Princeton’s “Body Politic”
April 3, 1799 was a “very cold” and windy day in Princeton, New Jersey, Erkuries Beatty wrote in his farm journal; it “froze considerably last night, gone today.” Prompted by his brother John Beatty, a respected local physician, and aided by John Witherspoon (president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University), he’d purchased Castle Howard Farm in 1794. A few years later, Beatty began to cultivate the farm, using his journal to meticulously record weather patterns as well as the minutia of his agricultural activities—including his labor force of at least eight enslaved people. To 40-year-old Beatty, slave labor seemed essential to running a successful business and establishing a household.
“I having just gotten married,” he wrote that cold spring day, “have again taken the farm into my own hands for which purpose I have purchased Black people.”
In the antebellum South, large plantations worked by enslaved people formed the basis of the social and economic order. But as historian Ira Berlin has written, slavery in the supposedly free North “hardly behaved like a moribund institution.” Personal journals such as Beatty’s, advertisements for slave auctions, runaway slave ads, census records, and legal documents show that there were at least 51 slave-owning households in Princeton and nearby surrounding areas between 1747 and 1829. These households clustered around large agricultural estates and in the center of town, indicating that enslaved labor was key to both farming and domestic work. At Castle Howard Farm, located just a mile north of the college, Beatty’s slaves engaged in numerous tasks: “ploughing corn ground,” cutting wood, building fences, planting and harvesting, breaking flax, and replanting crops after bad weather.
The very creation of the Borough of Princeton reveals the central role slaveholders played in the community. On February 11, 1813, the legislature of the State of New Jersey passed an act incorporating the town of Princeton into a new borough. The act was a response to the “sundry inhabitants of the town of Princeton” who had “prayed that they may, by law, be incorporated and formed into a body politic” that will “most conduce to the good order and regulations of the citizens thereof.”
Significantly, the General Assembly declared that the new “body politic” would be bounded by five Princeton landmarks: “colonel Beatty’s farm,” “Joseph Schenck’s orchard,” “Dr. Vancleve’s lot,” “Richard Stockton’s mansion-house,” and “Elijah Blackwell’s dwelling house.” These men were members of Princeton’s military, economic, and intellectual elite. Beatty, Blackwell, and Stockton (class of 1748) were retired military officers; Vancleve was a college trustee; and Schenck was a successful farmer. All of them were wealthy slave-owners.
In the 1813 act creating the new Borough of Princeton, slaveholding households and the wealthy white men who controlled them stood in for the whole of the “body politic.” Accordingly, the act also gave the Borough’s white elite “new powers, privileges, and immunities.” With these powers and protections, they would further the interests of “institutions of learning and piety” while also safeguarding their own interests. Princeton’s local elites maintained a tight network of familial and financial ties throughout the late-18th and early-19th centuries, presiding over college, church, and borough governance while continuing to benefit financially from slavery during an era of gradual emancipation.
Capitalizing on Slavery
Erkuries Beatty was born on October 9, 1759 in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. The child of the Princeton-educated Reverend Charles Beatty and Ann Reading, who came from an influential New Jersey family, Erkuries (meaning “from the Lord”) was the eighth of eleven children. He attended a Presbyterian private school in Deerfield, New Jersey. Charles Beatty, a college trustee, died in 1772 while travelling throughout the West Indies fundraising for the college among wealthy slaveholders and sugar planters. In 1775, 16-year-old Erkuries—described as “brave and honorable, tall and soldierly” by a 19th-century biographer—joined the Continental Army to fight in the Revolutionary War.
After leaving the army in 1793, Beatty moved to Princeton, where his family had many important connections. Erkuries Beatty’s two older brothers, John and Charles, had graduated from the College in 1769 and 1775, respectively. John, a highly respected physician and member of the United States Congress, would follow in his father’s footsteps and serve as a college trustee for over 20 years. Encouraged by his brother and John’s mentor John Witherspoon, Erkuries Beatty purchased Castle Howard Farm in 1794 with the hope of establishing a successful agricultural enterprise.
