Sunday, March 13, 2022

ARP241 Drafting an Army & Freeing the Slaves

As 1780 began, the Continental Army suffered its ongoing struggle to keep an army in the field. While the army had begun using three year enlistments in 1777, some of those enlistments were nearing their end.  Soldiers were sick of the continual deprivation of food, clothing and shelter, which took more lives than the enemy ever did.  They saw many civilians doing quite well, and naturally asked themselves, why am I continuing to serve when the country will not support my basic needs?  These thoughts also impacted the ability to attract new recruits to the army.

West Point Mutiny

On January 1, 1780, about 100 men from Massachusetts, who were stationed at West Point, determined that their enlistments were up, and began to march home.  The men were living through a miserably cold winter, without sufficient food, clothing, or shelter.  Even though their officers did not discharge them, they saw no reason to remain beyond their enlistments, and began marching back to New England.  

According to General Heath, the commanders were able to force the men to turn back.  Subsequent hearings, of which there is very little record, found that some men should be discharged, others punished for attempting to desert, and others simply forced to return to duty.  This incident did not get much attention at the time, but was a foreshadowing of larger problems that would only become even greater over the remaining course of the war.

Enlistment Problems

Americans were not accustomed to serving multiple years in standing armies.  While this was the norm in Europe, Americans were used to serving in militia, supplementing regular forces when required, but typically only seeing active duty for a few months, or perhaps a year at most.

In the early part of the war, most Continental enlistments followed this model, enlisting soldiers for no more than a year.  Washington saw his army evaporate every winter, and had to rebuild it before the enemy attacked in the spring.  It was a point of frustration that he repeatedly brought to Congress, calling for multi-year enlistments.  This would give him time to train and drill soldiers and then still actually have time to use them in the field before they returned home.

Even in the best of times, soldiers were not happy to be away from home for years on end.  They had no way to support their families, who often had to rely on the charity of extended family or the community.  Also, these were not the best of times.  As I’ve discussed repeatedly, the Continental Army failed to provide the bare necessities required for survival of the soldiers.  Men regularly died from starvation, exposure, and disease brought about by their condition.  Even the most idealistic men could sour on the army under such circumstances.

While most soldiers kept to their commitments, few men not yet in the army had much desire to subject themselves to such hardships and deprivation.  Recruiting got increasingly more difficult.


Of course, when leaders could not convince men to volunteer for service, they turned to force.  Even before the war, colonies had mandatory military service in the militia.  All able-bodied men were required to serve.  There were a few exemptions for religious reasons, and the wealthy had the ability to avoid service by paying fines for missed militia duty.  But the mindset that all citizens were obliged to provide service was generally an accepted fact.

Continental Soldiers
Militia could be called to active service when the need arose.  Men could be sent to extended duty without volunteering for that duty.  When the war first began, colonial militia turned out for duty.  Many of those units simply had their state enlistment obligations turned over to the Continental Army.  Following independence, states would continue to call up militia units for duty as state leaders saw fit.

In the early part of the war, when enthusiasm ran high, the Continental Army could mostly rely on volunteers.  It offered some enlistment bounties to encourage some men, but it did not have the power to draft its own conscripts.  Congress issued enlistment quotas to each state, but had no way of enforcing those requests. As the war progressed, enthusiasm for military service waned, especially after enlistments turned into three years or the end of the war.  States regularly failed to meet their quotas, leaving the Continental Army dangerously undermanned.

George Washington was calling for conscription into the Continental Army as early as April 1777, but could not get Congress to go along.  In February of 1778, Congress issued new enlistment quotas for eleven of the states.  South Carolina and Georgia insisted on remaining exempt from the quotas.  

This first effort at mandatory conscription called for enlistments of nine months.  It allowed states to meet their quotas however they liked.  States could offer bounties to volunteers.  They could hire soldiers from another state.  They could essentially do whatever they wanted to fill up the ranks of the required regiments with whomever they could get.

Washington was frustrated by all of this.  He was getting soldiers who were not necessarily of the highest quality, and still could not keep them in service long enough to train them properly and still have time to use them against the enemy.

State leaders, however, pushed back on the coerced conscription into a long-term standing army.  That was an indication of tyranny.  If the people would not support the army voluntarily, then perhaps the cause did not really have the support of the people.  State leaders also noted that forced conscription could cause popular support for the cause to falter, and could lead to rioting and other resistance.

Over the next couple of years, most states did enact some sort of conscription law.  In order to meet Congress’ quotas, each state militia issues smaller quotas to local militia leaders. Those local militias could obtain volunteers.  If they could not fill quotas through volunteers, then they could select conscripts, usually by lot.  A man selected as a conscript then had the choice either to fulfill his obligation, or pay a substitute to take his place.

The result was an army that began to skew away from free yeoman farmers and more toward unmarried sons, apprentices, and servants.  Some draftees send their slaves as substitutes. The percentage of African-Americans and immigrants in the army continued to grow, as the typical Continental soldier became someone who was poorer, without other prospects, and could not afford to avoid service.  In short, the typical Continental soldier in this new standing army was moving much closer to the typical profile of an enlisted soldier in the British regulars.

The efforts to fill enlistment quotas  varied greatly by state.  Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina all implemented relatively successful conscription systems.  The other states, not so much.  Again, Congress could do little to force the issue other than continue to nag the recalcitrant states to do their duty.

Congress Remains Optimistic

Despite the difficulties in keeping an army with enough soldiers, Congress remained optimistic. In January 1780, French Minister Luzerne called for the Continental Army to work with France in the following season to expel the British from the continent.  Congress assured Luzerne that they would have over 25,000 men ready for duty in the spring.  They felt this was a conservative number since the Board of War under General Horatio Gates assured them that the army would be at around 35,000.  This was all at a time when Washington was struggling to keep perhaps 5000 men in camp at Morristown.  

Even if the states could manage to fill those enlistment quotas, Congress still had no way to feed and supply such an army.  It could not even supply the existing shell of an army that it had currently.  To rebuild and resupply the army, Congress used the only arrow in its quiver.  It sent demands to the states to send soldiers and supplies for the 1780 campaign.  Congress called on the states to furnish 35,000 soldiers by April 1, and to contribute a collective $1.2 million monthly to keep the army supplied.

So the call went out.  Spoiler alert, the states are not going to meet those quota or provide necessary supplies.  So the difficulties for the continental army to put together a force large enough to contest with the British, would remain a struggle.

Pennsylvania Begins Emancipation

As the Continental Congress was desperately trying to keep the war going, Pennsylvania began taking steps to live up to the principles of liberty that had inspired the war.

Slave Auction in Colonial Philadelphia
On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the first law in any of the newly independent states, to begin the process of ending slavery.  The bill was the result of political compromise.  Although lots of people agreed that slavery was incompatible with the principles they were espousing in the war, the idea of losing one’s labor force was a difficult step for many.  Others used the argument that people who had been enslaved their entire lives, with no education or independent living skills, would not do well with emancipation.

The Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 came after nearly two years of debate.  George Bryan originally authored the bill in the summer of 1778.  Bryan had immigrated to Philadelphia from Dublin, Ireland, in the 1750s.  He came as a young man to start a career as a merchant.  

By the mid 1760s, he was involved in local politics and became a leading supporter of the non-importation agreements to protest the Stamp Act.  Some combination of these trade restrictions and poor health led to his bankruptcy in 1771.  As he recovered from both, he grew his participation in Philadelphia’s radical politics.  He was a strong supporter of the radical constitution of 1776, which he had helped to draft.  

Upon the constitution’s implementation in the spring of 1777, Bryan became the first Vice President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, serving under President Thomas Wharton.  When Wharton died in 1778, Bryan became the acting President.  As acting President, Bryan saw the return of government from its exile in Lancaster and began the process of rebuilding Philadelphia following the British evacuation.

Bryan had come to believe that slavery was a moral evil, and that Pennsylvania needed to end the institution.  At the same time, he understood that simply abolishing slavery instantly was a political non-starter.  Slavery was not the highest priority for Pennsylvania, at a time when the state was struggling to recover from the recent British occupation of Philadelphia, and the continuing problems of supporting the war effort.

