An illustration used in the 1835 edition of John Greenleaf...

An illustration used in the 1835 edition of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem, "My Countrymen in Chains!" Credit: The Granger Collection

On the Fourth of July, 1827, two centuries after it began, slavery ended in New York State.

The end did not come overnight, with a great thunderclap of insight that the owning of one person by another was morally wrong. The largest slave state in the North ended slavery only gradually -- as did the other northern states -- during a period of three decades, and only after a great debate.

Slavery was allowed to die a slow death in New York because such gradualism protected the economic interests of slaveowners, according to David N. Gellman, a lecturer in early American history at Northwestern University. Gellman, an expert on the abolition movement in New York State, was asked recently whether the policy of gradually freeing slaves had been a success.

"It certainly beats the Civil War, if that's the alternative,'' Gellman said. "Unquestionably, from a moral standpoint, you would have to say no. But it's a human institution, and it's not easy to dislodge. It's a problem of political give and take, though it seems appalling that real human beings should be subject to this give and take.''

With the exception of the Quakers, antislavery sentiments in New York did not appear with any great force until after the Revolutionary War. Even then, the "all men are created equal'' rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, and the winning of the war itself did not lead to a quick decline in slavery. Slaveholders on Long Island and up the Hudson River Valley did not want to part with an important source of labor.

But antislavery politics began to take hold after the war. The New York Manumission Society, with many of its members Quakers, was organized in 1785 with the purposes of securing legislation to end slavery in New York, monitoring compliance with laws relating to slavery and educating blacks. That same year, the Legislature narrowly defeated a bill that would have provided for gradual abolition of slavery in the state.

Despite this defeat, a law was passed banning the importation of slaves, and, three years later, banning their export. 'No one ever seriously proposed immediate abolition in New York,'' Gellman said. "It was not politically viable. There were too many counties in New York where slaves made up a sizeable percentage.''

One of the biggest problems for authorities was that, in violation of the law, slaveowners -- aware that total abolition of slavery in the state was on its way -- were selling their slaves in the South, where there was a ready market. Documentation of this practice is sketchy, but historians agree that it happened often, as did kidnaping of free blacks to be sold into southern slavery. In his 1966 book, "A History of Negro Slavery in New York,'' Edgar J. McManus says that an analysis of census figures shows an extremely sharp drop in the growth rate of New York's black population after 1800. Many blacks must have left, he concludes, and few left voluntarily.

"The conclusion is inescapable that the exodus was largely the work of kidnapers and illegal traders who dealt in human misery,'' McManus writes.

The abolitionists favoring gradualism achieved their first major victory in 1799, when the Legislature passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. It provided that all children born to New York slave mothers after July 4 of that year would not be slaves. However, these same children would be required to serve the mother's owner until age 28 for males and age 25 for females.

The law thus kept the new children from slavery and created them as a type of indentured servants. Slaveowners got to keep their laborers. The children had to be registered with the town clerk.

As the 19th Century began, the system of slavery on Long Island and elsewhere in New York was in turmoil, because of abolitionist pressures and a growing antislavery attitude among nonslaveholders and the politicians who represented them. Many slaveowners began freeing their slaves: Manumission in wills became common. But the selling of slaves continued, and the following advertisement from the Suffolk Gazette, May 13, 1805, illustrates how little concern there was for separating mothers from their children:

FOR SALE: A Negro woman, in every respect suitable for a farmer -- she is 25 years old, and will be sold with or without a girl four years old.

Running away became common, indicating a gathering resistance to slavery. Runaways were usually male, usually young and they were often skilled in English. The following advertisement appeared on Sept. 26, 1793, in The Connecticut Gazette:

RAN-away from Nathan Pierson, on Long-Island, the 16th instant, a negro man named TITE, about 5 feet high, thick set, about 20 years old, very likely; had on when he went away a light coloured homespun coating coat, spotted calico trowsers, large smooth plated Buckles. He plays on the Violin and fife. Whoever will take up said negro and confine in the the gaol in New-London, shall have TEN DOLLARS reward, and all necessary charges, paid by EBENEZER DOUGLAS, Gaoler.

Because of the changing conditions of the institution of slavery, the work force on Long Island farms became a mixture of slaves, free blacks, Indians, indentured servants and the farmer's own children. In a diary kept in the first decade of the 19th Century, Samuel L. Thompson of Setauket, a prosperous farmer as well as a medical doctor, notes all types working together. A female slave named Rose joins a male slave named Killis digging post holes. A freed black slave named Jacob is hired to cart a load of hay. Thompson's son Franklin works side by side with his slaves Robin, Cuff, Sharper, Killis and Jack, as well as free blacks named Walter, Amos, Ginne, Sib and Dick.

There was no turning back from the commitment made in 1799. In 1817, the Legislature passed the law that ended slavery in New York State, to take effect 10 years later, on July 4, 1827. A loophole in the law that allowed transients to bring slaves into New York for a nine-month period, and part-time residents to bring their slaves into the state temporarily, was closed in 1841.

For some New Yorkers, slavery was an embarrassment. At the 1821 state constitutional convention, there was an amendment proposed making slavery not only illegal, but unconstitutional. Some members opposed the amendment, not wanting to draw attention to this shameful episode in the state's history. One was 66-year-old Rufus King, a U.S. senator from Jamaica.

"If we omit to mention it in our constitution,'' King said, "it may hereafter be forgotten that slavery once existed in the state.''


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