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



Northern slavery grew out of the paradox the new continent presented to its European masters. So much land was available, so cheaply, that no one was willing to come to America and sign on to work as a laborer. The dream that drew Europeans across the Atlantic was owning acres of land or making a fortune in a trade or a craft. It was an attainable dream. In the 1680s a landless Welsh peasant from the mountains of Montgomeryshire could bring his whole family to Pennsylvania for £10 and acquire 250 acres for another £5; placing just one son in a trade in Britain would have cost the family £7.

Yet workers were needed in the new continent to clear the land, work the soil, build the towns. Because of this acute labor shortage, all the American colonies turned to compulsory labor. In New Netherland, in the 1640s, a free European worker could be hired for 280 guilders a year, plus food and lodging. In the same time and place, experienced African slaves from the West Indies could be bought outright, for life, for 300 guilders.

“To claim that the colonies would not have survived without slaves would be a distortion," historian Edgar McManus writes, "but there can be no doubt that the development was significantly speeded by their labor. They provided the basic working force that transformed shaky outposts of empire into areas of permanent settlement.”[1] Or, to consider the situation from a broad view of the entire New World, “... export agriculture and effective colonization would not have occurred on the scale it did if enslaved Africans had not been brought to the New World. Except for precious metals, almost all major American exports to Europe were produced by Africans.”[2]

Early in the 17th century, black slave status in the British Americas was not quite absolute bondage. It was a nebulous condition similar to that of indentured servants. Some Africans brought to America were regarded as "servants" eligible for freedom a certain number of years. Slavery had been on the decline in England, and in most of Europe generally, since the Middle Ages. That may be why the legal definition of slavery as perpetual servitude for blacks and their children was not immediately established in the New World colonies. The first official legal recognition of chattel slavery as a legal institution in British North America was in Massachusetts, in 1641, with the “Body of Liberties.” Slavery was legalized in New Plymouth and Connecticut when it was incorporated into the Articles of the New England Confederation (1643). Rhode Island enacted a similar law in 1652. That means New England had formal, legal slavery a full generation before it was established in the South. Not until 1664 did Maryland declare that all blacks held in the colony, and all those imported in the future, would serve for life, as would their offspring. Virginia followed suit by the end of the decade. New York and New Jersey acquired legal slavery when they passed to English control in the 1660s. Pennsylvania, founded only in 1682, followed in 1700, with a law for regulation of servants and slaves.

Roughly speaking, slavery in the North can be divided into two regions. New England slaves numbered only about 1,000 in 1708, but that rose to more than 5,000 in 1730 and about 13,000 by 1750. New England also was the center of the slave trade in the colonies, supplying captive Africans to the South and the Caribbean island. Black slaves were a valuable shipping commodity that soon proved useful at home, both in large-scale agriculture and in ship-building. The Mid-Atlantic colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) had been under Dutch rule before the British conquered them in 1664. African slavery in the middle colonies had been actively encouraged by the Dutch authorities, and this was continued by the British.

Both the Dutch and English colonists in the North preferred to get their slaves from other New World colonies rather than directly from Africa. Direct imports from Africa were considered too dangerous and difficult. Instead, the middle colonies sought their African slaves from Dutch Curaçao and later from British Jamaica and Barbados. “These slaves were familiar with Western customs and habits of work, qualities highly prized in a region where masters and slaves worked and lived in close proximity.”[3] Having survived one climate change already, they also adjusted better to Northern winters, which incapacitated or killed those direct from Africa. Both causes contributed to the adjective often used to advertise West Indies slaves being sold in the North: "seasoned."

By the late colonial period, the average slave-owning household in New England and the Mid-Atlantic seems to have had about 2 slaves. Estates of 50 or 60 slaves were rare, though they did exist in the Hudson Valley, eastern Connecticut, and the Narragansett region of Rhode Island. But the Northern climate set some barriers to large-scale agricultural slavery. The long winters, which brought no income on Northern farms, made slaves a burden for many months of the year unless they could be hired out to chop wood or tend livestock. In contrast to Southern plantation slavery, Northern slavery tended to be urban.

