Slavery in the North

Northern Emancipation

Denying the Past



Massachusetts Slavery

Massachusetts Emancipation

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York Slavery

New York Emancipation

Pennsylvania Slavery

Pennsylvania Emancipation

Race Relations in Pennsylvania

Rhode Island


A Missed Chance

Northern Profits from Slavery

Fugitive Slaves





Back to Africa

Keeping the North White



Delaware began as New Sweden, an abortive attempt by the Swedes to found a colony on the shores of Delaware Bay in the New World. There were few immigrants from the old world (many of them Finns), and the colony suffered from a chronic shortage of manpower. It had only 183 residents by 1647. The Swedes also tried about the same time to join the rush by European powers to get footholds in West Africa to gain access to gold and slaves, but this, too, never amounted to much, and they were soon driven out by more aggressive European powers.

The Swedes turned to Indian slaves, when they could get them, but disease and westward migration had already emptied the region of native tribes. Still, a few Indian slaves persisted in Delaware until the 1720s, and the presence of a clause in the 1776 state constitution barring transportation of Indian slaves indictes that it was at least considered a possibility at that late date. Perhaps they were brought from the Carolinas.

The first black slave in the colony was named Anthony, and he had been brought up from the West Indies in 1639. But African slavery didn't truly begin in a large scale in Delaware until the Dutch took over. Peter Stuyvesant, the aggressive director-general of New Netherlands, in what is now New York, set out to re-establish an old Dutch claim to the Delaware Bay, even though the Netherlands and Sweden were at peace. He built a fort a few miles downriver from the Swedes' Fort Christina to provoke them. The Swedes took it over, and in 1655 Stuyvesant used that as a pretext to lead a large military expedition against New Sweden and easily conquer it.

The Dutch had ousted the Portugese as the early leaders in slave shipping, and they began to bring Africans across the Atlantic to work the land in the new colony on the Delaware. The numbers of slaves declined after the English conquest of New Netherlands in the fall of 1664, but rose again in the early 18th century as the labor-intensive tobacco and corn economy expanded. These slaves were generally were purchased in Philadelphia or from the Eastern Shore. In the decade before the Revolution, between 20 percent and 25 percent of the colony's population was enslaved. That figure is much higher than any Northern colony, but lower than any in the South.

Caesar Rodney (that's him on the back of the Delaware commemorative quarter, riding hell-to-leather to Philadelphia on July 2, 1776, to cast the vote that made the Declaration of Independence unanimous) was at the center of one of the first slavery debates in Delaware's history. It began in 1767 and lasted off and on until the Revolution. Rodney led the faction that was in favor of ending slave importation into the colony. But a closer look at the votes in the case suggest that this was not at heart a humanitarian issue. Ths supporters of the ban were in Rodney's home county, Kent. The opponents were those to the north and south. "A probable explanation is that the more established Kent planters had a surplus of slaves by 1767 and were anxious to sell them to farmers in the undeveloped sections of Sussex and southern New Castle County," a historian of slavery in Delaware has written, "where there was still a strong market for unfree blacks. An import ban would help keep prices high by eliminating the only competing source of supply."[1] As in other regions of the Upper South, the ban against importing slaves was supported by the more established slaveowners.


That was the high water mark of Delaware slavery. The Revolution disrupted the economy, and wheat (which was less conducive to slave labor) replaced corn and tobacco as cash crops. A state law banning the sale of Delaware slaves to the Carolinas, Georgia, and the West Indies (expanded 1789 to include Maryland and Virginia), helped make slaveowning increasingly unprofitable. In 1797, all Delaware slaves sold out of the state were declared automatically free.

Slave importation was finally outlawed in Delaware by the 1776 constitution, in part because the Revolutionary junta led by Rodney and his allies had seized the reins of government, in part because new slaves were no longer needed by this time. But there was no teeth in the ban until 1787. In 1789, Delaware barred slave ships from its ports.

