Originally settled by the Swedish and Dutch as part of New Netherland before the English conquered the colony in 1664, New Jersey’s population also included enslaved Africans from its founding. The exact date when enslaved peoples first arrived in New Jersey is unknown, but likely before 1664, as a law passed in that year counted servants and slaves as part of the population for the purpose of allocating land to settlers.
New Jersey’s legislative history is particularly complex because the Quinpartite Deed of 1676 divided the colony into two distinct provinces: East Jersey and West Jersey. Each province was independently governed and passed laws specific to the region. Most of the major towns were located in East Jersey while the large plantations, worked by slaves and owned by Quakers, were found in West Jersey. During this period of geographical division, West Jersey’s 1676 charter added a provision that stated:
All and every person and persons inhabiting the said Province, shall, as far as in us lies, be free from oppression and slavery.
Other provisions in the charter were directed specifically to servants, without specifying race.
East Jersey’s charter did include any antislavery provision, and its legislature maintained a busy schedule regulating slavery. In 1682, East Jersey legislators passed a law requiring masters to provide sufficient food and clothing to slaves. In 1694, slaves were forbidden to carry guns, own property, or stay in homes without their owner’s consent. In 1695, East Jersey also passed a law providing for the establishment of a separate court, comprised of two justices of the peace and twelve “men of the neighborhood,” to exclusively try and punish slaves who committed felonies or murder. Slaves who stole livestock or other provisions were to be convicted by two justices of the peace, with no jury, and their master was to reimburse the value of the stolen goods as well as pay the fee for a public whipping of not more than forty lashes.
The 1695 law is significant for setting up a distinct legal apparatus for handling crimes committed by enslaved people. Its passage reveals that before 1695, slaves were likely being tried in the same court as free whites, apparently to the dissatisfaction of the authorities and white community members. The 1695 law also marked a turn towards singling out enslaved people for harsher punishments, since free white men were usually punished with fines or imprisonment. But since enslaved peoples were likely bereft of property, and being imprisoned would have deprived the owner of their services, a different system focusing on corporeal punishment was established.
Eventually, in 1702, the administrative difficulties of maintaining two distinct provinces led to the official unification of East and West Jersey under a mutual oath of loyalty to Queen Anne. But the cultural division between the two provinces remained, and the legislatures alternated where they held their meetings—first in the one province and then in the other. Once unified, the Jerseys produced a comprehensive slave code in 1704, entitled "An Act for Regulating Negro, Indian and Mallatto Slaves within this Province of New-Jersey." This act included provisions banning any buying or selling to slaves, and ordered the whipping of any slave found more than ten miles from their master’s home. It also declared that slaves from other provinces present in New Jersey without written license from masters were to be whipped and jailed, and Christian baptism would no longer be grounds for emancipation.
In 1713-14, the slave code was amended to require any master seeking to manumit an enslaved person to pay two hundred pounds each year for their support and maintenance. This addition to the law was clearly intended to discourage manumission by making it financially prohibitive. As an unintentional effect, it also galvanized antislavery Quakers who were eager to manumit their slaves but could not afford the two hundred pounds. The new slave code also banned freed slaves and their children from holding property—effectively denying them the right to vote or hold office as well, since in the colonial period these were requisites for suffrage and public office. Taken together, these additions limited the size and political power of New Jersey’s free black population.
Regarding the slave trade: outside of a small importation tax established in 1713, which expired after seven years, the importation of slaves remained untaxed until 1762. In other northern colonies, some sort of importation duty was standard in order to regulate the slave trade and ensure an equal ratio of European to African servants as far as possible. The 1762 law reinstating an importation tax was a response to growing Quaker opposition to slave ownership and continued geographic divisions within the state. (The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, a Quaker group that included New Jersey, had been attacking the slave trade for some time.) The 1762 law established a two-pound duty for slaves imported into the eastern division and six pounds for those imported into the western division. In 1767, the tax was increased to ten pounds, and two years later increased again to fifteen pounds. Though the cost of importing enslaved peoples continued to rise, demand did not cease; by the time the American Revolution broke out in 1776, slaves made up about twelve percent of New Jersey’s total population.
