The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865

The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865

The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865

The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865


Contrary to popular perception, slavery persisted in the North well into the nineteenth century. This was especially the case in New Jersey, the last northern state to pass an abolition statute, in 1804. Because of the nature of the law, which freed children born to enslaved mothers only after they had served their mother's master for more than two decades, slavery continued in New Jersey through the Civil War. Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 finally destroyed its last vestiges.

The Ragged Road to Abolition chronicles the experiences of slaves and free blacks, as well as abolitionists and slaveholders, during slavery's slow northern death. Abolition in New Jersey during the American Revolution was a contested battle, in which constant economic devastation and fears of freed blacks overrunning the state government limited their ability to gain freedom. New Jersey's gradual abolition law kept at least a quarter of the state's black population in some degree of bondage until the 1830s. The sustained presence of slavery limited African American community formation and forced Jersey blacks to structure their households around multiple gradations of freedom while allowing New Jersey slaveholders to participate in the interstate slave trade until the 1850s. Slavery's persistence dulled white understanding of the meaning of black freedom and helped whites to associate "black" with "slave," enabling the further marginalization of New Jersey's growing free black population.

By demonstrating how deeply slavery influenced the political, economic, and social life of blacks and whites in New Jersey, this illuminating study shatters the perceived easy dichotomies between North and South or free states and slave states at the onset of the Civil War.


This book is about the meaning of slavery and freedom in the United States. the setting, though unconventional, is central to American understandings of these two loaded terms. It follows the story of abolition in the North but reverses the usual narrative: slavery did not die after the Revolution, it sustained itself until the Civil War.

In 1789, Catherine was born a slave in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Like thousands of other slaves in the state, she worked daily for her master, John Hagaman, on his hundred-acre farm in Amwell. Cate, as her master called her, forged relationships with other slaves and in 1811 at twenty-two bore her first child, a boy named Bob, though the boy’s father remains unknown. Four years later, Catherine welcomed a daughter named Hannah. in 1840, Catherine moved with her master to neighboring Raritan without her children. Although the 1850 Census recorded her as a free woman, on February 16, 1856, Hagaman sold sixty-seven-year-old Catherine as a “slave for life” for twenty dollars to Charles Sutphin of Sommerville. After the sale, Hagaman, himself not much older than Catherine, moved with his son Dennis and daughter-in-law Mary to Joshua, Illinois, forty miles west of Peoria.

Northern slaves like Catherine have usually been portrayed as peripheral to the overall development of the North and of the United States even though she experienced slavery decades after abolition’s enactment and in the midst of national debates over abolition and slavery’s westward expansion. Slavery in the North never attained the same position in the economy as it did in the Caribbean, the Chesapeake, or the Low Country since the North remained a society with slaves rather than a slave society. Indeed, early travel accounts describe New Jersey as both a place of few slaves and abundant opportunity. One visitor, Francisco de Miranda, the Spanish general, American ally, and future liberator of Venezuela, remarked during a 1783–1784 stay that he had not “encountered an individual who was ill clothed, hungry, sick, or idle.” Out of all the places he visited in America . . .

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