvania, were economically dependent on trade with the slave economies of the West Indies. West Indian plantation owners saw the growing of food as being less profitable than producing sugar and its by-products so they imported their foodstuffs from the English colonists on the American mainland thus underpinning and sustaining the slave labour economy.

In Pennsylvania the seasonal demands of cereal farming meant that its agriculture was not particularly viable for the employment of large numbers of slaves. Generally, farmers in Pennsylvania preferred to use indentured servants rather than slave labour. In the Chester and Lancashire Counties of Pennsylvania two thirds of the bond ‘servants’ held by the wealthiest Pennsylvanian farmers were indentured servants rather than slaves. Slaves were often seen as status symbols by white masters – working in the fields at planting and harvest times and working as domestic servants in their master’s or mistress’s house at other times.

Most slaves in North American colonies were in rural work but others were in industries like tanning, salt, mining and iron manufactory concerns. The Iron Masters were the largest employers of industrial black slaves. In fact the Pennsylvanian Iron Masters’ reliance of slave labour was so high that at one time they petitioned for a reduction in the tariff on the importation of slaves in order that they could keep their furnaces in operation.

During the middle of the 18th Century there was a change of policy in the purchase of slaves into the Northern colonies. This was brought about by the difficulty of obtaining white indentured labour. Merchants began to import slaves directly from Africa. Before 1741, 70% of slaves arrived in the Northern colonies from the West Indies and other American mainland areas, after 1741, however, 70% of slaves came direct from Africa. Slaves were used not only in the traditional rural ‘provisions’ trade but increasingly in cities. By the 1760s black slaves constituted two thirds of the servant population of Philadelphia. In wills and inventories of the time chattel slaves were often listed amongst other valuable items of household property such as clocks and carriages. Here is an extract from the Will of the yeoman, Peter DeHaven of Philadelphia, dated 1767:

“….Secondly I give unto my well beloved wife Elizabeth one third of my whole Estate to be paid to her by my Executor within twelve Months after my Decease. I also give unto her my malattow [mulatto] child now living with me….”

Amongst the wealthy and middle classes in the towns and cities of the American colonies the ownership of slaves was practically universal. It was only the lack of living quarters which prevented many of them from increasing the number of slaves in their households. This lack of living accommodation in urban areas also meant that female slaves were frequently sold as soon as they were discovered to be pregnant. One of the effects of this policy, as well as the distress caused to the women concerned, was that there was a move towards female slaves with children ‘living out’ thus they acquired some measure of independence and freedom from direct control by their ‘masters’ over every aspect of their lives.

As a result of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, the 3,737 African American slave population of 1790 Pennsylvania had dropped to 64 by 1840. By 1850 all Pennsylvanian African Americans were free unless they were fugitives from the South. In Pennsylvania on September 11th, 1851 it was reported that ‘….a group of blacks dispersed slave catchers in Christiana [Pennsylvania]. One White man was killed, another wounded.’

Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, contained countless paid advertisements for the sale of slaves, as well as notices about runaway slaves. Very often, an advertisement of a hardworking black “servant” ended with the words “Enquire of the printer hereof” . In other words, Franklin himself would handle the sale and take a commission. For example:

“To Be Sold. A likely young Negro woman, can wash or iron or do any kind of household work, as is fit for either town or country; with two children. Inquire of George Harding Skinner, or the Printer hereof.”

Another of Franklin’s advertisements showed how the splitting up of families was seen through the lens of profit & loss:

“[A female slave would be sold with her 2-year-old son, but] another boy aged about six years who is the son of the above said woman will be sold with his mother or by himself, as the buyer pleases.”

But not all colonial newspapers carried such advertisements. Philadelphia’s German-language paper, published by Christopher Sauer, refused to run ads for slaves.

It was only late in Benjamin Franklin’s life that he became an abolitionist. After the ratification of the Constitution, Franklin joined Quakers and other liberals in petitioning Congress to abolish slavery. Their petition faced strong opposition and went nowhere.