When Did Slavery Really End in the North?

The perception about the United States in the period before the Civil War is that the North was “free” and the South was “slave.” Now, in some senses this division is accurate; certainly the two regions would end up going to war against each other for issues very related to this debate over slavery. However, the demise of slavery in the North was far more complicated that usually presented. It is certainly not the oversimplified story of slavery ending in the North after the Revolution, leading to a “free” region, as we sometimes see presented in classrooms.

For example, did you know that there were 451,021 slaves counted in the 1860 census in states and territories that would make up the Union during the Civil War? Twenty years earlier, in the 1840 census, there were 355,777 slaves counted and in 1850, 415,510. When you look at the census data, New England is the only region where slavery ends rather quickly. In other areas of the north and west, slavery continues until right up to the Civil War. 

In the nation as a whole, slavery actually grew in the period after 1790, despite emancipation in the north:

Of course, most of this growth happened in the deep south as cotton grew and the institution of slavery entrenched further. However, some of this growth (you will notice in the first chart) occurred in states that would eventually be part of the Union during the Civil War. While the general trajectory in the North was emancipation and the demise of slavery, the process is not as orderly as it may appear.

States in New England and the Mid-Atlantic used gradual emancipation programs, with varied rapidity. Of all of the northern states, Vermont was the only to outlaw slavery definitively within its 1777 constitution, but even in that document there was vague language that may have allowed slaveholding to continue in certain areas. For the most part, northern states enacted a process of emancipation that would gradually phase slavery out over an extended period of time, reflecting concerns over race, social structure, and the economic benefits of owning slaves as property and a labor source. Gradual abolition was a more comfortable process, allowing a gradual change in society instead of an abrupt one, and it allowed northern whites to transfer their assumptions about slaves and race onto the freed population. Because northern slaves used a process of gradual abolition, the institution of slavery was present in the North far longer than many people realize. As historian James Gigantino wrote in his work on abolition in New Jersey, “slavery did not die after the Revolution, it sustained itself until the Civil War” (1).

Pennsylvania was the first to agree to gradual abolition during the Revolution. First, the Executive Council suggested to the Assembly in 1778 that they stop further importation of slaves as a first step towards emancipation. An initial emancipation bill, framed that year, called for the children of slaves born after the effective date to be freed after serving 18 years for females and 21 years for males. It also ordered slaves arriving with new residents of the state freed within six months, although they could be indentured until the age of 28 for minors or for four years for adults. Passage of the law was delayed due to the war but the ideas were reinforced in 1779 when the Council declared that slavery was incongruent with the goals of the Revolution and a disgrace to a people who were then fighting for the cause of liberty. When the state returned to the abolition bill they revised it so that all children under the bill would serve until the age of twenty-eight. While this extended the time in bondage, there were two important concessions made for the African-American community. The bill dropped a provision that would have bound out freed blacks if they could not maintain themselves and also dropped a ban on interracial marriage. This law was passed in 1780; it did not free any slave born before that year and the first emancipation under the law would not happen until 1808. In hindsight, the Pennsylvania law was actually the most restrictive of the five gradual abolition laws passed in northern states. With its provisions for 28 years in bondage, the law gave a two generation grace period for slavery to die out. Total abolition did not happen in Pennsylvania until 1847. However, it was the first gradual emancipation law passed, it served as a base for neighboring states to take similar steps, and at the time it was heralded as revolutionary.

