Slavery In The North
African slavery is so much the outstanding
feature of the South, in the unthinking view of it, that people often
forget there had been slaves in all the old colonies. Slaves were
auctioned openly in the Market House of Philadelphia; in the shadow
of Congregational churches in Rhode Island; in Boston taverns and
warehouses; and weekly, sometimes daily, in Merchant’s Coffee House
of New York. Such Northern heroes of the American Revolution as John
Hancock and Benjamin Franklin bought, sold, and owned black people.
The family of Abraham Lincoln himself, when it lived in Pennsylvania
in colonial times, owned slaves.
When the minutemen marched off to face the redcoats at Lexington
in 1775, the wives, boys and old men they left behind in Framingham
took up axes, clubs, and pitchforks and barred themselves in their
homes because of a widespread, and widely credited, rumor that the
local slaves planned to rise up and massacre the white inhabitants
while the militia was away.
African bondage in the colonies north of the Mason-Dixon Line has
left a legacy in the economics of modern America and in the racial
attitudes of the U.S. working class. Yet comparatively little is
written about the 200-year history of Northern slavery. Robert Steinfeld’s
deservedly praised "The Invention of Free Labor" (1991)
states, "By 1804 slavery had been abolished throughout New
England," ignoring the 1800 census, which shows 1,488 slaves
in New England. Recent archaeological discoveries of slave quarters
or cemeteries in Philadelphia and New York City sometimes are written
up in newspaper headlines as though they were exhibits of evidence
in a case not yet settled (cf. “African Burial Ground Proves
Northern Slavery,” The City Sun, Feb. 24, 1993).
I had written one book on Pennsylvania history and was starting
a second before I learned that William Penn had been a slaveowner.
The historian Joanne Pope Melish, who has written a perceptive book
on race relations in ante-bellum New England, recalls how it was
possible to read American history textbooks at the high school level
and never know that there was such a thing as a slave north of the
"In Connecticut in the 1950s, when I was growing up, the only
slavery discussed in my history textbook was southern; New Englanders
had marched south to end slavery. It was in Rhode Island, where
I lived after 1964, that I first stumbled across an obscure reference
to local slavery, but almost no one I asked knew anything about
it. Members of the historical society did, but they assured me that
slavery in Rhode Island had been brief and benign, involving only
the best families, who behaved with genteel kindness. They pointed
me in the direction of several antiquarian histories, which said
about the same thing. Some of the people of color I met knew more."
Slavery in the North never approached the numbers of the South.
It was, numerically, a drop in the bucket compared to the South.
But the South, comparatively, was itself a drop in the bucket of
New World slavery. Roughly a million slaves were brought from Africa
to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese before the first
handful reached Virginia. Some 500,000 slaves were brought to the
United States (or the colonies it was built from) in the history
of the slave trade, which is a mere fraction of the estimated 10
million Africans forced to the Americas during that period.
Every New World colony was, in some sense, a slave colony. French
Canada, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Cuba,
Brazil — all of them made their start in an economic system built
upon slavery based on race. In all of them, slavery enjoyed the
service of the law and the sanction of religion. In all of them
the master class had its moments of doubt, and the slaves plotted
to escape or rebel.
Over time, slavery flourished in the Upper South and failed to
do so in the North. But there were pockets of the North on the eve
of the Revolution where slaves played key roles in the economic
and social order: New York City and northern New Jersey, rural Pennsylvania,
and the shipping towns of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Black populations
in some places were much higher than they would be during the 19th
century. More than 3,000 blacks lived in Rhode Island in 1748, amounting
to 9.1 percent of the population; 4,600 blacks were in New Jersey
in 1745, 7.5 percent of the population; and nearly 20,000 blacks
lived in New York in 1771, 12.2 percent of the population.
The North failed to develop large-scale agrarian slavery, such
as later arose in the Deep South, but that had little to do with
morality and much to do with climate and economy.
