The state of New York has long been known as a primarily liberal state. Additionally, New York was on the northern side of the American Civil War, lending substantial amounts of troops, supplies and support to the anti-slavery Union cause. Regardless of the fundamentally abolitionist inclinations that existed in New York by the mid-nineteenth century, New York State and, by extension, the city of Albany, was a major point of convergence for both the Dutch and English slave trades. Additionally, many New York State residents, including notable historical figures, owned slaves. This paper will examine the viewpoints of various historians regarding the general attitude towards slavery and blacks in New York State during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The 2005 book, Slavery in New York is a collection of essays compiled and edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris that all discuss the fact that New York State was a slave state for more of its existence than it was not. Berlin and Harris’s decision to compile essays on this topic was catalyzed by the discovery of an African burial ground in lower Manhattan in 1991. The essays in Slavery in New York argue that, not only did New York State and its inhabitants actively participate in the slave trade and the practice of owning slaves, but New York City had one of the highest slave populations in the United States during the eighteenth century, surpassed solely by Charleston, South Carolina. Many of the essays in Slavery in New York contend that it is wholly unsurprising that New York was once a thriving slave state, as it was large and relatively prosperous from its beginnings and, prior to the coming of the Industrial Revolution to the United States, cities were heavily reliant upon slaves for production (Berlin & Harris, 8). One of the essays featured in Slavery in New York, “A World of Possibilities: Slavery and Freedom in Dutch New Amsterdam” by Christopher Moore highlights the fact that a very prominent figure in New York’s history, Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director General of the New Netherland Colony (1647-1664) for whom many landmarks in the state are named, was a known slave holder: “Many of the slaves on Stuyvesant’s bowery were company slaves whose work included building the forts. Stuyvesant used enslaved Africans as a first line of defense against the Esopus” (Moore, 20). Thus, the essay not only exposes Stuyvesant as an active participant in the practice of slavery, but also presents the fact that slaves were responsible for building forts and, therefore, the defense of the colony, a feat generally attributed to white European men in the annals of history. The revelation of the extensive use of slavery demonstrates Moore’s view that New York was, in many ways, built upon the foundation of slavery.
Another essay included in Slavery in New York, “The Long Death of Slavery” by Patrick Rael, also examines the fact that most cities in the United States were dependent upon slave labor during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the inherent difficulties associated with ending slavery, even in northern states, due to that reliance. Rael states that the institution of slavery was deeply ingrained in the country’s roots, as federal rulings existed that guaranteed political prestige for slaveholders, and that these were enforced in the Constitution. Unlike Moore, Rael implies that slavery may have continued in the United States if it were not for the actions of enslaved Africans themselves. In addition to the efforts to gain freedom by those who were enslaved, Rael asserts that there was pressure building in the western world to provide equality amongst all people: “The Atlantic-wide revolutions that mainland colonists inaugurated in 1775 soon struck other European empires, challenging the young nation to grapple with the logistical limits of its dedication to universal principles of human equality” (Rael, 38) In articulating these points, Rael builds upon Moore’s idea that all of the United States, including New York, was built with a fundamental dependence upon slavery, but goes on to suggest that slavery may have persevered in northern states if had not been for social pressures from the western world for the United States to live up to its reputation and discomfiture due to anti-slavery efforts made by slaves themselves.
David N. Gellman’s 2008 book, Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827 states that, due to an extended internal debate regarding whether slavery fit in with the state’s values, New York was amongst the last of the northern states to take a stance against slavery. Gellman shares Moore’s view that the bustling industry present in New York State contributed toward the difficulty associated with ending the practice of slavery. Emancipating New York also discusses that fact that, not only was New York a state where slavery played a much greater role than most other northern states, but New York also began to officially oppose slavery much later than even its immediate neighbors, such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Unlike Moore or Rael, Gellman examines the extenuating conditions in these surrounding states that made may have led to earlier advocacy of abolition, such as the presence of the peace and equality loving Quakers in Pennsylvania and the shorter history of slavery in Massachusetts: “While Quaker activists in New York played a prominent role in opposing slavery, Quakers were a much more marginal group in New York than Pennsylvania. The mechanism for abolition was quite different as well in Massachusetts. No New York court would have dared to pronounce a blanket condemnation of slavery as the Supreme Judicial Court did in that state” (Gellman, 4). In discussing New York’s relative reluctance to declare its opposition to slavery compared to other nearby states, Gellman implies that New York was more internally divided than other states during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Gellman also explains New York’s background as it relates to its eighteenth century ties to slavery. He states that when New York was settled by the Dutch during the early seventeenth century, the area was utilized by as a center of trade for the Dutch East India Company, the country for which Henry Hudson was employed when he came upon the area now known as Albany. Thus, the Hudson River, which connects major ports in New York State, such as New York City and Albany, to the Atlantic Ocean was used to facilitate the Dutch slave trade. Gellman goes on to express his belief that New York clung on to slavery during the period that the colony was transitioning from Dutch to British control, as it was felt that slavery was a basic right for white men and that it was being threatened by the British: “As New Yorkers unsuspectingly lurched into a continental showdown with British authority, black bondage remained a deeply ingrained aspect of the world whites sought to defend from what they deemed to be British infringements on colonial rights” (Gellman, 16) Thus, in Emancipating New York, David Gellman argues that New York’s relatively long practice of slavery was a result of the influences of imperial rule.
