Introduction

Bainbridge House has long been a public fixture of the Princeton community. One of the oldest buildings on Nassau Street, this simple brick structure has served many community and University functions over time—as a dormitory, a free public library, and home to the Historical Society of Princeton.[1]

The building was named for William Bainbridge, arguably the house’s most famous resident, who lived there from 1774 to 1777. William later became Commodore William Bainbridge, commanding the USS Constitution (more colloquially known as “Old Ironsides”) during the War of 1812.[2]  By virtue of a shared surname, however, the house also bears the name of William’s father, Absalom Bainbridge, who figures prominently in the history of an enslaved man called “Prime”—one of only three enslaved New Jersey men freed by act of the state legislature as a reward for military service during the Revolutionary War.[3] Prime’s slow and serpentine journey to freedom ultimately illustrates the challenges African Americans faced when seeking to obtain freedom through legal channels in 18th-century New Jersey, and how easily a freed slave could be returned to bondage.[4]

Prime’s path to legal manumission hinged on the fact that his one-time owner, Absalom Bainbridge, was a loyalist during the Revolutionary War. Bainbridge was born in 1742 in Maidenhead (present-day Lawrenceville, New Jersey) where his family owned 400 acres of land; his grandfather, John Bainbridge, was one of Maidenhead’s original European settlers.[5] Bainbridge graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1762, after which he obtained his medical training at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.[6] Bainbridge returned to practice medicine in Maidenhead and Princeton, in time becoming secretary, then president, of the New Jersey Medical Society.[7] In 1774, Bainbridge and his wife Mary made the Bainbridge House on Nassau Street their primary home and medical practice.[8] They were joined by at least one enslaved person: a man named Prime.[9]

Bainbridge House

Bainbridge House on Nassau Street, where the enslaved man Prime lived in the 1770s before his emancipation.

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Loyalists and Runaways

When British troops occupied Princeton in December 1776, Absalom Bainbridge was likely still living in the Bainbridge House—as his name appears on John Cadwalader’s “spy map” of Princeton, drawn up on December 31, 1776.  Bainbridge officially proclaimed his loyalty to Britain during the occupation, but by early 1777 he’d fled Princeton for Flatbush, New York.[9] By 1778, he had joined the Third New Jersey Volunteers (a loyalist regiment) as a surgeon, and Bainbridge continued to practice medicine in New York City until his death in 1807.[10] Despite their removal from Princeton, the Bainbridge family remained intimately connected to the town and the College of New Jersey. In 1798, Absalom Bainbridge’s eldest daughter Phoebe married Princeton’s chemistry and natural history professor, John Maclean.[11] Their son, also named John, would later become the tenth president of the college, and eventually the namesake of the President’s House on campus.[12]

When the Bainbridge family left Princeton in 1777, Prime remained in town with Mary Bainbridge’s father, John Taylor.[13] Eventually, Taylor took Prime to Long Island to rejoin the Bainbridges but, in 1778, Prime escaped and fled back to Princeton. Absalom Bainbridge placed an advertisement in James Rivington’s New York City broadside newspaper, The Royal Gazette, on August 22, 1778.  Bainbridge described Prime’s physical appearance, calling the enslaved man “a mulatto Negro boy, named PRIAM, 23 years old, about five feet five or six inches high, his hair of a remarkable light coloured woolly kind.”[14] Offering two guineas as a reward, he signed the ad “A. Bainbridge, Surgeon, N.J.V”—N.J.V. being the acronym for his loyalist regiment.[15]

In the meantime, state legislatures had swiftly passed laws to punish New Jersey residents who remained loyal to the British crown. New Jersey’s first law, “An Act to Punish Traitors and Disaffected Persons” (passed in October 1776) officially made loyalism a crime of high treason and directed individuals guilty of the crime to “be punished accordingly, saving the corruption of blood.”[16] In June 1777, the legislature walked back the harsh punishments of the 1776 act, offering amnesty to loyalists who took an oath of loyalty to the United States. If they refused to pledge themselves to the United States, their property would be subject to confiscation by county commissioners. The amnesty offer expired on August 5, 1777, and in April and December 1778 the legislature authorized the confiscation of loyalist property.[17]

