On June 13, 1774, Rhode Island became the first colony to ban the importation of slaves.
Efforts to curb slavery in Rhode Island began as early as 1652. That year, the colonial government passed a law making it illegal for any person, white or black, to be “bound” longer than 10 years. This first law did not apply to Native Americans, but a second law passed in 1675 prohibited the enslavement of Indians as well. These laws generally weren’t enforced as the desire for cheap labor trumped both the statutes and Quaker sensibilities.
As a result, by 1750, Rhode Island had the largest slave population in New England with about 10 percent of the colony’s residents living in bondage. This was twice the Northern average.
The colony also became a major player in the slave trade. As Christian McBurney noted in the Journal of the American Revolution, “the colony of Rhode Island sent more than one-half of the slave trade voyages from North America” during the years 1751-1775.
In 1772, Rhode Island Quakers officially denounced slavery. As the majority religion in the colony, Quakers wielded a great deal of political influence, and this official announcement jumpstarted an abolition movement.
Despite the large slave population, and the colony serving as a key player in the slave trade, abolitionist sentiment grew, and on June 13, 1774, the colony enacted “An Act for Prohibiting the Importation of Negros.”
With a preamble likely drafted by Stephen Hopkins, the act opened with a general appeal to liberty. This was noteworthy considering Rhode Island’s prominence in the slave trade.
“Whereas, the inhabitants of America are generally engaged in the preservation of their own rights and liberties, among which, that of personal freedom must be considered as the greatest; as those who are desirous of enjoying all the advantages of liberty themselves, should be willing to extend personal liberty to others.”
McBurney also points out that this was significant because “the recital addressed the evils and inconsistencies of slavery as a whole, and not just the slave trade.”
The law then declared that “for the future, no negro or mulatto slave shall be brought into this colony; and in case any slave shall hereafter be brought in, he or she shall be, and are hereby, rendered immediately free, so far as respects personal freedom, and the enjoyment of private property, in the same manner as the native Indians.”
The law did not apply to persons coming into the colony to “settle to reside for a number of years therein.” Slaves belonging to those persons would “be, and remain, in the same situation, and subject in like manner to their master or mistress, as they were in the colony or plantation from whence they removed.”
The act stipulated that slaves traveling with their “owners” through the colony would not be deemed immediately free.
The act also included a provision allowing “negro or mulatto” slaves that could not be sold in the West Indies to be brought into the colony if the owner posted a £100 bond and exported the slaves out of the colony within one year.
While these may seem like small steps when judged by modern sensibilities, becoming the first colony to take such an action was a big step for the time. And it set the stage for stronger actions in the years to come. McBurney described it that way as well.
Even the great slave-trade historian Elizabeth Donnan, whose work covered the African slave trade from the fifteenth century in vivid detail, called Rhode Island’s slave importation ban ‘a substantial gain. Dr. Hopkins need not have felt so much discouragement.'”
Rhode Island eventually became the fifth U.S. state to ban slavery outright with the ratification of its 1843 constitution.
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