Revolution and Early Republic
During the Revolutionary War, the New Jersey legislature—occupied with raising and regulating a militia, participating in the Continental Congress, and recovering from wartime depredations—passed few laws addressing slavery. But the republican ideology of the period did have an effect (albeit short-lived) on the institution. In 1776, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banned slave-owning Quakers from becoming members. And in 1778, Governor Livingston requested that the New Jersey Assembly provide for the manumission of slaves. (The assembly asked that he withdraw this request until the end of the war, which he did.)
Under the New Jersey state constitution, passed in 1776, aliens, free African Americans (male and female), as well as white women were given the right to vote. This expansion of suffrage remained in effect until an 1807 law limited suffrage to free white men with fifty or more pounds of property, a restriction that held until 1875.
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the Assembly passed three acts freeing individual slaves who had assisted with the war effort: Peter Williams, “Negro Prime,” and “Negro Cato.” But the the war had contributed to a decrease in white laborers and a simultaneous increase in demand for labor to rebuild homes and restore farms—reminding white New Jersey residents how dependent they were upon enslaved labor. These effects led to a cooling of antislavery sentiment and a return to efforts to ameliorate the conditions of enslaved peoples rather than emancipate them.
The 1786 Act passed by the New Jersey legislature freeing the enslaved man Prime for his service during the Revolutionary War.
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In 1786, the state legislature prohibited bringing slaves who had been imported into the country after 1776 into New Jersey. The preamble of this act declared a humanitarian purpose:
The principles of justice required that the barbarous custom of bringing the unoffending Africans from their native country and connections into a state of slavery ought to be discountenanced, and as soon as possible prevented.
The importation restrictions of the act regulated the international slave trade before the ban set in place by the United States Constitution took effect in 1808, but made no prohibition against the thriving interstate slave trade. This trade consisted of masters or slave dealers selling enslaved peoples to southern states, tearing apart families and local slave communities.
The 1786 act also prohibited the abuse of slaves and allowed slaves between the ages of 21 and 35 to be manumitted without masters having to pay a large fee. However, it forbade any manumitted slave from another state from traveling to or remaining in New Jersey for an extended period, and prohibited slaves manumitted within New Jersey from leaving the state without a certificate from two justices of the peace and signature from a court clerk. These restrictions prevented the reunification of families who had been separated or sold apart by the domestic slave trade.
Increasing Quaker agitation led to a 1788 revision of the 1786 act that further restricted the slave trade, required that all criminal offenses by slaves be tried in the same manner as other New Jersey inhabitants, and prohibited removal from the state without the consent of the enslaved person or their “guardians.” Masters could easily evade this requirement by forging or coercing the enslaved person’s signature. Surviving sale records reveal that 41 percent of slaves “consented” to removal to the Deep South, showing that coercion of some sort was likely common. The final section of the 1788 revision required every master or owner to teach their slave or servant under the age of 21 to read, or be charged a five-pound fee. All in all, the 1788 revisions illustrate how New Jersey legislators responded to antislavery agitation: by passing nominally humanitarian legislation that nevertheless allowed masters to continue their practices of breaking apart families or abusing slaves as long as they could afford the small fees.
An indenture for "Negro Girl Lucy," signed by Jediah Higgins and Ralph Sansberry, March 19, 1793.
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In 1793, the growing participation of New Jersey Quakers in the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery led to the establishment of the New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in Burlington. The society immediately set to work organizing petition campaigns pleading that the state legislature abolish slavery and help free and enslaved African Americans secure their rights through the courts. But Quaker activists, primarily from the old West Jersey province, were opposed by East Jersey residents, who formed their own petition campaign. These counter-petitions asked the state legislature to prevent the emancipation of slaves by the Supreme Court without the intervention of a jury.