In August 1778, the Hunterdon County Commissioners held an inquisition against Bainbridge in Trenton, determining that he had “join[ed] the army of the King of Great Britain on or about 8 December 1776.”[18] All of Bainbridge’s property and debts were sold over the next several years, with his Maidenhead land sold in March 1779.[19]  Prime (back in Princeton) became the concern of Jacob Bergen, a Somerset County Commissioner.[20] Bergen grappled with the morality of selling Prime—“setting up your Petitioner to Sale like a Beast of the Stall”—and wrote to the governor that “there was something very inconsistent in contending for Liberty under an appeal to Heaven and at the same Time selling for account of the Publick, the Bodies and Service of human Beings into perpetual Bondage.”[21] Bergen advised Prime to enter the Continental Army, indicating that this would earn Prime his freedom.  There was, in fact, no legal guarantee that military service would end in Prime’s emancipation.  Nevertheless, Prime served as a waggoner for the American forces during the war.[22]

Cadwalader Spy Map

John Cadwalader's 1776 "spy map" of Princeton, displaying the Bainbridge House.

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Royal Gazette Prime

Runaway ad for the slave Prime in the New York newspaper The Royal Gazette.

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Prime's Re-Enslavement

Many other enslaved people likely followed a similar path. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued what would later be called “Dunmore’s Emancipation Proclamation.”  Seeing a strategic advantage in depriving disloyal slave-owners of their labor force, Dunmore promised freedom to enslaved men who fought on the side of the British.[23] General George Washington was at first reluctant to provide a competing offer to enslaved men, fearing resistance from southern planters. But state regiments gradually began to accept enslaved men into their ranks over the course of the war, promising emancipation in exchange for military service. Scholars estimate that by the end of the war nearly 5,000 free and enslaved African Americans had joined the Continentals.[24]  Individual states inconsistently and unreliably delivered upon their promises to emancipate black soldiers after the war; many were returned to bondage or kidnapped and claimed as property at war’s end.[25] The legal status of fugitive slave soldiers whose owners had become loyalists was particularly uncertain.

Following the end of the war—and believing himself a free man—Prime worked as a day laborer in Trenton. In June 1784, however, John Vanhorne of Rocky Hill (now Kingston) seized and re-enslaved Prime. Vanhorne claimed he had purchased Prime from John Taylor, Mary Bainbridge’s father, with whom Prime had stayed when the Bainbridges fled Princeton. Vanhorne claimed that John Taylor “purchased [Prime] from the wife of the said Absalom Bainbridge [Mary Bainbridge] in the year 1777 by virtue of a license from General Putnam,” and Vanhorne subsequently purchased Prime from Taylor.[26] A receipt of sale indicates that John Taylor did indeed pay Mary Bainbridge £100 for “a negro also for a horse and chair” on April 4, 1777.[27]

Henry Heywood

Newspaper advertisement for a captured slave who fought with the Continental army during the American Revolution.

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Mary Bainbridge Preview

This receipt of sale documents John Taylor's purchase of Prime from Mary Bainbridge in 1777.

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The legality of Vanhorne’s claim to Prime remained questionable, however.  In two connected court cases heard from 1784 to 1786—State of New Jersey v. John Vanhorne and Moore Furman v. John Vanhorne—the New Jersey Supreme Court was tasked with determining Prime’s rightful owner.[28] (Moore Furman was one of the Agents of Forfeited Estates in Hunterdon County, where Absalom Bainbridge had also been a property owner.[29]) The lawyers who argued the Furman v. Vanhorne case, William Churchill Houston and William Bloomfield, were among the most prominent lawyers in New Jersey at the time.[30] One year earlier, Paterson had served as a delegate for New Jersey to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and later became a United States Senator, Governor of New Jersey, and ultimately a United States Supreme Court Justice.

