MILTON — The economics of slavery was hard to ignore in the early 1800s. It’s why the practice was so difficult to abolish.
However, Pennsylvania played a role, ultimately banning slavery in 1848.
The topic of slavery was discussed Sunday as the Milton Historical Society hosted its second of three lectures of the winter season, “Slavery in Central Pennsylvania (And How They Got Away With It)” with Bruce Teeple, historian and author.
More than 100 people filed into the Milton Area High School library for the presentation. The final installment, “Civil War Barons: Businessmen and the Union Cause” by Jeffrey D. Wert, will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 2 in the library.
Teeple, who is president of the Union County Historical Society, took his audience from the 1700s through the mid-1850s.
A slave, he said, could be purchased for about $50 in the early 1800s, as compared to a bull, which would sell for about $10.
“Slaves had to experience enormously frustrating changes on the national, international and local stages,” Teeple said.
In 1772, with the Somerset Case, Britain no longer acknowledged the legality of slavery. However, that meant little to those settling in America and the case was widely viewed with disdain.
“Slaves became more valuable than land,” Teeple said. Wealthy landowners “used the press to advance their political agendas.”
In 1776, Pennsylvania established its first state constitution and blacks officially became people. They could vote and they would be tried in the same courts as whites.
By 1780, though, the Gradual Abolition Law gave more power to slave owners.
“The system and the money it made meant it could go on forever,” Teeple said.
Though Pennsylvania never had as many slaves as surrounding states, those who did own slaves skirted the laws by selling them in neighboring states.
States’ rights became an issue with the slave trade.
By 1789, one slave was considered three-fifths of a person and this provided more voting rights — and more power — to slave owners.
There were fewer than 4,000 slaves in Pennsylvania in 1790 and about 100 in the original Northumberland County, which encompassed much more land than does its present configuration.
“(Slaves) were status symbols around here,” Teeple said. “Slaves were a luxury.”
The explosion of cotton in the South changed everything, Teeple noted. It changed the economy and trade — and the role of slaves. Southern states were becoming richer.
In 1808, the slave trade was banned, but it only increased the value of existing slaves. Breeding slaves proved a windfall to slave owners.
“They were seen as human capital, commodities,” Teeple said.
By 1860, some 4 million slaves in the United States were born here.
The 1830s saw the creation and use of the Underground Railroad, which, Teeple said, was organized by mostly freed slaves. About 1,000 to 2,000 slaves escaped their situations. The Underground Railroad was a loose network designed to assist the runaways.
Interesting, the value of slaves prior to the Civil War was greater than the value of all U.S. railroads, banks and manufacturing, Teeple noted.
In Pennsylvania, as slave numbers dwindled, public sentiment trended toward abolition.
“No one had more than 50 slaves around here,” Teeple said. “It was too expensive, and farms were not that big.”
Knowing the history is key, he said.
“If you don’t have the history; if you deny, disguise... the past, how can you learn anything new, or become a better human being,” he asked.