In Massachusetts, slavery eroded slowly, without a definitive act of gradual abolition. Starting in 1766 there was a series of cases in which slaves sued their masters for restricting their liberties. These cases had mixed results, sometimes the rulings favored the slaves and sometimes they favored the masters. While often pointed to as evidence of abolition or discussion of slavery in the state, these early cases did not shake the institution to a large degree. In 1771, seven slaves petitioned the state legislature for an act that would free adult slaves immediately and free their children at the age of 21. This effort led to a proposed bill that would free adult slaves older than 21 and limit bondage for their children to 26 years, but this bill was tabled. Not long after the failed bill, a case in Britain involving a Massachusetts slave (the Somerset Case in 1772) occurred that is interpreted as ending slavery in Britain. Colonists (unsuccessfully) argued that the Somerset ruling should apply to Massachusetts as a British colony. It would not be until 1783 that a legal case in Massachusetts would set a precedent for abolition in the state. In the ruling for a series of three cases involving slave Quok Walker and his master, Nathaniel Jennings, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, John D. Cushing, stated that without implying anything in relation to the writing of the state’s constitution, “slavery is in my judgement as effectively abolished as it can be by granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence.” Thus ruling did not effectively abolish slavery; instead it and other cases for freedom, anti-slavery petitions, and bills slowly eroded the institution in the state.

Connecticut and Rhode Island both instituted gradual emancipation plans by way of legal statues. In both states, the Revolutionary War started the process of emancipation because both enlisted slaves to fill troop requirements during the war. In Connecticut, a 1777 enlistment bill failed to pass, but they did pass a bill that fall that allowed slaveowners to free healthy slaves without any further financial responsibility. This encouraged owners to free their slaves in exchange for them serving as substitutes in the army. Rhode Island passed an enlistment bill in 1778 where slaves were manumitted and offered soldier’s benefits and the owner was compensated up to £120. Less than 100 slaves were freed under this bill and it was quickly repealed after the next election cycle because there was so much opposition to it. Other gradual emancipation bills during the Revolution failed to pass, except a 1779 Rhode Island bill that outlawed the sale of slaves out of the state. After the Revolution, the anti-slavery debate began again. In Rhode Island, Moses Brown wrote an aggressive emancipation bill that was defeated in 1784 because Newport was central to the slave trade (Brown was the brother of two wealthy slave traders). The legislature did pass a bill, however, that allowed owners to manumit healthy slaves between the ages of 21 and 40 as long as they presented them to the town for inspection and the slaves were deemed healthy and able to support themselves (most states were concerned that freed slaves would be lazy or delinquent and would fall to the care of the state as paupers). Rhode Island also passed a bill that allowed for gradual emancipation. Also in 1784, Connecticut consolidated earlier slave codes (keeping slavery legal), but putting a penalty on importing slaves into the state and instituting gradual emancipation. Both the Connecticut and Rhode Island bills declared that children born to slaves after March 1, 1784 would be “free,” but would serve their mother’s master until they reached their majority (25 years in Connecticut; 18 years for females, 21 years for males in Rhode Island). An amendment to the Rhode Island law the following year made it 21 years of service for both male and female children and reduced the age limit for voluntary manumission from 40 to 30.

Like Massachusetts, New Hampshire was also saw an ambiguous process of emancipation. The state’s 1783 Constitution stated that all men were free and equal, mirroring the rhetoric of the Revolution. However, in 1784 slaves were still considered taxable property. In 1788, Jeremy Belknap stated that the state’s constitution had freed all slaves, but the same year New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Simeon Olcott affirmed that slavery was still legal. Belknap later backtracked and stated that the constitution only freed slaves born after its adoption. There were very diverse opinions on slavery in the state and the institution gradually died out without a formal abolition plan.

By 1785 these varied measures ended the natural increase of slaves in New England, but did not immediately stop the institution. Over the next decade or so, these states would pass more bills ending participation in the slave trade, outlawing the sale of slaves outside the state, repealing slave codes, or adjusting the ages in gradual emancipation bills, but this did not necessarily legislate the immediate end of slavery. Slaves continued to be counted on the federal census in New England until 1840, and Joanna Melish suggests in her work that even when no slaves were reported some may have existed in the state. Even after slavery apparently was gone in New England states, the debate continued. Rhode Island and Connecticut passed bills banning slavery in 1843 and 1848, respectively, and New Hampshire passed a final abolition bill in 1857.