The case hinged on whether Prime was still in Bainbridge’s possession when Bainbridge became an enemy of the state, and therefore subject to forfeiture; if so, he would have become property of the state when the Bainbridge estate was seized.  Vanhorne argued that Bainbridge had sold Prime to Taylor before leaving New Jersey, before he committed any acts of treason. Other accounts contradicted this assertion, especially witness accounts that Prime was still residing with the Bainbridges in New York well into 1778.[31] Furman brought to the attention of the court prior judgments against Bainbridge as a loyalist, which aided his case, and a jury ultimately decided in favor of Furman.[32] Any bill of sale for Prime, such as Vanhorne’s, was declared invalid.[33] Though still enslaved, Prime now the property of the state of New Jersey.

Prime Petition 1

Petition submitted to the New Jersey state legislature for Prime's manumission.

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Case39106 Deposition Janney 1

Deposition of Thomas Janney from the 1784-86 court case Furman v. Vanhorne, related to determining the rightful owner of the enslaved man Prime.

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Case39106 Deposition Houston 1

Deposition of William Churchill Houston in Furman v. Vanhorne.

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Petition for Freedom

Six months later, in November 1786, Prime submitted a petition to the State Legislature requesting manumission.[34] The “mark” on the petition, Prime’s rudimentary signature, indicates that Prime was illiterate, and it is unknown who wrote and submitted the petition on Prime’s behalf.  Prime’s advocate may have been William Churchill Houston, a former grammar school teacher in Princeton, who had frequently crossed paths with Prime before the Revolutionary War.[35] Houston had connections to both Supreme Court cases related to Prime: he gave testimony supporting Prime’s claim that he had been promised emancipation in exchange for military service in State v. Vanhorne, and served as Furman’s attorney in Furman v. Vanhorne. Houston, though not an abolitionist, expressed opposition to slavery and recommended in an unpublished “Essay on Taxation” that slavery be heavily taxed.[36] Prime’s petition includes an entire paragraph devoted to the tax on slave sales, further suggesting Houston’s involvement in the writing of the petition:

Were your Poor Petitioner to be sold, his Price would scarcely amount to the fifth Part of a Copper-penny to each Taxable in the State — and your poor Petitioner cannot believe that one Person can be found who would not willingly contribute the fifth Part of a Penny to release a human Being from a Bondage which must otherwise continue until his Eyes are closed in Death.[37]

The deferential tone of Prime’s petition appealed to state legislators’ sense of paternalism for their “poor Petitioner.”  The document further outlined Prime’s plight both in and out of enslavement, and emphasizes his patriotic service during the Revolutionary War:

He earnestly implores that he may be delivered from a Situation so distressing, and by the Compassion and Munificence of The Honourable The Legislature, entitled to that Liberty to defend, secure and perpetuate which the Fields of America have been dyed in the Blood of her Citizens.[38]

Finally, the petition acknowledged the precedent set by the September 1784 act freeing Peter Williams, who also fought for the Continental Army while his master John Heard, a loyalist, “joined the enemies of the United States.”[39]

The General Assembly decided in favor of Prime’s petition, and, on November 21, 1786, the state legislature passed “An Act for setting free Negro Prime”—declaring that “the Legislature are desirous of extending the Blessings of Liberty; and the said Negro Prime hath shewn himself entitled to their favourable Notice.”[40]  The language of the act carefully distinguished between manumitting Prime, an individual, and the emancipation of all slaves. Short of indicating that the “Blessings of Liberty” were a universal right, the legislature instead stated that Prime “deserved their favourable Notice” as a patriot who defied his loyalist master. This “blessing” was specific to Prime and his circumstances, one that Prime had earned, and the “extension” of this privilege to other enslaved people was thusly limited.