Slaveholding reflected social as well as economic standing, for in colonial times servants and retainers were visible symbols of rank and distinction. The leading families of Massachusetts and Connecticut used slaves as domestic servants, and in Rhode Island, no prominent household was complete without a large staff of black retainers. New York's rural gentry regarded the possession of black coachmen and footmen as an unmistakable sign of social standing. In Boston, Philadelphia, and New York the mercantile elite kept retinues of household slaves. Their example was followed by tradesmen and small retailers until most houses of substance had at least one or two domestics.[4]
There is argument among historians about the economic role of Northern slaves. Some maintain that New England slaves generally were held in situations where they did not do real work, such as might be done by a white laborer, and that many, if not most, of the New England slaves were held without economic justification, working as house servants or valets. Even in Pennsylvania, the mounting Pennsylvania Quaker testimony against slavery in the 1750s and '60s was in large part aimed against the luxuriousness and extravagance of the Friends who had domestic slaves. But other historians who have studied the matter in some depth (Greene, McManus, Melish) make a forceful case for slave labor being an integral part of the New England economy. And even those slaves who did the arduous work required in a colonial household freed their white owners to pursue careers in law, religion, medicine or civil service.


The interweaving of Christianity and white supremacy is considered a defining quality of Southern slavery. Yet this also happened in the North. Not only was slavery sanctioned by the God of the Old Testament, it was a positive duty of his chosen people in the New World, because it brought the Gospel to the pagans of Africa. Thus could a Rhode Island elder rejoice, without any apparent consciousness of irony, when a slave ship coasted in to the wharf, that “an overruling Providence has been pleased to bring to this land of freedom another cargo of benighted heathens to enjoy the blessings of a Gospel dispensation.”[5]

Not only was religion a justification to the Puritan slaveowner, it was an instrument of control. Cotton Mather, in "Rules for the Society of Negroes" (1693) taught the Massachusetts slaves that they were the "miserable children of Adam and Noah," and told them that part of their duty as Christians was to inform on one another.

In the catechism prepared for the slaves to memorize, Mather taught the Negroes that they were enslaved because they had sinned against God and that God, not their masters had enslaved them. Service to the master was identified with service to God and in the Ten Commandments, prepared by Mather for the slaves, submissiveness to and respect for the master were substituted for the similar deference which the owners gave to God. The Fifth Commandment ("Honor thy Father and Mother ...") was twisted to mean for the slave 'I must show all due respect unto everyone and if I have a master or mistress, I must be very dutiful unto them.' For the slave, the Tenth Commandment ("Thou Shalt not Covet, ...") was interpreted as 'I must be patient and content with such a condition as God has ordered for me.' Mather then promised the slaves that if they were 'faithful and honest servants,' they would receive 'rest from their labours' and, as a reward, God would 'prepare a mansion in Heaven for them.'[6]
Similar precepts were adopted throughout the 18th century in religious teaching to slaves by Ezra Stiles, Daniel Wadsworth, and others.

Despite the Puritan strictures against sexuality (Massachusetts was one of a handful of colonies to punish what later was called "miscegenation"), free whites and black slaves had sex under a range of circumstances, and a population of mulattos began to grow. By the early 18th century, Connecticut and Massachusetts had to recognize mulattoes as a separate race classification. Exact numbers from colonial times are difficult to pinpoint, but Rhode Island did make a specific census in 1782, which found that, of 3,806 non-whites in the colony, 464 or one-eight were mulattoes. The districts with the highest number of black slaves had the fewest mulattoes, which is consistent with the pattern in the South a century later.

