On July 4th 1827 the last slaves* in New York State became free, and the next day the Black population held a huge parade and celebration along Broadway in New York City. This was a joyous moment, but it came over half a century after the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal”, and over 25 years after New York had first passed a law mandating freedom for slaves on a gradual basis. It took years of struggle, hardship, and frustration to end the institution of slavery in New York, and this process was mirrored in most of the other Northern States. Because the Southern States fought a war to preserve slavery, the long and hard road to emancipation in the North has been overshadowed and forgotten. The map/slideshow above illustrates this process by showing the percentage of the population that were slaves from 1790 to 1860.
*75 slaves remained in bondage in rural areas of New York according to the 1830 Census, they were likely held by Southerners who until 1841 were allowed to bring slaves into New York for up to 9 months.
Slavery was difficult to end in the North because slaves made up a significant proportion of the population and were hugely important to the economy. The first U.S. census in 1790 counted 40,086 slaves in the 8 Northern States, for a total of about 2% of the population. In some important northern areas slaves made up an even more significant proportion of the population, such as in Kings County (modern-day Brooklyn) where 1 in every 3 residents was held in bondage. Every Northern state except Vermont and Massachusetts (which Maine was a part of at the time) still held slaves in 1790. Slavery in the North wasn’t limited to household servants either: archeological digs have revealed evidence that huge slaveholding plantations existed in the North as late as the beginning of the 19th century.
The map above shows the proportion of slaves for each Northern county according to the 1790 census. The most obvious geographic pattern is the huge concentration of slavery radiating outwards from New York City, with slaves making up a significant proportion of the population in New Jersey, Upstate New York, and southern Connectdicut and Rhode Island. The only other areas with a large proportion of slaves are two pockets in southern and western Pennsylvania. Looking at the 10 Northern counties with the highest proportion of slaves, we can see that all 10 are in New York or New Jersey and most are in the area around New York City:
|County (Borough)||State||Slave % of Population|
|Richmond (Staten Island)||NY||19.73%|
|New York (Manhattan)||NY||7.17%|
The high proportion of slavery around New York City is explained by the city’s long history of importing slaves, dating back to its original founding as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. New Amsterdam faced a severe labor shortage within a few years of it’s founding, and began importing slaves in 1626. Importation of slaves continued even after the British took control of the area. By 1703, 42 percent of all households in New York City owned slaves, second among American cities only to Charleston SC. After the American Revolution the tide began to turn against slavery in the area, as the Black and abolitionist communities campaigned against slavery, and as slaves increasingly rebelled by running away from their masters. Nonetheless, it still took New York and New Jersey until 1799 and 1804 respectively to pass laws instituting gradual emancipation, making them the last two Northern States to do so. Gradual emancipation moved especially slowly in New Jersey, to the point that when the Civil War broke out in 1860 there were still 18 enslaved people in the “free” state!
Despite both New Jersey and New York dragging their feet on the issue of slavery, the institution declined consistently in the decades after Independence. The number of slaves in the Northern States decreased in every US census from 1790 to 1860. The mirror image of this trend was occurring in the South, where the number of slaves increased by an average of almost 30% a decade. Thus while the decline in the total number of slaves in the North is significant, the fall in the North’s share of all slaves is even more impressive:
Nonetheless, while the decline of slavery in the North may seem rapid to us today, it obviously took painfully long for those in bondage at the time.
The death of slavery in the North teaches us that even the most vile of institutions take time to destroy. This applies to slavery in the South as well: the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves in the United States, and even after the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery there were still Blacks being held in near-bondage under the South’s sharecropping systems.
One last thing to realize when talking about the destruction of slavery in the North is that the role of politicians and abolitionists is often overemphasized, while the role of slaves in ending this institution is overlooked. It took a huge number of slaves running away from their masters in the 1790s to convince the New York legislature to pass a bill for gradual emancipation. After gradual emancipation was put in place, the death of slavery in New York was sped up by an “epidemic” of slaves fleeing. The likelihood that their slaves would run also encouraged slaveowners in the North to free them voluntarily. It was Dubois that pointed out that “slaves freed themselves” during the Civil War, and this applies equally to the end of slavery in the North.
Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.