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

By Winch, Julie | The Journal of Southern History, November 2015 | Go to article overview

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


Winch, Julie, The Journal of Southern History


The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. By James J. Gigantino II. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. [viii], 359. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8122-4649-0.)

Although discussions of American slavery have long since moved beyond the notion that the institution was never firmly rooted in the North and that it died quickly and easily there, James J. Gigantino's solidly researched and well-argued exploration of the agonizingly slow pace of abolition in one decidedly "southern" northern place challenges readers to reflect more deeply on the contested boundaries of black freedom.

Slavery not only survived the Revolution in New Jersey but also, in some counties, even flourished. After intense debates, the state legislature finally acted in 1804, passing the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The act freed any children born to enslaved women after July 4, 1804, although not until they were in their twenties. Those born before the law took effect would remain enslaved for life.

In 1809 the New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery held its final meeting. Organizational problems and the growing belief of many of its members that they had achieved as much as they could (or should) do led to the group's demise. Those who had pinned their hopes on the efficacy of gradual abolition grew frustrated as hundreds of New Jersey slave owners moved south with their slaves or sold them to meet the demands of the growing interstate slave trade. While New Jersey law required that slaves give their informed consent to their own or their children's out-of-state sale, Gigantino's careful examination of court records demonstrates that refusal was simply not an option. Slaves consented to their removal--or their owners and compliant local officials testified that they did.

Slavery did not fade away in New Jersey, and neither did the debate over whether full citizenship was ever to become a reality for the state's black residents. …

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