The 1790 census showed 70 percent of the state's black population were slaves, and slaves were 15 percent of the state's total. Manumission picked up after the Revolution, as the Quakers, who were a dominant force in the northern end of the state, turned firmly against slave-owning, and the Methodists, one of the more egalitarian sects, gained numbers in the state's southern end. The language of the Declaration of Independence, and the enlightenment spirit of equality, also helped place slavery in an ethically precarious position in the minds of many. Abolition societies formed in Wilmington and Dover in 1788 and 1789. Wilmington eventually became a nexus of the Underground Railroad, and the city's most famous abolitionist, Thomas Garrett, was probably the inspiration for the heroic Quaker Simeon Holliday in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

There was social pressure against manumission by whites who feared being outnumbered by free blacks, and wills that set slaves free were often contested in court. A slave was still valuable property -- a young black male slave being worth about $150 in 1816 in southwestern Sussex County, where an acre of land was worth about $1. But the inability to sell slaves out-of-state and the changing agricultural practices were gradually making slave-owning less profitable in Delaware. By 1810, some 78 percent of Delaware's blacks were free (as opposed to 63 percent in New York and 42 percent in New Jersey in the same year), and unlike other northern states, it had been done voluntarily, without legal requirements. By 1840, only 13 percent of the state's blacks were enslaved, and slaves made up a mere 3 percent of the total population. In the early 1800s, 60 percent of Delaware's enslaved lived in units of 5 or fewer.

Delaware had, proportionally, the largest free black population of any state. This was not merely a statistical abstraction, but it was known and commented upon by the people in Delaware at the time, as in the Wilmington newspaper of 1850 that noted that Delaware "has more free colored in proportion to its population than any state in the Union."

White employers relied on free blacks for labor, and, like Maryland, Delaware took a coercive stance toward its free black population. An 1849 law threatened to sell free blacks into servitude for a year if they were "idle and poor" and remained unemployed. Blacks had been barred from state-aided schools as far back as 1821. In 1832, not long after Nat Turner's rebellion, the General Assembly began to pass "black codes" to control the lives and activities of freedmen. Soon these harsh rules made Delaware "the least hospitable place in the Union for freedmen prior to the Civil War."[2] The result was a migration of Delaware blacks northward in the 1850s.

An attempt to abolish slavery in the new state constitution in 1792 failed. Bills to abolish slavery were introduced in the General Assembly in 1796 and '97. An attempt at gradual emancipation in 1803 was killed by the speaker of the state House of Representatives, who cast the tiebreaking vote. Further attempts were made, but the abolition bills generally were smothered or starved in parliamentary procedure. By this time, the pattern had been established of anti-slavery New Castle County in the north vs. pro-slavery Sussex County in the south.

An 1845 bill for gradual abolition was "indefinitely postponed," but in 1847 a gradual emancipation bill that would have freed all African-Americans born into slavery after 1850 made it out of committee, with a recommendation of approval on economic grounds. Industrial Wilmington was eager to keep up with its bigger rivals, and the Northern political rhetoric of the times held that free laboring men, working to better their condition in factories or on farms, were the key to a region's prosperity. The committee report warned that "the carelessness, slovenly and unproductive husbandry visible in some parts of our state, undoubtedly result mainly from the habit of depending on slave labor. It is no longer a disputable question that slave labor impoverishes, while free labor enriches people."

The House passed the bill, by a vote of 12 to 8 (this is Delaware, remember: things happen on a very small scale). But it was tabled in the state Senate by one vote. Ironically, the deciding vote against it was cast by a senator who probably lived in Pennsylvania, in an area where the Mason-Dixon survey had left the boundary doubtful: a small spike of land that technically belonged to Pennsylvania but traditionally had been administered by Delaware.

Slavery debates in Delaware were a clash of morality and conservatism. The state's congressional delegation, on instruction from the General Assembly, opposed the extension of slavery in 1819, in the crisis that led up to the Missouri Compromise. The General Assembly passed resolutions against the annexation of Texas and the spread of slavery into territories conquered from Mexico. Yet the same General Assembly would not end slavery where it had power to do so, at home.


Like the draft effort of 1862, the experiment with compensated emancipation in Delaware was a last bid by the Lincoln administration to do things the old way before making a radical change.

By the time the Civil War began, fewer than 1,800 slaves lived in Delaware, and 75 percent of them were in Sussex County, mostly in the Nanticoke River basin in the far southwest of the state. In the fall of 1861, Lincoln proposed to George P. Fisher, Delaware congressman, a plan to compensate Delaware's remaining slaveholders from federal funds if they would free their slaves. Lincoln hoped that, if this could be shown to work in Delaware, it could be done as well in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, and eventually become a model for the states then in the Confederacy. In his proposal to Fisher, he called it the "cheapest and most humane way of ending this war and saving lives."[3]

Lincoln spoke in pragmatic terms in a July 12, 1862, "Appeal" to representatives of the border states. He told them that if they repudiated slavery it would remove one of the South's principal causes in continuing the war: that the slave border states were being kept in the Union against their will. And he laid out the practical, economic argument: "How much better for you and for your people to take the step which at once shortens the war and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event! ... How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it!"[4]

He also emphasized the conservative nature of his proposal for gradual emancipation, and he held out the promise of colonization. "I do not speak of emancipation at once, but of a decision at once to emancipate gradually. Room in South America for colonization can be obtained cheaply and in abundance, and when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go." The administration, at this time, had agents scouting the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua as a possible destination for freed slaves.