This geographical and ideological tension resulted in a 1798 law titled “An Act Respecting Slaves.” This act was comprised of thirty sections, many of which simply reiterated previous prohibitions such as those against buying from or selling to a slave without the consent of their master; harboring another person’s slave; allowing one’s slave to beg; transporting a slave into the state for the purpose of sale; and removing a slave from the state without their permission. For enslaved people, the most relevant sections included a requirement that slaves from other states without passes from their master were to be jailed, that abuse of a slave became an prosecutable crime, and that the maximum age at which that a slave could be manumitted was raised from 35 to 40. The section of the act extending the age upward represented a small success for the state abolition society. However, by 1809 the abolition society died out due to lack of public support and the passage of a statewide gradual emancipation law in 1804.
Social and economic trends in East and West Jersey help to explain why New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery. West Jersey was less densely populated, since much of the land was sandy loam unsuited to agriculture. In part because of this lower labor demand, by 1800 only 507 slaves remained in the region. It is important to note these economic considerations to avoid overemphasizing the religious fervor or benevolence of antislavery Quakers. Economic motivations, religious convictions, and West Jersey’s close ties with antislavery societies in Philadelphia all combined to create an environment hostile to slavery. In East Jersey, however, enslaved labor was widely used on large plantations and small farms, urban workshops, and especially at ports and docks. Indeed, in places like Bergen and Monmouth County, “the number of slaves more than doubled from 1772 to 1800” while the number of slaveholders “increased from approximately 3,500 in 1772 to 5,500 in 1800.” In addition, the enslaved population continued to grow through natural increase.
The 1804 Gradual Abolition Act was a response to these factors as well as the product of self-interested political wrangling on the part of state legislators. Members of New Jersey’s Democratic-Republican Party supported the abolition bill, employing Revolutionary War-era rhetoric to declare that they were on the side of liberty while the old Federalist Party was run by elites. They succeeded, and on February 15, 1804 the legislature passed "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Citizens in Bergen and Morris Counties quickly petitioned the legislature to repeal the 1804 act on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, but their petitions were denied.
Comprised of three short sections, the 1804 law declared children born to enslaved women after July 4, 1804 to be “free,” but required that they “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 law effectively invalidated partus sequitur ventrem, or the rule that a child’s enslaved status followed their mother’s; the act itself, however, did not actually emancipate any slave. The law was first and foremost meant to protect the property rights of slaveholders, allowing them to continue to exploit the labor of any children enslaved women produced. The extended “apprenticeships” these children served differed little, if at all, from slavery and one historian has described them as “slaves for a term” rather than apprentices.
The gradual abolition act also contributed to the growth of the interstate slave trade, as slave-owners sold their human property down south in order to either covertly keep their property or profit off the institution before it ended in New Jersey. Though the legislature passed an act in 1812 reiterating that “a private examination of the slave by two impartial local officials, usually justices of the peace or inferior court judges” was required before their removal, it frequently went unheeded. The legislature responded to the wave of slave sales by passing an 1818 law that prohibited their removal outside of New Jersey unless the master had lived in the state for five years and planned to move there permanently; the master had obtained a license to carry out the slave, who had to be of legal adult age and give their consent in front of a judge; or the slave was being transported as punishment for a crime. In addition, the 1818 act outlawed transferring slaves to non-residents. Despite these attempts to limit slave sales, slaveholders continued to find ways to subvert the law—a pattern attested to by an 1820 memorial from inhabitants of Middlesex County, who asked for a law to "prevent kidnapping and carrying from the State blacks and other people of color."
At this same time, another moderately antislavery movement was gaining popularity: African colonization. Seeking to prevent the emergence of a large free black population in the United States, the American Colonization Society (founded in 1816 by Princeton alumni) encouraged the emigration of freed slaves to a colony in Africa. In 1824, the New Jersey state legislature adopted a resolution in support of colonization. The growing popularity of this movement, along with the continuing illegal sale and kidnapping of freed slaves, illustrates the conservatism of white New Jersey residents. Ultimately, the 1804 Gradual Emancipation Act provided few protections for freed slaves, and left many to labor in bondage for years.
By 1830, two-thirds of the remaining slaves in northern states were held by New Jersey masters. Throughout the 1830s and ‘40s, African Americans in New Jersey petitioned the legislature to confirm their freedom and proceeded to build a thriving free black community. An 1837 act attempted to protect freedpeople from fraudulent claims that they were in fact slaves by granting them trials by jury and stipulating that judges overseeing these claims must call in two other judges to assist. In 1844, the legislature further eased restrictions on manumission by reducing the number of witnesses required from two to one.