Prime Manumission Act

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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Because “Prime” was such a common name for enslaved men, it is difficult to identify records related to his life following his manumission. Though the historical record is rich until the conclusion of his legal battle, Prime all but disappears from official documents after November 1786.[41] His story, however, demonstrates the complexities of pursuing freedom by legal action and reveals the ease by which free African Americans could be repeatedly returned to slavery. Prime’s manumission required constant vigilance over the course of several years, repeated applications to the court, and a bevy of white advocates. His was a remarkable story of perseverance, one that should figure as prominently on Nassau Street as the name of his master.

About the AuthorPanel Toggle

Izzy Kasdin currently serves as the Executive Director of the Historical Society of Princeton. She graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with an A.B. in History and a Certificate in American Studies. She received her M.Phil. in Archaeological Heritage and Museums at the University of Cambridge in 2015 as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Her research has focused on American world's fairs and segregation in Princeton, investigating how history is used to craft boundaries in American identity, both in the past and in the present. Her senior thesis was awarded the C.O. Joline Prize in American History.

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BibliographyPanel Toggle

This essay draws heavily on Giles R. Wright and Gloria Halpern’s article “Prime: Another Resident of Bainbridge House,” published in Princeton History, volume 10, in 1991.

ReferencesPanel Toggle

[1]

Constance M. Greiff, “Bainbridge House,” Princeton History, vol. 1 (1971): 9-10.

[2]

Greiff, “Bainbridge House,” 14.

[3]

Giles R. Wright and Gloria Halpern, “Prime: Another Resident of Bainbridge House,” Princeton History, vol. 10 (1991): 63.

[4]

Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 64. Indeed, Wright and Halpern note that “one index of the marginality of free New Jersey blacks was the ease with which they could be returned to bondage.”

[5]

John F. Hageman, History of Princeton and its Institutions (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879), 70.

[6]

Francis B. Lee, ed., Genealogical and Personal Memorial of Mercer County, New Jersey (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1907), 456.

[7]

Ibid.

[8]

Ibid.; Greiff, “Bainbridge House,” 14.

[9]

Alfred Jones, The Loyalists of New Jersey: Their Memorials, Petitions, Claims, Etc. from English Records, vol. 10 (Newark, NJ: New Jersey Historical Society, 1927), 15; Phyllis B. D’Autrechy, Some Records of Old Hunterdon County, 1701-1838 (Trenton, NJ: Trenton Printing Co., 1979); Stephen Wickes, History of Medicine in New Jersey and of its Medical Men (Newark, NJ: Martin R. Dennis & Co Newark, 1879), 131.

[10]

William S. Stryker, “The New Jersey Volunteers,” (Loyalists) in the Revolutionary War, (Trenton, NJ: Naar, Day, and Naar, 1887), 39; [James Rivington’s] Royal Gazette, 22 August 1778; Lee, Genealogical and Personal Memorial, 456.

[11]

Lee, Genealogical and Personal Memorial, 456.

[12]

“John Maclean, Jr.,” Presidents of Princeton University, Princeton University, accessed 8 July 2017, https://www.princeton.edu/pub/presidents/maclean/.

[13]

Petition for manumission of Negro Prime, BAH: Legislative Records, 1783-1787, Box 1-15, Department of Education, Series SEDSL006, New Jersey State Archives, Department of State, Trenton, New Jersey.

[14]

[James Rivington’s] Royal Gazette, August 22, 1778, p.3.

[15]

Ibid.; Stryker, The New Jersey Volunteers, 39; Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 69.

[16]

“Act of New-Jersey to punish Traitors and Disaffected Persons,” Laws of 1776, ch. 5 (1776).

