Date of Graduation
Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Because Pennsylvania was the first state to implement legislation that slowly ended slavery within the state, contests over freedom and the enforcement of where it began and ended became an essential element of Pennsylvania’s border-making policies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The struggle over the territorial extent (by which I mean legal and geographical) of Pennsylvania abolition between enslavers intent on retaining their human chattel by any means necessary and enslaved men and women intent on asserting their freedom once they touched Pennsylvania “free soil” in turn, served to solidify the geopolitical boundary of the state in the late eighteenth century as crossing the state line might mean the difference between freedom, slavery, or possible re-enslavement. Establishing and enforcing a precise territorial border was not only essential for Pennsylvania’s recognition as a newly established sovereign state independent of Great Britain but also in affecting the legal practice of gradual abolition by defining the state’s literal geographical and judicial boundary. Treaties with neighboring states, such as Maryland and Virginia, and legal disputes like the “Connecticut Claim” contributed to the solidification of the Pennsylvania border in the late revolutionary period. As concerns about Pennsylvania's ability to safeguard the policies and practices of gradualism within the state increased during the antebellum era, the Pennsylvania General Assembly responded by enforcing unique border control measures that managed movement into and out of the state, be it forced or voluntary, and rearticulated the state's territorial claims to freedom as defined by the state line. Clearly evident by the 1850s, Pennsylvania's concern over its sovereign authority and legal jurisdiction was deeply rooted in the state's history of territorial conflicts that began long before the passage of the 1780 Act. This project focuses on the intersections of geography, slavery, and the law in the decades following the passage of the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Not only did the passage of the 1780 Act reorient the legal and geographical landscapes of Pennsylvania around gradualism, but it required communities, regardless of race, status, or their personal convictions on slavery, to reconfigure their own spatial logic through the lens of free and unfree spaces. The differing interpretations of where exactly gradual freedom began and ended –in literal and imagined terms— featured prominently in court cases along the Pennsylvania state border. These cases illustrate how the 1780 Act informed individual understandings of where the state (and its legal jurisdiction) stopped and, concurrently, where Pennsylvania freedom started. While state legislators worked to define Pennsylvania’s geopolitical boundaries from on high, border-dwelling communities, both white and Black, enslaved and free, also contributed to the state’s geopolitical legitimacy through their participation in county courts on the ground.
McGee, A. P. (2023). Abolition’s Informal Gatekeepers: The Role of County Courts in the Making of Pennsylvania’s ‘Free’ Border. Graduate Theses and Dissertations Retrieved from https://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/4866