But proslavery sentiment remained strong in the state, as evidenced by an 1834 mob attack on a minister in Newark when he delivered a lecture titled “The Sin of Slavery.” Race riots continued to plague New Jersey—including the town of Princeton—throughout the 1830s and 1840s as the free black population expanded by natural increase and manumission. These violent riots and ongoing debates between pro- and antislavery advocates help to explain why Chief Justice Hornblower of the New Jersey Supreme Court failed to win support for a clause in the 1844 state constitution that would have made slavery illegal.
It was not until April 18, 1846 that the state legislature passed “An Act to Abolish Slavery,” declaring:
That slavery in this state be and it is hereby abolished, and every person who is now holden in slavery by the laws thereof is made free, subject, however, to the restrictions herein after mentioned and imposed.
This act, like the Gradual Abolition Act of 1804, did not actually emancipate enslaved people in the state. It instead turned the remaining enslaved peoples into “apprentices for life.” Thus, "New Jersey retained slaveholding without technically remaining a slave state." At the outbreak of the Civil War, New Jersey slaveholders owned eighteen apprentices for life—or, as the federal census more accurately classified them, “slaves.” A Princeton professor, Albert B. Dod owned a slave as late as 1840, one of the last men in the state to do so.
Because of these limitations on emancipation, it was not until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865—which New Jersey reluctantly ratified in January of 1866—that the remaining sixteen slaves in the state were forever freed.
Paul Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey: An Annotated Bibliography,” A1, accessed 7 June 2017, http://njlegallib.rutgers.edu/slavery/bibliog.html#III.
Marion Thompson Wright, “Early History,” The Journal of Negro History 28, no. 2 (1943): 159.
Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A3.
Marion Thompson Wright, “Laws Passed From 1675 to 1776,” The Journal of Negro History 28, no. 2 (1943): 164.
Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A4.
For the 1713 importation tax, see ibid.
“Slavery in New Jersey,” accessed 7 May 2017, http://slavenorth.com/newjersey.htm.
Marion Thompson Wright, “Period of Democratic Idealism,” The Journal of Negro History 28, no. 2 (1943): 173.
Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A68, A70, A72.
Timothy Hack, “Janus-Faced: Post-Revolutionary Slavery in East and West Jersey, 1784-1804,” n.d., 6–7.
Wright, “Period of Democratic Idealism,” 174; Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A69.
Hack, “Janus-Faced: Post-Revolutionary Slavery in East and West Jersey, 1784-1804,” 14. Hack is citing James Gigantino, “Freedom and Unfreedom in the Garden of America: Slavery and Abolition in New Jersey, 1770-1857,” Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia (2010), 163-170.
Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A71.
Wright, “Period of Democratic Idealism,” 176. Wright is citing Votes of the Assembly, 1791, p. 12; 1792, p. 24; 1793, p. 142.
Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A75.
Hack, “Janus-Faced: Post-Revolutionary Slavery in East and West Jersey, 1784-1804,” 25–26.
James J. Gigantino, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 65.
Marion Thompson Wright, “A Period of Transition, 1804-1865,” The Journal of Negro History 28, no. 2 (1943): 177.
Gigantino, The Ragged Road to Abolition, 7.
James J. Gigantino II, “Trading in Jersey Souls: New Jersey and the Interstate Slave Trade,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 77, no. 3 (2010): 283.
Wright, “A Period of Transition, 1804-1865,” 179.
Hack, “Janus-Faced: Post-Revolutionary Slavery in East and West Jersey, 1784-1804,” 2.
Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A91.5, A93.5, A93.7, A94.3, A95, A95.3, A95.4, A96.
Wright, “A Period of Transition, 1804-1865,” 182; Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A94.
Wright, “A Period of Transition, 1804-1865,” 183.
Gigantino, The Ragged Road to Abolition, 8.
Wright, “A Period of Transition, 1804-1865,” 184.
Axel-Lute, “The Law of Slavery in New Jersey,” A98.
“Slavery in New Jersey.” Citing Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1973), 181.