Beatty diligently recorded expenditures, profits, labor practices, weather events, and other difficulties in his farm journal. He also apparently engaged in at least some physical labor on the farm, as on February 3, 1798, when he recorded needing to rely more heavily on a free laborer named Isaac: “Isaac and me [went] to the woods again, sawed off some post cuts and went to splitting when I cut my foot monstrously with the axe.” Beatty even considered renting the farm to Isaac for a time, but he would soon turn to enslaved labor to do the most strenuous agricultural work. On April 1, 1799, Beatty wrote in his journal that Isaac had left Castle Howard for Captain Tinsey’s farm in Mapletown, “where he is to get 46 pound a year for his work and to find himself a family.” Having lost his best farm hand, Beatty used his savings to buy an enslaved couple named Bristol and Mary for 160 pounds.
On April 3rd, Erkuries Beatty transported Bristol, Mary, and their one-year-old son Joseph to Castle Howard Farm, where they would join the “black boy” Abram, “about fourteen years old,” purchased a few months earlier. Beatty—veteran of the Revolutionary War, colonel in the state militia, future mayor of the Borough of Princeton, and future President of the Board of Trustees of Princeton’s First Presbyterian Church—was diversifying his property holdings. “Brought home my black people,” he noted, and “also fifty apple trees from John Stockton’s old nursery.”
Photograph of Castle Howard, the home and farm of Princeton mayor and slave-owner Erkuries Beatty.
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Beatty made these purchases at a time of increasing antislavery activism throughout the country. Inspired by the rhetoric and ideals of the American Revolution, seven northeastern states (Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey) would pass a number of laws limiting slavery between 1777 and 1804, most of them gradual emancipation acts that freed enslaved people after a period of years. New Jersey’s state legislature passed a gradual emancipation act in 1804, the last northeastern state to do so. The law stated that children born to an enslaved woman after July 4, 1804 would not be slaves for life, but they would not be freed immediately either. Instead:
[E]very child born of a slave within this state … shall remain the servant of the owner of his or her mother … and shall continue in such service, if a male, until the age of twenty five years; and if a female until the age of twenty one years.
The terms of the new law resembled the arrangements that local slaveholders like Beatty had already begun to make with enslaved people. In 1799, Beatty appeared to recognize the direction in which the state was headed. Perhaps to ensure the couple’s obedience in a time of debate over slavery, he agreed “to set Bristol and Mary free in two years from this day provided that they behave themselves well.” He’d made a similar non-binding agreement when he purchased 14-year-old Abram for 200 pounds in December 1798, stating that he would free Abram “when he is twenty-eight years old if he behaves himself well.”
Yet while legislation and agreements such as these promised eventual freedom, they delayed the total abolition of slavery and “drained the nascent free black community of resources.” As late as 1830, approximately 25% of the state’s black population remained enslaved either for life or “for a term.” Indeed, the provisions of the gradual emancipation law were so restrictive that the last enslaved people in the state would not be freed until 1865, with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Beatty’s decision to use slave labor on his farm also maximized his future profits. The 160 pounds he spent to purchase Bristol and Mary was cheap considering that Beatty would also benefit from the labor of little Joseph as well as any other children the couple might have, since he would not set them free until they reached the age of 25. And while the money Beatty spent on Abram would have paid a free man like Isaac for only four years, Beatty would have the enslaved boy Abram’s labor for another fourteen.
The fact that Colonel Beatty owned slaves is mentioned only tangentially (if at all) by his biographers. In his 1879 History of Princeton and Its Institutions, historian John F. Hageman makes no reference to Beatty’s slave-owning practices. Harry B. Weiss’s and Grace M. Ziegler’s 1958 biography briefly mentions the occasion when Beatty purchased Bristol and Mary. As the free laborer Isaac had left to work elsewhere by then, they write, Erkuries Beatty “had the farm work back on his hands again”—although they implicitly recognize that the actual labor was literally in the hands of Beatty’s slaves. “With slave labor,” Weiss and Ziegler write, “there was little need to hire extra hands.”