In the 2006 book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan, author Jill Lepore is far less apologetic than Moore, Rael, and Gellman in regards to the responsibility of New Yorkers for the continuation of the institution of slavery. Lepore underscores the irony of the fact that the terms “liberty” and “slavery” were both articulated by New York’s most prominent figures, and that many of the white men in the state who verbalized their opposition to slavery owned slaves: “That calls for liberty came from a world of slavery has been named the central paradox of American history” (Lepore, 18). New York Burning does not blame the United States as a whole for this “paradox,” but rather isolates New York as, after the occurrence of multiple fires over a brief period of time in Manhattan in 1741, two hundred slaves were convicted for arson and murder, of which “thirteen black men were burned at the stake” and “seventeen more were hanged.” Lepore uses a response to these executions, written by an anonymous New Englander, in which New Yorkers are accused of treating blacks in their state just as badly as suspected witches were treated during the seventeenth century Salem With Trials to assert her stance that the treatment of slaves and blacks in New York State in the eighteenth century was singular, and not merely a reflection of the cultural paradigm existent in the United States at that point in history.
Lepore continues her examination of the practice of slavery in ways that were unique to New York State by purporting that slavery was fundamental part of New York’s politics: “Slavery was always and everywhere a political issue, but what happened in New York suggests that it exerted a more powerful influence on political life: slaves suspected of conspiracy constituted both a phantom political party and an ever- threatening revolution” (Lepore, 52). New York Burning cites an event that occurred during the summer of 1741, when a now extinct political party known as the Court Party in New York faced contention from another defunct political party, the Country Party, and became the group responsible for the aforementioned burning of slaves at the stake after the series of fires in Manhattan. In including this point, Lenore seems to be implying that the issues of slavery and the methods of quelling perceived slave rebellions, were being utilized by political parties in New York State in order to rally support from citizens.
James and Michelle Nevius’s 2014 book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, focuses on the lives of specific families in New York’s history. Through one of these families, the Delanceys, the authors demonstrate that, not only was slavery an intrinsic part of New York State’s politics and industry, but also the domestic lives of the state’s inhabitants. This is illustrated in Footprints in New York through the fact that the patriarch of the Delancey family, Stephen Delancey, was, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a successful merchant and trader whose fortune was built through the use of slaves, and whose son, James Delancey, had grown up in a world in which utilizing slaves in the household was an ordinary act: “His eldest son, James, grew up in a world where slavery was the norm, and Africans could be passed on as property, just like furniture or a house” (Nevius & Nevius, 26) James and Michelle Nevius acknowledge that Stephen Delancey’s children did eventually inherit his slaves in his will, as did many children of slaveholders during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though eventually, as slavery was slowly phased out in New York State beginning in 1799, and many slaves were freed in their master’s wills, Footprints in New York emphasizes the notion that household slaves being passed from generation to generation through bequests was an obstacle to entirely eradicating the practice of slavery in New York State.
Through the facts presented in these works, it is clear that the practice of slavery was a major part of various aspects of life in New York State. It is also evident from that the authors feel that New York’s politics, society, industry, and inhabitant’s family lives were all tied to the institution of slavery in a way that differed from surrounding northern states, which would account for why New York was amongst the last of the northern states to officially declare itself opposed to slavery. Additionally, a remarkable number of the authors of texts relating to slavery in New York State do not make extensive excuses for the residents of the state for their continuation of the practice of slavery.
Berlin, Ira, and Leslie M. Harris. Slavery in New York. New York: New Press, 2005.
Gellman, David N. “Labor, Law and Resistance in the Eighteenth Century.” In Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.
Lepore, Jill. “Fire.” In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Moore, Christopher. “A World of Possibilities : Slavery and Freedom in Dutch New Amsterdam.” In Slavery in New York. New York: New Press, 2005.
Nevius, James. “The Delanceys and New York’s Lost Century.” In Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, edited by Michelle Nevius. Guilford: Lyons Press, 2014.
Rael, Patrick. “The Long Death of Slavery.” In Slavery in New York. New York: New Press, 2005.