Outside of New England, gradual emancipation was very gradual indeed. New York and New Jersey held on to slavery for longer than their northern neighbors. New York tried to pass a gradual plan in 1785, but it was rejected by the Council of Revision because it did not give African-Americans the right to vote. This stalled the legislation and abolition was delayed another fourteen years. The only change during that period was the banning of the slave trade (with loopholes) and the abolition of special courts that held the power of life and death over slaves, both in 1788. In 1799, the state passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” that had a plan similar to Pennsylvania’s. Children born to slaves after July 4, 1799 were free at 28 for men and 25 for women and slaves already in servitude remained in bondage but were reclassified as “indentured servants.” Eighteen years later, New York issued a second statute that gave freedom to slaves born before the July 4, 1799 date, starting on July 4, 1827. With this second statue, the state gave themselves a ten year grace period for slavery to die out in the state.

In New Jersey, the governor called for a gradual emancipation plan as early as 1778 because he believed slavery contradicted Christian principles, but legislation was not passed until 1804. This was partially because, despite a general dislike of the institution, white men and women were also generally racist and feared the economic competition of freeing African-Americans. In an opposite trend to New England, slavery actually grew in New Jersey in the decades after the Revolution. New Jersey passed their gradual abolition law on July 4, 1804 stating that the children of slaves born after that date would be free after serving their mother’s master for 25 years if male and 21 years if female. This meant that gradual emancipation would not start until the 1820s and there were still slaves bound for life. In 1846, further debate over slavery in the context of the fugitive slave laws and promoting the ideology of free soil in the west while holding slaves in the state, New Jersey passed another gradual abolition law. This classified slaves as “apprentices for life,” allowed them some more freedoms while still being bound, and allowed children to be freed after a certain age. April 18, 1846 was celebrated as “emancipation day” in New Jersey, but there was still functional slavery in the state until the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Delaware held on to slavery the longest, even past when the institution was profitable for the state. Delaware had a unique path to emancipation. Caught between the north and south geographically, it did not abandon slavery like the states to the north, nor did it entrench into the institution like its neighbors to the south. Privately, some Delaware slaveowners freed their slaves, created indenture-type agreements, or fashioned their own gradual emancipation agreements by retaining their rights to labor in their slaves’ most productive years and then freeing them. Because of private actions, slavery did decrease significantly from seventy percent of the black population in 1790 to only eight percent in 1860. Officially, however, the legislature refused to end the institution within the state because of the social consequences of that action (i.e. citizenship and social equality for African-Americans). Because slaves made up twenty percent of the population, they could be a valuable political voice for whoever captured the loyalty of that community; thus, Democrats sought to keep them from gaining that political role by keeping the institution of slavery intact. The legislature tried to oppose voluntary manumissions until 1787, after which they sought to control the terms of this private emancipation and outlawed the domestic slave trade into the state. By 1860 slavery was economically defunct in the state but there were still 1,798 slaves on the records. This placed Delaware as one of the slave-holding border states that Lincoln had to tread so carefully around during the Civil War. Technically, the 13th Amendment is what ended slavery in Delaware; however, the state was the last to ratify the Amendment. Delaware did not ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1901, the only non-seceded state that opposed the Amendment into the twentieth century.

Northern slaves did not celebrate gradual emancipation as they would the abolition of slavery with the 13th Amendment. Under these gradual policies not much changed for slaves; many slaves remained in bondage, freedom was delayed for children, and much of the status quo remained in society. This is not to discount the shift that did occur in the period after the Revolution. Many slaves were freed individually during or after the Revolutionary War, and there was certainly an increased discussion about issues of slavery and race in the North. However, it is clear that only in New England did slavery die quickly. In the rest of the northern states, the process was very slow and slavery still had a presence up until the Civil War. While the North started to build their Free Soil Ideology and argue with the South over issues of slavery, the institution was still present there (albeit a shadow of slavery in the South). Clearly the line between “free” and “slave” in antebellum America was not as solid as sometimes presented.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Essah, Patience. A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638-1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Gigantino, James J., II. The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Harper, Douglas. “Slavery in the North.” Slavenorth.com.

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom By Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Rossier, W. S. A Century of Population Growth: From the First to the Twelfth Census of the United State: 1790-1900. www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents. Look at Chapter 14: Statistics of Slaves.

Williams, William H. Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1996.