For Life or Otherwise: Abolition and Slavery in South Central Pennsylvania, 1780-1847
Young, Cory James
The premise of this dissertation is that gradual abolition legislation did not abolish slavery in Pennsylvania. In the broadest terms, it argues that there is a history of chattel slavery in Pennsylvania that begins rather than ends with gradual abolition. It is the first study to examine the entire corpus of Pennsylvania’s surviving county slave registries, documents that provide demographic and genealogical data about enslavers and the enslaved. Rather than centering Philadelphia, it focuses on South Central Pennsylvania as the region where slavery endured longest and which produced the most detailed set of records. By definition, gradual abolition programs were both slavery regimes and emancipation schemes. They necessarily retained aspects of existing slavery systems, discarded others, and introduced features all their own. While limiting the choices of Pennsylvania enslavers in some important respects, gradual abolition also created new opportunities for them and their families. The five chapters of this dissertation each explore a different subfield of history in order to integrate Pennsylvania more fully into the literature on slavery in the United States. Chapter One is political history. Through an analysis of legislative journals, it catalogs the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s attempts to moderate its gradual abolition program as well as its repeated failure to enact total abolition legislation. Chapter Two is institutional history. It examines financial account books alongside the county slave registries to reveal how enslaver capital and enslaved labor contributed to the financing, construction, and operation of Dickinson College. Chapter Three is women’s history. It centers the experiences of enslaved Black women and white women enslavers in order to emphasize how hereditary term slavery more closely resembled lifetime slavery than indentured servitude. Chapter Four is a history of borders. It analyzes slave narratives and late-nineteenth-century histories to show how Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition laws facilitated the spread of slavery into Western New York and the Lower Mississippi Valley. Finally, Chapter Five is legal history. It examines county and state court records to explain how enslavers fashioned, and how Black Pennsylvanians resisted, the law of term slavery.
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