02/12/2014 05:23 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

The Truth About Slavery in Pennsylvania

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. -- Karl Marx

In 1847, a historian for the Pennsylvania Abolition Society described Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act as one "which raised the State of Pennsylvania to a high position amongst the nations of the earth." But what this early historian forgot was that Pennsylvania's abolition act was not only rivaled, but actually surpassed by similar acts of nearby states. In fact, compared to the five gradual abolition acts passed in northern states between 1780 and 1804, Pennsylvania's was by far the most limited in scope. It liberated not a single individual, and choked out slavery only by degrees.

Contrary to common belief, slavery remained, not a southern, but a national dilemma for the entire eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century. Pennsylvania's slaveholders remained generally as impervious to abolitionism as their southern counterparts. Had enslaved people not been courageous and vociferous in their claims for freedom, they likely would have remained continuously enslaved. It was indeed the enslaved people's defiance, and not Pennsylvania's abolition act, that ultimately made freedom a possibility in the keystone state.

The fact is, even after 1780, slavery did not disappear altogether in Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, a seed for abolitionism had firmly been planted. And the state's enslaved people, by testing the boundaries of their captivity, cultivated that seed and watched it gradually bear fruit. Little by little, piece-by-piece, the enslaved continued to push the limits of their enslavement until the institution itself began to buckle and perish within the state and beyond.