Lincoln also mentioned Gen. Hunter's proclamation of emancipation in his theater of the war, and the embarrassment it caused Lincoln to have to repudiate it. This, he said, had caused "disaffection ... to many whose support the country cannot afford to lose." And he mentioned the mounting pressure on him toward abolition. "By conceding what I now ask," he told the border state representatives, "you can relieve me, and, much more, can relieve the country, in this important point."

Fisher arranged a meeting between Lincoln and Republican Benjamin Burton of Indian River Hundred in Sussex County, who, with 28 slaves, was the leading slaveowner in Delaware. Burton listened to the President's plan, and assured him the state's farmers would go along with it if the price was fair. Fisher then went to Dover, and, with the help of Republican Nathaniel P. Smithers, drew up a bill and presented it to the General Assembly. It would free all slaves over 35 at once, and all others by 1872. The compensation rate was to be set by a local board of assessors, and payments were to average about $500 per slave, which was very generous. It was more than a prime field hand was worth, and was five times the value of a typical slave in the state. Payment was to come from a pool of $900,000 to be provided by Congress, then safely in GOP hands.

But Lincoln was unpopular in Delaware -- he had finished third there in the 1860 election, with 24 percent of the vote, behind Breckenridge and Bell -- and even if the money offered was good, the state's politicians seemed disinclined to help the government. Delaware also had a suspicion of federal interference in its internal affairs.

In 1862, the General Assembly replied to Lincoln's compensated emancipation offer with a resolution stating that, "when the people of Delaware desire to abolish slavery within her borders, they will do so in their own way, having due regard to strict equity." And they furthermore notified the administration that they regarded "any interference from without" as "improper," and a thing to be "harshly repelled."[5]

The states' rights rhetoric probably in part masked a fear of social equality for blacks. Delaware's Sen. Joseph A. Bayard, an opponent of the administration, admitted, "slavery does not exist as a valuable source of prosperity" in Delaware.[6] But the "Delawarean" newspaper on Sept. 6, 1862, called Lincoln's plan "the first step; if it shall succeed, others will follow tending to elevate the Negro to an equality with the white man or rather to degrade the white man by obliterating the distinction between races." It sounds deeply racist to modern ears, but such rhetoric was boilerplate for Northern newspapers, even many of those generally friendly to the administration, throughout the war.

Others played on the old fear that free blacks would prey on whites. Samuel Townsend, a Democrat writing in opposition to the plan, portrayed the white population of Delaware as riding on the back of a tiger from which it dared not dismount, for, "in a short time," free blacks in the state "might equal the white population and cause a massacre." Even Fisher, while pushing the President's plan, supported colonization not just of the freed slaves in Delaware, but of the state's entire black population.

The plan was never put to a vote. Fisher and Smithers canvassed the General Assembly and found that the bill would probably pass the Senate, but lose in the House by one vote. They withdrew the plan rather than see it defeated. The elections that fall produced a decisive Democratic victory in Delaware, which doomed the chance for emancipation there. As it turned out, Kentucky and Delaware, among the border states, continued to tolerate slavery, even after Lee's surrender. Delaware's General Assembly refused to ratify the 13th Amendment, calling it an illegal extension of federal powers over the states. Only in December 1865, when the 13th Amendment went into effect on a national scale, did slavery cease in Delaware. By then there were only a few hundred left. Many male slaves had run off in 1863 and 1864 and gone to the cities to enlist in black regiments.

1. William H. Williams, Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865, Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1996, p.171.
2. ibid., p.xiii.
3. H. Clay Reed, "Lincoln's Compensated Emancipation Plan," Delaware Notes, 7 (1931), p.65.
4. John Hay and John G. Nicolay, eds., Letters and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, 1894, vol. II, p.204-205.
5. Harold B. Hancock, Delaware During the Civil War: A Political History, Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1961, p.30.
6. ibid., pp.109-110.

2003 - Slavery in the North - About the Author