Memorial of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery to the Senate and Representatives of the United States, February 3, 1790
On February 12, 1790, members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) stood in front of the House of Representatives and presented a radical petition regarding the institution of slavery—the first antislavery petition to be presented before the US Congress. This petition was partially inspired by a recent case in New York in which Quakers had asked the state legislature to close loopholes that were allowing slave merchants from other states to skirt the ban on the slave trade. The New York legislature had claimed that they did not have authority over the slave trade, prompting the PAS and New York Quakers to pose the question—who did have power to regulate slavery?—to the US Congress, and to plead for Congress to take action to eradicate slavery.
The House of Representatives moved to create a special committee to consider the PAS's petition. The committee's report, presented on March 5, suggested that Congress could regulate the treatment of imported slaves and could change the policies of domestic slavery after 1808. After many days of debate in the House, the report was drastically altered—it became a bill further ensuring that the institution of slavery would remain untouched until 1808, as stipulated by the Constitution. Northern congressmen did nothing to prevent these changes.
Although most northern delegates supported the gradual abolition of slavery in 1790, they were ensconced in a debate over the national credit precipitated by the debts owed from the Revolutionary War. Alexander Hamilton had recently submitted a Report on Public Credit that would give control over the debt to the federal government if adopted. Northern congressmen believed that this plan was necessary for the economic viability of their new nation and held a precarious majority with allies from southern states. In order to pass the Report on Public Credit, they decided not to risk alienating southerners with antislavery legislation.
Although the PAS's petition did not succeed in expediting emancipation, it created the precedent for interest group politics based on philosophical principles. Soon after 1790, groups requesting a standardized printing of the Bible and the restriction of alcohol were lobbying Congress. This method of political influence has used to bring about social change throughout American history.
Jeffrey Nordlinger Bumbrey, A Guide to the Microfilm Publication of the Papers of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Abolition Society, 1976).
William C. diGiacomantonio, "'For the Gratification of a Volunteering Society': Antislavery and Pressure Group Politics in the First Federal Congress," Journal of the Early Republic 15 (1995): 169-197.
Edward Needles, An Historical Memoir of the Pennsylvania Society, for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery; the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Thompson, 1848).
Howard A. Ohline, "Slavery, Economics, and Congressional Politics, 1790," Journal of Southern History 46 (1980): 335-360.
Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania digital history project.
The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Pennsylvania Legacies 5, no. 2 (2005).