Relying on his enslaved labor force, Beatty established a household at Castle Howard farm. On April 15, 1799—two weeks after he purchased and brought “my black people” to the property—Beatty’s wife (the widow Susanna Ferguson) and her daughter Mary relocated from Philadelphia to Princeton. The upper-class family arrived in “Mr. Ferguson’s coaches,” carriages Mrs. Beatty had inherited from the estate of her first husband, Major William Ferguson, who died in battle in 1791. The enslaved people who met them at Castle Howard were Erkuries Beatty’s proof of social distinction, intended to increase his wife’s comfort in her new home. The enslaved woman Mary would have served Mrs. Beatty in the house, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the three children she would have with Erkuries Beatty in the following years.
With the household established and its workforce in place, Colonel Beatty would focus on what Benjamin Franklin called “the virtuous industry” of farming. At times, Beatty worked side by side with his laborers. On May 2nd, he recorded “B [Bristol] ploughing corn ground—A [Abram] and me working in the garden—planted another row of peas.” By May 15th they had finished planting corn; from there, Beatty and his farm hands “put our raspberry bushes and cleaned out the ditches in the meadow and sowed there Gypsum.” Beatty also reported on the extensive network of merchants and fellow farmers who supplied him with ash, gypsum, dung, and other supplies necessary to cultivate a successful farm. While noting on May 19th that the crops had begun “to grow wonderfully,” Beatty also mentioned the “terrible time for fodder in the country” that would have made investment in livestock highly risky.
Beatty attempted to run Castle Howard farm with scientific precision but at times experienced bad agricultural outcomes anyway. When this occurred Beatty blamed his slaves, even for the weather, as in October 1799:
O my stars! Rained all night furiously and my wheat only harrowed over once except a little—O the lazy Negroes!
According to Beatty, the slaves had not harrowed the land sufficiently, leaving the seeds only “half covered.” Afraid that the seeds and his entire investment would be lost, Beatty wrote that “I scolded everybody this morning dreadfully.”
Here and there in his journal entries, Beatty mentioned what his enslaved laborers did in their free time, as when he noted slaves “keeping holiday” or “Negroes frolicking.” But by and large the colonel maintained tight control over their time. On the day of Princeton’s commencement ceremonies in 1799, for example, Beatty noted the participation of “Black people” in the event in town, though his slaves were at work on the farm “cutting corn and stacking.”
Slavery and Religious Life in Princeton
After establishing Castle Howard Farm, Beatty began to enter Princeton’s public life, holding leadership positions in church and borough government. In his journal, Beatty described trips into town, where he voted, attended the town’s First Presbyterian Church where he served as President of the Board of Trustees from 1803 until his death in 1823, and participated in college events. In 1797, Beatty attended Princeton’s commencement day to socialize with his kin and other elite families. As he would two years later, Beatty noted the significant presence of free blacks in Princeton: “Commencement and a great many people there were of all sorts, sizes, descriptions and Colours,” he wrote.
Perhaps no public space at the time embodied racial tensions in Princeton better than the First Presbyterian Church, where white slave-owners and other citizens came into regular contact with enslaved people and free blacks. Beatty himself brought his slaves and free laborers into town to attend religious services along with himself and his family, although black congregants were forced to sit in the balcony. On February 23, 1800, Beatty wrote in his farm journal that he took “All hands to church for the first time.”
Church records show that in 1792, five of the church’s fifty-three “communicants” (people who were permitted to receive Holy Communion after an application and rigorous religious examination) were “Blacks.” Local records also reference the 1795 public hearing of parishioner John McGregor, who had a sexual relationship (or “criminal conversation”) with a black woman “having born a mulatto child.” On account of this relationship, church trustees deemed the woman unworthy of becoming a communicant: she was not “a proper person to whom to administer an Oath.”
