The American Revolution was the death knell of Northern slavery. The rhetoric of the rebels, based on the Enlightenment doctrine of “natural rights,” immediately ran into the hypocrisy of a slave-owning people crying out for freedom. Tory Samuel Johnson twitted the Americans in 1775: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" The rebels were sensitive to the taunt. “To contend for liberty and to deny that blessing to others,” John Jay wrote, “involves an inconsistency not to be excused.” Nathaniel Niles put it succinctly: “For shame, let us either cease to enslave our fellow-men, or else let us cease to complain of those that would enslave us.” James Otis found another thread in the argument when he wrote, “It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty, will soon care little for their own.”
Britain had a large financial stake in the slave trade (between 1729 and 1750, Parliament approved more than £90,000 for maintenance of slave stations on the African coast), so New England resistance to slave importation in the years leading up to the Revolution could express anti-Crown sentiment. As so often happened, morality and economic self-interest flowed the same way, so it is difficult to distinguish them. Dr. Jeremy Belknap of Boston recalled that few in the colony had spoken publicly against slavery, “ till we began to feel the weight of oppression from 'our mother country.' ” It was probably not a coincidence that Massachusetts, where resistance to British authority was greatest, was also the hotbed of agitation against the slave trade.
Meanwhile, by 1770, slave raids had depopulated whole regions of coastal West Africa. The terms of the Assiento encouraged this by drawing off the breeding-age population: “none of the said 4,800 Negroes shall be under the age of ten years, nine parts in ten of the ... Negroes so to be furnished shall be of the age of sixteen years at least, and none of them shall exceed the age of 40 years.” During the decade before the American Revolution, the cost of slaves at the stations in Africa soared. Because of that, the flow of available slaves from the West Indies -- the traditional main source of Northern slaves -- dried up. Plantation owners there held on to their stock, realizing it could no longer easily be replaced by African imports. The combination drove many Northern slave merchants out of the trade. Slave imports to the North fell off sharply after 1770, and internal trade in blacks rose in importance. The change in the economic winds helped ease the path for the North to give up its direct involvement in expanding slavery, without disowning the fortune it already had made.
Emancipation in the North also involved a religious component. Quakers came later to abolition than many people realize. Not until 1758 did Philadelphia Yearly Meeting condemn not only the slave trade, but slavery itself. Still, the Society of Friends was the most visible of the anti-slavery sects, though somewhat marginalized during the Revolution because many Friends had been Loyalists. They brought varying degrees of pressure to bear in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and Methodists in the Chesapeake region also preached against slavery.
But the heaviest blow was dealt by the war itself, which was waged for five years all across the North. Both sides competed for the slaves, and whichever side he joined, a slave was likely to end up free. The incentives were greater on the British side, however, since the running away of an American's slave meant no financial loss to them. In Connecticut, as early as 1776, slaves were escaping to British vessels lying off New Haven. In 1775, at the outbreak of the Revolution, Virginia's Gov. John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who would bear arms against the rebellion. Among the many who ran away from their masters and flocked to Lord Dunmore's regiments was Titus, 21, slave of New Jersey Quaker John Corlies. A year later, calling himself Colonel Tye, Titus was back in New Jersey, organizing other slaves and free blacks to fight against the Americans. For five years he led a guerilla band that terrorized northern New Jersey.
In 1779, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief, offered freedom “to every Negro that shall desert the rebel standard.” Clinton's policy was as much practical as philanthropic. A British warning in the New York Weekly Mercury on July 5, 1779, notified blacks that any captured with the rebel forces would be sold into slavery, regardless of their legal status. But there does seem to have been a good deal of genuine humanitarian feeling among the British generals. Lord Cornwallis would not allow runaways to be taken from his camp, even when their owners were not rebels. And Sir Guy Carleton kept his word to fugitives at the end of the war during the evacuation of New York, even as the victorious Yankees clamored for the return of their slave property. When the British and the American Loyalists pulled out at the end of the war, some 3,000 blacks left with them.
The British offer of liberty to escaped slaves drew in thousands of them. “By the invasion of this state, and the possession the enemy obtained of this city, and neighborhood,” George Bryan of Philadelphia wrote in 1779, “[a] great part of the slaves hereabouts, were enticed away by the British army.” The large slave populations of Philadelphia and New York were permanently reduced. Henry Muhlenberg, the prominent Lutheran minister in Pennsylvania, wrote in his journal that blacks “secretly wished the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom.” “The number of runaways rose so sharply after 1775 that there can be no doubt that the machinery of control no longer functioned effectively.”
The Northern colonies, too, began to offer their slaves manumission or freedom in exchange for military service. Usually this came with some reimbursement to the owner (in 1782 in New York, 500 acres was given to a master for every slave who enlisted for three years with the master's consent). In the American Revolution, some 5,000 blacks, mostly from the North, fought on the American side. But likely many more went over to the British. The black population of Massachusetts declined in actual numbers during the Revolutionary years, and its ratio to the white population fell from 1:45 in 1763 to 1:80 in 1784. In Rhode Island, the black-to-white ratio had been 1:14 in 1749; in 1783 it was 1:22. In the 15 years after 1771, the white population of New York grew by about 50 percent, but the black population fell by 5 percent. Black population in Connecticut decreased by 1,045 from 1774 to 1790, a drop of better than 16 percent.