The Assembly first proposed an act of gradual emancipation in the summer of 1778.  This act would not free any people who were enslaved at the time.  It proposed that, following passage, any child born to a slave in Pennsylvania would automatically obtain his or her freedom after reaching adulthood.  Over time, existing slaves would die off and eventually Pennsylvania would rid itself of the institution of slavery.  

When first introduced, the Assembly considered even gradual abolition to be too controversial.  It tabled the bill after its first reading, and opted to focus on other issues related to the war effort.

George Bryan
Meanwhile Bryan faced a challenge for the presidency at the end of 1778, losing to fellow radical, Joseph Reed.  Interestingly, Bryan was considered too radical, primarily due to his unwavering support for the Constitution of 1776 that made quite radical changes to Pennsylvania’s government.  Reed, who I have described as a radical in many earlier episodes, was actually seen as a bit more moderate, and supported some amendments to the constitution.  However, I think Reed’s landslide victory had more to do with Reed’s political power than his ideology.  Bryan was overwhelmingly elected as vice president once again. 

Some have argued that Bryan never really was president.  He was only acting as president following the death of President Wharton.  The constitution did not provide for succession.  It only said that the vice president could act in absence of the president.  Since the president died, Vice President Bryan was only acting in his absence.

The assembly elected the president and vice president.  There were no tickets or campaigns for office.  So, after overwhelmingly electing Reed as president for 1779, it overwhelmingly voted to continue Bryan as vice president.  Bryan served about ten months of his new one-year term as vice President, then resigned to become a justice on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

During his final term as vice president, Reed submitted his revised proposal for the gradual abolition of slavery.  It drew on the 1778 proposal, calling for the emancipation of any child born to a slave after its enactment.  Daughters of a slave would receive freedom at age 18, while sons would be free at age 21.  Slave owners would be required to register their slaves so that there would be a legal record of who was already enslaved, and to record the birth dates of their children.

The final bill did not come up for a vote until early 1780, after Bryan had left the Executive Council and joined the court.  Months of debate and compromise had watered down the final bill a bit further.  Children of slaves would not receive emancipation until age 28.  The bill also outlawed the importation of new slaves into Pennsylvania.  Visitors to the state could bring their slaves, but any slave brought into the state who remained in Pennsylvania for six months would receive immediate emancipation.  The bill required annual registration of all slave owned by anyone in Pennsylvania.  It also ended discrimination in any existing laws against free African-Americans.

If you read the statute itself, you may be shocked by some of the wording.  For example, the refers to “persons as well as Negroes and Mulattos” as if negros and mulattos did not fall under the definition of persons.  The reason for that, of course, was because those drafting the act did not want some later interpretation to claim that “negroes” did not meet  the definition of “persons.” If that seems like an unlikely possibility, recall that the US Supreme Court made just such a finding in Dred Scott v. Sanford many decades later. 

The act also specified that the children of slaves, who were held as servants until age 28, had the same rights as other shorter term indentured servants.  Masters could punish servants, including lashings, but could also seek relief in the courts if “evilly treated.”  Slaves and servants had the same rights in courts as anyone else.  Except, of course, a slave could not give witness testimony against a free man.

If a slave or servant received a death sentence from a court, the state would charge the costs of prosecution and execution to the owner of the slave or servant.  The act also made clear that it gave no protection to people trying to escape slavery and that owners had a legal right to reclaim escaped slaves.  Anyone enticing, assisting, harboring, or employing an escaped slave could be held liable, just as they could have been prior to this law.

Members of Congress and other foreign consoles who were located in Pennsylvania were exempt from the six month rule. They could keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for as long as they wanted. 

There was some opposition, even though the bill only impacted the children of existing slaves, and even those, not for at least 28 years.  The people of Chester and Lancaster counties submitted petitions in opposition to the bill. At the time of passage about half of the black people living in Pennsylvania were already free.