Wealthy slave-owners were among the church’s major benefactors. A list of donations collected to pay for the pastoral services of Reverend Henry Kollock in 1804 shows Colonel Erkuries Beatty to be among the largest contributors; others included such as the slaveholding Princeton professor John Maclean Sr. and congressman and college trustee Richard Stockton. Unlike other members of Princeton’s religious community (including Beatty’s contemporary, Princeton president Ashbel Green, who condemned slavery although he too held people in bondage), Beatty never publicly questioned the moral legitimacy of human bondage. Like so many others, Beatty had invested significant capital in the purchase of slaves and emancipation would have run counter to his financial interests and racial prejudices.
Just as Beatty strictly monitored his own slaves at Castle Howard, at the beginning of his tenure on the Board of Trustees he oversaw the hiring of a sexton to police the behavior of black congregants, both slave and free. Church records from March 14, 1805 detail the regulations the sexton enforced:
He shall attend the church on every Sabbath day in time of divine service and correct any disorder that may happen to disturb the people’s devotions, and will take care that the black people sit in their proper place and if any of them misbehave, to report who they are (if free to the trustees, and if slaves to their master or mistress) as soon as possible, with the manner of their misbehavior, and finally he shall attend to those duties on week days when there is sermon as well as on Sabbath days.
In Princeton, governing the behavior of slaves and free blacks was a community effort, and one that religious leaders took seriously. Their actions ensured that slavery and the subjugation of free blacks was normalized even in religious institutions.
Colonel Erkuries Beatty continued to own and purchase slaves until the end of his life. While Mary and Bristol had been granted their freedom by 1810, in accordance with their agreement with Beatty, their 10-year-old son Joseph remained the colonel’s property, property, as did Mary’s youngest child, a boy named Levi. Beatty was fully attuned to the capital that enslaved women’s reproductive labor could generation, even years after New Jersey passed its Gradual Emancipation Act in 1804. By 1810, Beatty had purchased another “two black women, Phoebe and Sally,” whom he bequeathed (along with their future children) to “my dear wife Susanna.” Susanna would own any children the women produced for 25 years after their birth. As for Castle Howard, Beatty’s agricultural enterprise ultimately failed and he sold the farm in 1816. Beatty moved his family and their slaves to town, becoming a neighbor of the prominent physician Ebenezer Stockton, a fellow churchman and a slave-owner.
That same year, Beatty presided over the nation's first colonization meeting, calling on the state legislature and the U.S. Congress to support plans to send black Americans to Africa. As the historian Craig Hollander writes, for Princeton’s powerful elite “the colonization movement would provide a safeguard for domestic slavery to continue indefinitely without the presence of free blacks to threaten the system and upset the racial hierarchy.”
Newspaper report of the nation’s first colonization meeting, held at Princeton on November 6, 1816.
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Colonel Beatty was elected mayor of the Borough of Princeton in 1818. That same year, Bristol and Mary’s 20-year-old son Joseph—who, according to Beatty, “was brought up in my family”—escaped. Joseph was less than five years away from freedom but chose not to wait and instead crossed the border into Pennsylvania, where more than 60% of the black population was free and free black communities harbored runaways from nearby states.
Beatty’s efforts to recapture Joseph reflect the local elite’s deep commitment to maintaining slavery and to disciplining and punishing their slaves. Beatty asked his nephew Hunter Ewing, a recent Princeton graduate, to help “locate My Black man Joe [who] has absconded from me” and was supposedly in Philadelphia (where Ewing was studying medicine). Joseph had fled, Beatty said, after he was out in town “at a negroe frolick all night, rioting”:
[T]he magistrates talked of having them all up and punished, which scared him off, & indeed I helped myself for I wanted to break him of these bad habits.
It is not known whether Joseph was ever recaptured.
Letter from Erkuries Beatty to James Hunter Ewing (class of 1818), asking for assistance recapturing his runaway slave Joseph.