The elements which characterized Southern slavery in the 19th century,
and which New England abolitionists claimed to view with abhorrence,
all were present from an early date in the North. Practices such
as the breeding of slaves like animals for market, or the crime
of slave mothers killing their infants, testify that slavery’s brutalizing
force was at work in New England. Philadelphia brickmaker John Coats
was just one of the Northern masters who kept his slave workers
in iron collars with hackles. Newspaper advertisements in the North
offer abundant evidence of slave families broken up by sales or
inheritance. One Boston ad of 1732, for example, lists a 19-year-old
woman and her 6-month-old infant, to be sold either "together
or apart." Advertisements for runaways in New York and Philadelphia
newspapers sometimes mention suspicions that they had gone off to
try to find wives who had been sold to distant purchasers.
Generally, however, as the numbers of slaves were fewer in the
North than in the South, the controls and tactics were less severe.
The Puritan influence in Massachusetts lent a particular character
to slavery there and sometimes eased its severity. On the other
hand, the paternal interest that 19th century Southern owners attempted
to cultivate for their slaves was absent in the North, for the most
part, and the colonies there had to resort to laws to prevent masters
from simply turning their slaves out in the streets when the slaves
grew old or infirm. And across the North an evident pattern emerges:
the more slaves lived in a place, the wider the controls, and the
more brutal the punishments for transgressions.
Slavery was still very much alive, and in some places even expanding,
in the northern colonies of British North America in the generation
before the American Revolution. The spirit of liberty in 1776 and
the rhetoric of rebellion against tyranny made many Americans conscious
of the hypocrisy of claiming natural human rights for themselves,
while at the same time denying them to Africans. Nonetheless, most
of the newly free states managed to postpone dealing with the issue
of slavery, citing the emergency of the war with Britain.
That war, however, proved to be the real liberator of the northern
slaves. Wherever it marched, the British army gave freedom to any
slave who escaped within its lines. This was sound military policy:
it disrupted the economic system that was sustaining the Revolution.
Since the North saw much longer, and more extensive, incursions
by British troops, its slave population drained away at a higher
rate than the South’s. At the same time, the governments in northern
American states began to offer financial incentives to slaveowners
who freed their black men, if the emancipated slaves then served
in the state regiments fighting the British.
When the Northern states gave up the last remnants of legal slavery,
in the generation after the Revolution, their motives were a mix
of piety, morality, and ethics; fear of a growing black population;
practical economics; and the fact that the Revolutionary War had
broken the Northern slaveowners’ power and drained off much of the
slave population. An exception was New Jersey, where the slave population
actually increased during the war. Slavery lingered there until
the Civil War, with the state reporting 236 slaves in 1850 and 18
as late as 1860.
The business of emancipation in the North amounted to the simple
matters of, 1. determining how to compensate slaveowners for the
few slaves they had left, and, 2. making sure newly freed slaves
would be marginalized economically and politically in their home
communities, and that nothing in the state’s constitution would
encourage fugitive slaves from elsewhere to settle there.
But in the generally conservative, local process of emancipating
a small number of Northern slaves, the Northern leadership turned
its back on slavery as a national problem.
First record of slavery
Official end of slavery
Actual end of slavery
Percent black 1790
Percent black 1860
1. "RUN away on the 13th of September last from Abraham Lincoln
of Springfield in the County of Chester, a Negro Man named Jack,
about 30 Years of Age, low Stature, speaks little or no English,
has a Scar by the Corner of one Eye, in the Form of a V, his Teeth
notched, and the Top of one of his Fore Teeth broke; He had on when
he went away an old Hat, a grey Jacket partly like a Sailor’s Jacket.
Whoever secures the said Negro and brings him to his Master, or
to Mordecai Lincoln … shall have Twenty Shillings Reward and reasonable
Charges" [Pennsylvania Gazette, Oct. 15, 1730]. Mordecai Lincoln
(1686-1736) was great-great-grandfather of President Lincoln.
2. Josiah H. Temple, History of Framingham, Massachusetts, Framingham,
3. Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and
‘Race’ in New England 1780-1860, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 1998, preface, page xiii.
4. Stanley L. Engerman, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright, "Slavery,”
in Susan B. Carter, Scott S. Gartner, Michael Haines, Alan Olmstead,
Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright, eds., Historical Statistics of
the United States, Millennial Edition. New York: Cambridge University
Press, forthcoming 2004.
5. "Boston News Letter," May 1, 1732.
Originally Published at http://www.slavenorth.com