Opponents of the bill argued that even gradual abolition might create conflicts between the states and weaken the war effort.  Opponents also expressed concerns that emancipated slaves would be equipped to participate as full citizens in society, and even that emancipated slaves might take advantage of their new freedom to join the British in their war against Pennsylvania.

Despite these objections, the bill passed by a vote of 34-21, and took effect immediately.  As I said, though, the bill did not impact any existing people.  The first emancipation under this bill would not take place until a child born in 1780 reached the age of 28 in 1808.


Even so, Pennsylvania became the first of the original 13 states to begin the process of abolition.  The Republic of Vermont had outlawed slavery in its constitution of 1777, but no one recognized Vermont independence at the time, so its abolition clause had little influence.

Pennsylvania, however, was one of the largest states in the union and took the first step toward ending an institution that many saw as incompatible with the ideals of the Revolution.  Massachusetts would effectively end slavery in 1783 as a result of a court interpretation of its constitution.  But no other legislature would pass an abolition bill until after the war.  Connecticut and Rhode Island would pass gradual emancipation bills in 1784.

Pennsylvania would amend its abolition bill in 1788.  Some slave owners had found a way around the emancipation bill by moving pregnant slaves to another slave state, where the child could be born into a permanent state of enslavement.  The 1788 amendment banned this practice.  It also called for the immediate emancipation of any slaves owned by a person who moved to Pennsylvania with the intention of setting up permanent residence.

Pennsylvania’s slave law ended up causing some problems for George Washington as President.  When the government moved to Philadelphia, Washington had to make sure he rotated his slaves out of Pennsylvania before remaining in the state for six months.  This allowed him to avoid their emancipation under state law.  The exemption that applied to members of Congress was not extended to members of the executive or judicial branches.

Pennsylvania’s decision to end slavery reflected the changing views about an institution that have been evolving for decades. It seems clear though, that ideals professed by those seeking independence from Britain were having a larger impact on how people viewed the morality and propriety of slavery.

Even though opposition to slavery was growing, not only in Pennsylvania, but in many states, the process of ending the institution was not one that would go quickly .  Slavery would continue in Pennsylvania for many more decades, primarily out of a desire to assuage the difficulties of slave-owners.  But the act put the state on the path toward, at least, eventual abolition of slavery.  In short, it was a start.

Next week: Skirmishing around New York over the winter of 1780 leads to multiple raids on both sides.

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Next Episode 242 Raids Around New York 

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Further Reading


Mutiny of the Massachusetts Line:

Continental Army - Draft:

KESTNBAUM, MEYER. “Citizenship and Compulsory Military Service: The Revolutionary Origins of Conscription in the United States.” Armed Forces & Society, vol. 27, no. 1, [Sage Publications, Ltd., Sage Publications, Inc.], 2000, pp. 7–36,

Rees, John U. “The pleasure of their number” 1778: Crisis, Conscription, and Revolutionary Soldiers’ Recollections (A Preliminary Study)Part I.

Van Atta, John R. “Conscription in Revolutionary Virginia: The Case of Culpeper County, 1780-1781.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 92, no. 3, Virginia Historical Society, 1984, pp. 263–81,

Matheny, Mike “THE PREDICAMENT WE ARE IN”: HOW PAPERWORK SAVED THE CONTINENTAL ARMY” Journal of the American Revolution, May 3, 2021.

Slavery in the North:

Pennsylvania - An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780 (full text):

The Gradual Abolition Act of 1780

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Konkle, Burton Alva. George Bryan and the Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1731-1791. Philadelphia:  William J Campbell, 1922. 

Turner, Edward Raymond “The Abolition of Slavery in PennsylvaniaThe Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1912. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Berlin, Ira. "The Revolution in Black Life." In The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, edited by Alfred F. Young, 349-82. DeKalb, IL.: University of Northern Illinois Press, 1976.

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. New York: Atria Books, 2017.

Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and" Race" in New England, 1780–1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. 

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Sinha, Manisha. The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 

Zilversmit, Arthur The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North, University of Chicago Press, 1967 (or read on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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