Strict moral and social pressure rejected any romantic attachments across race lines. Anne Grant wrote that New Yorkers believed nature had drawn a line between the races “which it was in a high degree criminal and disgraceful to pass; they considered a mixture of such distinct races with abhorrence, as a violation of her laws.”[7] Yet it happened. In the case of New England, white women outnumbered white men, while demand for slave laborers meant black adult males in Massachusetts outnumbered black adult females in 1755 by nearly 2 to 1. Instances of co-habitation and even marriage (when and where it could be legally accomplished) between black men and white women are recorded throughout New England and to a lesser extent in the middle colonies. Such activity was not without risk, however: in 1718 a Connecticut man discovered a black man and a white woman together, and in his enraged reaction he castrated the other man. The “Boston News Letter” reported this, approvingly.[8]

The situation was reversed for rural Vermonters during the 1800s, when the population of white women fell because so many had moved down to the towns to take factory work. Black women, who did not have that option, were still around and were the only other choice for wives. Vermont changed its rules about birth certificates to speed the legal assimilation of mulattoes into the white population. Certificates for first-generation children of interracial marriages were marked "negro;" second generation, "colored;" and third generation "white." To the average Vermonter, however, even after the third generation they were just "bleached niggers."

Neither were the Northern colonial mulattoes exclusively free people. Many were slaves. A sampling of New England runaways showed that one in six were advertised as mulattoes, and the proportion was similar in the middle colonies. The 1780 slave register of Chester County, Pennsylvania, shows mulattoes made up 20% of the total. The “Pennsylvania Chronicle” from 1767-73 advertised 61 fugitives, of whom about 20% had white blood in some degree. In some cases the proportion was so high that the advertisers warned the fugitive slave could pass for white and probably would attempt to do so.

The two colonies with the strongest religious foundations -- Massachusetts and Pennsylvania -- were the ones that outlawed miscegenation outright. In all places where race-based slavery thrived, mixed race persons upset the natural definitions of white and black. But in the Christian spiritual settlements of the Puritans and the Quakers, the mixing seems to have been felt as a dreadful contamination of God's elect by the blood of the very people he had especially marked for slavery. The Massachusetts law against mixed marriage or sexual relations between the races, dating to 1705, was passed “for the better preventing of a spurious and mixt issue.”[9] It subjected a black man who slept with a white woman to being sold out of the province (likely to the cruel plantations of the West Indies). Both were to be flogged, and the woman bound out to service to support any children resulting from the illicit union. In cases involving a white man and a black woman, both were to be flogged, the man fined £5 and held liable for support of any children, and the woman to be sold out of the province. In liberal Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the Quaker founders had freed marriage from the tyranny of the state and the established church, but the leadership nonetheless raised a bar against interracial marriages.

These statues were not simply about control of slave populations, because they also covered free blacks. The Massachusetts law made no distinction between freemen and slaves, and the Pennsylvania law specified that a free black who was guilty of sexual relations with a white person was to be sold as servants for seven years, and any who married a white person was to be sold as a “slave during life.” Any minister or magistrate who performed such a marriage was subject to a crushing fine of £100.

Northern slavery shared many other qualities with the better-known Southern variety. There are even cases of free blacks buying enslaved ones. The first federal census, in 1790, showed six black families in Connecticut that owned slaves. As in the South later, such cases sometimes turn out, on closer examination, to be free blacks buying loved ones in bondage, such as this contract from Boston in 1724:

Whereas Scipio, of Boston aforesaid, Free Negro Man and Laborer, purposes Marriage to Margaret, the Negro Woman Servant of the said Dorcas Marshall ... that the said Intended Marriage may take Effect, and that the said Scipio may Enjoy the said Margaret without any Interruption ... She is duly sold with her apparel for Fifty Pounds.

1. Edgar J. McManus, “Black Bondage in the North,” Syracuse University Press, 1973, p.17.
2. Herbert S. Klein, “The Atlantic Slave Trade,” Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.46.
3. McManus, op. cit., p.20.
4. McManus, pp.41-42.
5. quoted in Lorenzo Johnston Greene, “The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776,” N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.62.
6. ibid., p.286.
7. quoted in McManus, loc. cit., p.64.
8. ibid., p.65.
9. “Massachusetts Acts and Resolves,” I, 578.

2003 - Slavery in the North - About the Author