Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom 1777-1827

Article excerpt

David N. Gellman. Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom 1777-1827. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2006.

Human bondage rarely comes to mind when contemplating New York State's history or political development. The reality that the state's leaders, men of national prominence like John Jay and Martin Van Buren, were slaveholders even as they promoted the democratic ideals of the early republic in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries has been eclipsed by the story of a progressive state assuming its rightful place in the nation. The nineteenth century success of the Underground Railroad across the state and the presence of leaders like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, former slaves themselves who led many to freedom, has proven to be a much more comfortable story to consider. In this book, Gellman offers a corrective to this gap in our understanding of the growth of the Empire State and explores the political dimensions and ramifications of slavery in New York during the early republic. As he traces the move to abolish slavery, and the opposition to it in New York, Gellman connects the concomitant debates to the larger national discourse that attempted to reconcile the ideals of the new republic with the institution of slavery. Although he considers the impact of white abolitionists and anti-slavery leaders, as well as black resistance and the various political interests, Gellman is more concerned with the public discourse on slavery as it was reflected in the print culture.

New York has special significance in early racial politics because of its centrality in the public contests over issues. The state supplied vigorous supporters to both sides of the slavery contest, was the birthplace of the debasing blackface minstrel stage, and was the early nation's capital, the national platform for debate. In the first part of the book, Gellman expands on this by placing New York sentiments within the increasing anti-slavery sentiment throughout the Northeast and the large middle states. New York's active employment of slave labor made it perhaps more resistant to ending the institution than its neighbors, but Gellman persuasively asserts that the ideological debates that occurred here affected all the northern states. On the eve of the Revolution, slaves comprised twelve per cent of the colony's population, although they were not evenly distributed throughout the state, and much of the state's commercial growth was dependent on the West Indies trade. As Gellman argues, New York was never a slave society; the presence of slaves did not fuse white society together across the multiple religious, ethnic, and economic divides that were present. But there is another unique factor to New York slavery that Gellman overlooks. Unlike other states with numerous slaves, New York did not employ slaves as the most common source of labor, and ownership carried virtually no social status. Furthermore, there were the variations in the institution under Dutch and English control such as the Dutch "half freedom," that Gellman does not consider. Obviously the Dutch rule predated his identified time period, but their policies that offered a chance of freedom meant that the discourse on slavery in the state was not solely or completely predicated on the English version of slavery as a permanent, inherited status.

Gellman attributes the nascent anti-slavery notions to the growing presence of Quakers and the spread of Enlightenment ideas. The Revolution proffered the prospect of freedom, and more than one seventh of those slaves evacuated by the British by the war's close were from New York. He skillfully explores the internal politics that led those like John Jay, to argue for gradual abolition while others, the old-line powerful families, staunchly advocated the status quo. In this round, they would be the winners, but the seeds of change had been sown.

In Part II Gellman describes the various attempts to find a legislative solution to ending slavery while not impinging on the long held rights of personal property. …