The result of this convergence of forces was that, between 1777 and 1804, the Northern colonies and states, one by one, gave up on slavery. It’s difficult to assign a relative weight in this to practical economics as opposed to political liberalism. Evidence suggests the practical was paramount. There was a good deal of anti-slavery rhetoric in the early days of the Revolution in the form of petitions and non-binding resolutions. In the North, a few of the former colonies even barred the importing of slaves. But only Vermont, where slavery was practically non-existent, went so far as to ban it outright in 1777. The war came first, most of the Northern leaders decided, and anything that could upset the struggle ought to be, in the words of the New Hampshire legislature in 1780 putting off a petition for freedom from the state's slaves, “postponed till a more convenient opportunity.”
Edgar McManus, the historian of Northern slavery, finds that “abolitionists of the 1780's belonged to the business elite which thirty years before had reaped handsome profits from the slave trade. The precipitous decline of the trade after 1770 apparently sharpened the moral sensibilities of those who had formerly profited. ... The leaders of the abolition movement were honorable men who sincerely regarded slavery as a great moral wrong. But it is also true that they embraced antislavery at a time when it entailed no economic hardship for their class.”
Northern slaves, more often than those of the colonial South or other parts of the Americas, had filled skilled positions, working as artisans, especially in the cities. They appear as bakers, tailors, weavers, goldsmiths, and woodcut illustrators. Such status allowed them a certain power to negotiate with their masters, and win certain protections. It also earned them the jealousy of white workers, who petitioned relentlessly against slave competition in Boston from 1660, New York from 1686, and Philadelphia from 1707. But with the end of slavery, the white workers who had sought these jobs for generations soon swept them clean of black incumbents. The freed slaves were excluded from the occupations that would have allowed them to make something of their freedom.
Considering New York, McManus writes, “Upper-class whites were motivated by idealism, and their attitude toward the Negro was philanthropic and paternalistic. Members of the upper class supported Negro charities and schools much more generously than they supported organizations assisting poor whites.” This idealism, however, "had no counterpart in the lower classes, among whom could be found neither sympathy for the Negro nor understanding of his problems. From its inception, slavery had been detrimental to the working class. On the one hand, the slave system excluded whites from jobs pre-empted by slaves; on the other, it often degraded them socially to the level of the slaves with whom they had to work and compete in earning a livelihood. Many whites prefered chauvinistic idleness to employment which had come to be identified with slavery. ... Whites of the working class hated slavery as an institution, but they also feared the free Negro as an economic competitor. They supported emancipation not to raise the Negro to a better life but to destroy a system which gave him a fixed place in the economy.”
“Emancipation in some ways strengthened the tyranny of race by imposing on blacks new forms of subordination that better served the economic interests of the whites,” writes McManus. “The historical reality of race relations in the Americas is that whites have never altered their institutions primarily for the benefit of blacks.”
Northern prejudice, and the inability of those states to assimilate their former slaves, certainly discouraged efforts toward freeing the slaves in the South. Having inadvertently freed the slaves in the state, the Massachusetts legislature voted to bar interracial marriages and expel all blacks who were not citizens. Boston authorities took action against 240 of them in 1800, most natives of Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia, and the West Indies. White Philadelphians were rioting against blacks from 1805, driving them from the Fourth of July celebrations on Independence Square. Within a decade, the burning of black churches in the city had begun. A Virginia judge, observing the North in 1795, wrote, "If in Massachusetts, where the numbers are comparatively very small, this prejudice be discernable, how much stronger may it be imagined in this country ...?"
Another kind of mixed message was sent south by prominent Northern critics of slavery who had difficulty freeing their own slaves. Benjamin Rush and the Rev. Francis Allison were among Pennsylvania's prominent, outspoken abolitionists who owned slaves during most of their public careers. In 1785, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and 30 other New Yorkers formed the Society for Manumission of Slaves. Hamilton, as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, reported a resolution that members begin the work by freeing their own slaves. The resolution failed. “[I]n the manner northern state governments dealt with the abolition of slavery, the South witnessed the central difficulty besetting the revolutionary generation -- how to put into practice beliefs that could be implemented only at personal cost.”
By the time of the 1790 census, 94 percent of the 698,000 U.S. slaves lived below the Mason-Dixon Line. They concentrated in the tobacco-growing region in the Chesapeake basin and in the rice-growing along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Having solved its slavery problem by a very gradual emancipation, and by aggressively proscribing the rights of its free black minority, the North was content. Its ships continued to carry slaves to Southern ports, and slave-grown cotton to Europe. The North reaped the profits of the Southern plantations, and the federal government collected the tariffs. Any further effort made in the North toward resolving the slavery issue generally went into the pipe-dream of colonization and to making sure Southern blacks stayed there, or at least did not come north.
1. “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved”