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. 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.
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 Mason-Dixon Line:
"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.
1. For Seward, see Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Team of Rivals" [Simon & Schuster, 2005], pp.30-31. For Lincoln: "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.