The First Emancipation

Historical Background

January 1, 2013, marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This revolutionary document ushered in the Thirteenth Amendment and the end of slavery in the United States. These two great legal documents were the culmination of a long struggle that began in the colonial period with the arrival of the first African slaves in North America. The Great Emancipation of the 1860s cannot be understood without studying what is often called the "first emancipation"—the growing belief among many Americans in the Revolutionary era that slavery was incompatible with the idea that "all men were created equal." As a result of this evolving view, government and private organizations and individuals spoke out and took action against slavery. The North’s free black population swelled between the 1770s and early nineteenth century, and many of the Founding Fathers believed that slavery would gradually come to an end.

Essential Question

Did the first emancipation make the Great Emancipation inevitable? Explain.


Understanding the existence of slavery and the struggle for freedom is very important to understanding our history.


  1. Students will be able to identify various actions taken by colonists, slaves and freedmen to bring about emancipation in the period before 1863.
  2. Students will analyze various documents dealing with the topic using evidence from the texts.
  3. Students will differentiate between "chattel slavery" and "persons held in servitude."
  4. Students will write arguments of substantive texts using sufficient evidence.
  5. Students will read text closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences.


Students read Article I, Section 2, paragraph 3 of the Constitution and identify the words that make reference to "slaves."

Teacher: Explain to students that the word "chattel" refers to property. Students should be able to differentiate between chattel and the words found in the above parts of the Constitution.


  • Appendix A: Lord Mansfield’s Decision in the Somerset Case, 1772 (transcribed from Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Court of King’s Bench from Easter Term 12 Geo. 3. to Michaelmas 14 Geo. 3 [1772–1774] in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection at the Princeton University Digital Library)
  • Appendix B: Excerpts from Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, 1775 (transcribed from the original in the Library of Congress)
  • Appendix C: Excerpt from Governor Robert Hunter to the Lords of Trade, June 23, 1712 on the New York Slave Revolt of 1712 (from Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, ed. E. B. O’Callaghan (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1855), 5:341)
  • Appendix D: Excerpt from The Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, 1787 (transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection at the Princeton University Digital Library)
  • Appendix E: Excerpt from Anthony Benezet’s A Caution and Warning to Great-Britain and Her Colonies (Philadelphia, 1766) (transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection at Princeton University Digital Library)
  • Appendix F: Two advertisements for runaway slaves
  • Appendix G: Part 1, Article I of the Massachusetts Constitution, 1780
  • Appendix H: Chapter 1, Article I of the Vermont Constitution, 1777 (from the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration)
  • Appendix I: Section 14, Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, 1787 (transcribed from a printed edition provided at


1. Political decisions in the colonial era:

(a) Provide students Lord Mansfield’s Decision in the Somerset Case (Appendix A). Students are to read the decision and in writing, in their own words, (i) describe the circumstances surrounding the case and (ii) describe the decision, making reference to what Mansfield meant by "positive law."

(b) Students "share read" Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775 (Appendix B). Using evidence from the text, students, in writing, answer the questions (i) Does Dunmore recognize slaves as "property?" and (ii) On what authority was Dunmore able to take such action?

2. Other steps toward emancipation:

(a) Students read the report of NY Governor Robert Hunter, June 23, 1712 (Appendix C) and

i. In their own words describe the event.

ii. write a report of the incident (Slave rebellion of 1712 in NY) from a slave’s point of view. Students are to use evidence presented in Gov. Hunter’s Report.

(b) Students read the Preamble to the Constitution of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (Appendix D) and determine i) the "tone" of the excerpt and ii) the argument being used to free the slaves.

(c) After reading the excerpt from Anthony Benezet’s A Caution and Warning (Appendix E), students write a translation making reference directly to the document and identify i) the intended audience and ii) the basis on which Benezet was calling for action against slavery and the slave trade.

(d) Have students read the two runaway slave advertisements (Appendix F) and have them identify, from the announcements, the characteristics of the slaves.

3. Government action in the United States:

(a) Students read excerpts from the Massachusetts Constitution (Appendix G) and the Vermont Constitution (Appendix H) and with reference to each answer the question, "What rationale was used by both to free the slaves?" In reference to the Vermont Constitution, "How did it reflect colonists’ desire for gradual emancipation?"

(b) Students read the excerpt from the Northwest Ordinance (Appendix I) and answer the question, "How does the ordinance protect slavery in the South?" Students must make reference to the document.

(c) Have students read Article 2, Section 9 of the Constitution and state how this section reflects the Founders’ beliefs that slavery would "gradually" die away.


Students write a persuasive essay answering the essential question.