[17]

“An Act of free and general pardon, and for other purposes therein mentioned,” New Jersey (1777); “An Act for taking Charge of and leasing the Real Estates, and for forfeiting the Personal Estates of certain Fugitives and Offenders, and for enlarging and continuing the Powers of Commissioners appointed to seize and dispose of such Personal Estates, and for ascertaining and discharging the lawful Debts and Claims thereon,” Acts, 2nd G.A., 2nd sitting, ch. XXVII, pp. 73-82 (1778); “An Act for forfeiting to and vesting in the State of New Jersey, the Real Estates of certain Fugitives and Offenders, and for directing the Mode of determining and satisfying the lawful debts and demands which may be due from, or made against, such Fugitives and Offenders; and for other Purposes therein mentioned,” Acts, 3rd G.A., 1st sitting, ch. XIV, pp. 31-40 (1778).

[18]

Phyllis B. D’Autrechy, Some Records of Old Hunterdon County, 1701-1838 (Trenton, NJ: Trenton Printing Co., 1979). This text includes transcribed versions of original documents held by the Hunterdon County Historical Society, including the Loyalist Papers.

[19]

D’Autrechy, Some Records of Old Hunterdon County, 257; Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 68; Jones, The Loyalists of New Jersey, 16.

[20]

In the eighteenth century, Princeton fell within the jurisdiction of Somerset County (today, it is within Mercer County). Maidenhead, or Lawrenceville, was in the jurisdiction of Hunterdon County. Bainbridge was a property owner in both.

[21]

Petition for manumission of Negro Prime, BAH: Legislative Records, 1783-1787, New Jersey State Archives.

[22]

Ibid.; Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 67-8.

[23]

Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 62; James Breig, “Finding Slaves in Unexpected Places: Keeping Blacks in Bondage Was Not a Southern Monopoly,” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (2005), accessed 8 July 2017, http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Winter05-06/slavery.cfm.

[24]

Ibid.

[25]

Ibid.

[26]

Petition for manumission of Negro Prime, BAH: Legislative Records, 1783-1787, New Jersey State Archives. General Putnam commanded the American troops occupying Princeton following their victory at the Battle of Princeton.

[27]

“Receipt for slave and other items-Mary Bainbridge”, 4 April 1777, MS775, Manuscript Collection, Historical Society of Princeton, Princeton, New Jersey.

[28]

Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 68; Case 39106, Supreme Court Case Files, 1704-1844,  New Jersey State Archives, Department of State, Trenton, New Jersey; Case 13549, Supreme Court Case Files, 1704-1844,  New Jersey State Archives, Department of State, Trenton, New Jersey.

[29]

D’Autrechy, Some Records of Old Hunterdon County, 257.

[30]

Book 63, Supreme Court of New Jersey Minutes, 1704-1873, Series SSV00002, Volume 18, New Jersey State Archives, Department of State, Trenton, New Jersey.

[31]

Ibid.

[32]

Book 63, Supreme Court of New Jersey Minutes, 1704-1873, Series SSV00002, Volume 18, New Jersey State Archives, Department of State, Trenton, New Jersey; Case 13549, Supreme Court Case Files, 1704-1844,  New Jersey State Archives, Department of State, Trenton, New Jersey.

[33]

Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 68.

[34]

BAH: Legislative Records, 1783-1787, Box 1-15, Department of Education, Series SEDSL006, New Jersey State Archives, Department of State, Trenton, New Jersey.

[35]

Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 69

[36]

Ibid.; James McLachlan, Princetonians: 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 645; Paul G. E. Clemens, “William Churchill Houston,” Rutgers University, accessed 8 July 2017, http://fashistory.rutgers.edu/clemens/constitutional1/wchouston.html.

[37]

Petition for manumission of Negro Prime, BAH: Legislative Records, 1783-1787, New Jersey State Archives.

[38]

Ibid.

[39]

“An Act for setting free Peter Williams, a Negro, late the Property of John Heard,” Acts, 8th G.A., 2nd sitting, ch. LIII, p. 110 (1784); Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 63.

[40]

“An Act for setting free Negro Prime,” Acts, 11th G.A., 1st sitting, ch. CLXXVI, p. 368 (1786); Votes and Proceedings of the Eleventh General Assembly, 25, 28, 32, 35, 36, 65.

[41]

Wright and Halpern, “Prime,” 69.

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