African slavery is so often attributed to 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. William Henry Seward, Lincoln's anti-slavery Secretary of State during the Civil War, born in 1801, grew up in Orange County, New York, in a slave-owning family and amid neighbors who owned slaves if they could afford them. The family of Abraham Lincoln himself, when it lived in Pennsylvania in colonial times, owned slaves.
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.
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.
There were pockets of the North on the eve of the war 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.
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 war. 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 slave owners 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 war, their motives were a mix of piety, morality, and ethics; fear of a growing black population; practical economics; and the fact that the war had broken the Northern slave owners' 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 slave owners 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.
Dixie's Living Historian's
Eileen Parker Zoellner