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Colonel Erkuries Beatty died in 1823. His good friends Ebenezer Stockton and Thomas Wide were the executors of his estate. Yet while Beatty and Castle Howard were gone, his human property remained. In their “true and perfect inventory” of Beatty’s goods, his executors listed: 1 horse, 2 mules, 3 cows, 4 swine, 4 tons of hay, grain, corn, wagon & cart, chair, sulky & harness, 4 acres of wheat in the ground, 5 shares in the Princeton academy, 2 shares in Kingston Library Co., notes and books, and “2 colored women and 2 boys.” Valued at 280.00 dollars, the two women and two boys amounted to close to 15 percent of Beatty’s total net worth.
Beatty was buried in the Princeton cemetery among the Borough’s founders and illustrious citizens. Later biographers memorialized him as “having faithfully served his country in various important stations, civil and military” and as an “upright legislator; an active and vigilant magistrate; a public spirited and useful citizen; an honest man; a sincere Christian.” Strikingly, Beatty was also described as “amiable and beloved… in all the relations of domestic life.” His role as a slaveholder, however, and the enslaved people who were at the core of Beatty’s domestic life and economic interests, have long been absent from Princeton’s collective memory.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, entry dated 3 April 1799, 47, Historical Society of Princeton.
Harry B. Weiss and Grace M. Ziegler, Colonel Erkuries Beatty, 1759-1823 (Trenton, NJ: Pass Times Press, 1958), 27-30. Witherspoon was also an amateur farmer who used slaves to work his 500-acre farm “Tusculum.”
Timothy Hack, “Janus-Faced: Post-Revolutionary Slavery in East and West Jersey, 1784-1804,” New Jersey History, vol. 127, no. 1 (2012), 6; Joseph Yannielli, “Escape from Princeton,” The Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 24 October 2019, https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/escape.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, entry dated 3 April 1799, 46.
See Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1976); Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making Of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in the North America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998), 237.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, 2 May 1799, 49.
Laws of the State of New Jersey, Revised and Published (Trenton, NJ: Joseph Justice, 1821), 561.
Laws of the State of New Jersey, 561.
Weiss and Ziegler, Colonel Erkuries Beatty, 6; see also Yannielli, “Escape from Princeton.”
John Hageman, History of Princeton and its Institutions (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1879), 221.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, 3 February 1798, 35.
Ibid., 1 April 1799, 46.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, 1 April 1799, 46.
Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 235.
Yannielli, “Escape from Princeton.”
See James Gigantino II, “‘The Whole North Is Not Abolitionized’: Slavery’s Slow Death in New Jersey, 1830-1860,” Journal of the Early Republic 34, No. 3 (Fall 2014): 411-437.
Weiss and Ziegler, Colonel Erkuries Beatty, 38.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, 3 April 1799, 47.
Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1985), 108.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, 2 May 1799, 49.
Ibid., 15 May 1799.
Ibid., 10 October 1799, 62-63.
Ibid., 1 June 1799, 51; 25 December 1799, 68; 1 January 1800, 69.
Ibid., 25 September 1799, 61.
Weiss and Ziegler, Colonel Erkuries Beatty, 56-57. Historians such as Lawrence Stone and Lorena Walsh stressed the importance of studying elite groups. See Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy: 1558-1641 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); Lorena Walsh, Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Cheasapeake, 1607-1763 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, 27 September 1797, 23.
Erkuries Beatty’s Farm Journal, 23 February 1800, 73.
See Church Book, 1792, First Presbyterian Church, Special Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
Ibid., 9 November 1795.
Ibid., 28 March 1804, List of Subscribers.
Church Minutes,14 March 1805, 43, First Presbyterian Church, Special Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
Will of Erkuries Beatty, 1810, MS716, Historical Society of Princeton.
Erkuries Beatty to James Hunter Ewing, 20 March 1819, MS158, Manuscript Collection, Historical Society of Princeton (Princeton, NJ). See also “Letter from Erkuries Beatty,” The Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 25 October 2019, https://slavery.princeton.edu/sources/beatty; Yannielli, “Escape from Princeton.”
See Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 2003), 276.
Erkuries Beatty’s Estate Inventory, 1823, MS714, Historical Society of Princeton.
Weiss and Ziegler, Colonel Erkuries Beatty, 66.