Craig A. Landy, "When Men Amongst Us, Shall Cease to Be : Emancipation of Slaves in the State of New York", 12 Judicial Notice 42 (2017).
In honor of the 150%^&th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Barack Obama called upon all Americans to observe January 1, 2013 with appropriate ceremonies and activities to celebrate the proclamation and the timeless principles it upheld. Over the years, however, celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation has eclipsed another important milestone along the path to freedom:
the final abolition of slavery in New York. The Final Emancipation Act in New York--March 31, 1817, when the New York State legislature voted to end two centuries of slavery within its borders--is well worth recalling on its bicentennial.
Slavery existed in New York State from colonial times through the founding of the modern state. According to the 1790 U.S. Census, the state had 21,193 slaves, which ranked it first in number of slaves reported from the Northern states. Approximately 14% of New York families owned slaves, only slightly less than in Kentucky. In 1799, a gradual abolition law was passed in New York which decreed that children born after July 4, 1799 to enslaved mothers would be born free, but were required to serve their mothers' masters, without compensation, until they reached the age of twenty-five (if female) or twenty-eight (if male).
After passage of the 1799 law, the number of slaves in the state steadily declined at each census, until 10,088 enslaved persons were reported in 1820. The marked decline over nearly two and one-half decades from the passage of the abolition law was due to several factors. For instance, with the end of slavery in New York on the horizon, many bound to their masters seized the initiative and negotiated with their owners for their liberty before the legally required date. Further, slave importations into New York were illegal and no New Yorkers were born into slavery since July 4, 1799. In addition, some historians have hypothesized that many slaves were smuggled out of the state to the West Indies or Southern states, but quantifying the number of illegal sales has proven challenging. Because the gradual abolition law applied only to those born after 1799, slavery continued for those enslaved born before July 4, 1799. It became clear to African-Americans, slave and free, and their *44 allies, the New York abolitionists, that slavery might continue to exist in New York until the late nineteenth century unless the legislature intervened.
New York's leading antislavery society at the turn of the nineteenth century was the New York Manumission Society, whose founders included Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and whose primary objectives were the manumission of slaves, the protection of freed former slaves and the education of black children of all classes in the African Free Schools in New York City. While antislavery activists saw gradual emancipation as a step in the right direction, only minor changes in state's slave laws were made during the first decade of the 1800's. A final campaign for total abolition was still needed.
In 1811, the Manumission Society petitioned the New York legislature for an end to slavery. Governor Tompkins, a longtime member of the Society, called in his 1812 annual message to that body for the "gradual and ultimate extermination amongst us, of slavery, that reproach of a free people."
Leaders of the African-American community in New York City used the anniversary of the 1808 abolition of the slave trade in America to focus on the remaining struggle to end slavery. In one gathering at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on January 1, 1813, black abolitionist George Lawrence implored the Almighty to destroy slavery, with words equally intended for the legislature, proclaiming:
O! wilt thou crush that power that still holds thousands of our brethren in bondage, and let the sea of thy wisdom wash its very dust from off the face of the earth; let LIBERTY unfurl her banners, FREEDOM and JUSTICE reign triumphant in the world, universally.
*45 Despite these efforts, the legislature was hesitant to adopt total abolition and instead debated greater regulation of slavery in the state and the liberalization of the gradual abolition law. One bill proposed in 1814 would have released from service all those born after May 1, 1814 at twenty-one, instead of twenty-five or twenty-eight. Even that amendment fell victim to opposition in the Senate. The committee that killed the measure observed:
[T]he bill contains principles which are too great an innovation on private rights, and too doubtful on the ground of public policy, to be acted upon without mature deliberation; they are of opinion that this bill has been sent to the Senate too late in the session to be acted upon ...
A close observer of the Senate would have noted that the select committee which authored the report ultimately adopted by the Senate consisted of Senators Lucas Elmendorf, Henry Yates, Jr. and Martin Van Buren, all from slaveholding families.
The reformers were no more successful during the subsequent two legislative sessions. The assembly passed a modified gradual abolition law in 1815 and a revised slave bill in 1816, only to meet stiff resistance in the upper chamber. Upon receiving the assembly's 1816 bill, the Senate ensured inaction by referring it to another unsympathetic select committee led by Senator Elmendorf, where the bill died when the session closed.
In late 1816, the New York antislavery forces made one final push for universal emancipation. During that fall, a group of past presidents of the New-York Manumission Society lobbied the governor and legislature *46 to enact total abolition of slavery in New York State. Their efforts were later recounted before the national convention of abolitionists:
In the course of the last Autumn, several members who, from age and bodily infirmity, had been long excused from the active duties of the [Manumission] society, renewed their attendance, and urged to another effort, for the consummation of a leading object of their thirty years labour in the cause of humanity. Their countenance and wishes strengthened the sentiment already awakened in the society. An appeal to the citizens of the state, on the subject of final emancipation, was resolved on.
Samuel L. Mitchell, one of the past presidents of the Manumission Society, exhorted Governor Tompkins to lead the effort to end slavery in New York as a fitting and "dignified act" for the governor to "close h[is] political career as chief magistrate of this State," before Tompkins' assumption of the office of vice-president of the United States.
By early January 1817, New York City's two Federalist-leaning newspapers published a direct appeal by Cadwallader D. Colden, president of the Manumission Society, urging the public to support "the final abolition of slavery in this state," and calling on the state legislature to "fix a period when men amongst us, shall cease to be slaves."4 In his address, Colden summarized the history of Manumission Society's efforts to abolish slavery in New York and presented the humanitarian grounds for a law freeing all enslaved born before July 4, 1799, using the florid language of the early nineteenth century:
It is for these unfortunates, above the age of seventeen, (and their number is not very large) most of whom have brothers and sisters, or children, or grand-children, that are free; on whom the law now sheds no cheering ray of hope, and to whom time promises nothing in reversion, that we appeal to the philanthropy of the public and the justice of the legislature--of a public, whose various works of beneficence, have thrown into the shade, the charities of all former periods--and of a legislature, intended by that public, to be as well the almoners of its bounty, as the guardian of its right.
* * *
This great work is not impracticable. It is not, as it might be in some sister states, hazardous. It is due to the consequence and self-respect of the state. It is demanded as an atonement for long injustice. Its mode, conditions, and the reputation of its accomplishment, we will cheerfully leave to the legislature; satisfied for ourselves, if the measure shall succeed, with the knowledge, that we have out-lived those hard and unchristian laws, which permitted no beam of hope to light upon the heads of an unfortunate race, except that which issued from beyond the grave.
A delegation from the Manumission Society was appointed to deliver a copy of the address to the state legislature and to lobby for passage of a total abolition bill.6 On January 20, 1817, a copy of Colden's address was formally introduced to the state assembly by Joseph Smith, an assemblyman from New York City and member of the Manumission Society since 1813.7
The Albany Advertiser, the Federalist voice in upstate New York, rallied behind the Manumission Society's legislative initiative, appealing on religious grounds for support of complete abolition:
The attention of the Christian world is so strongly excited on this subject [slavery], that we cannot in this country but be in some measure affected by it. We are a Christian nation, we boast of our freedom - nay, we claim that we alone are free - and, yet, for the miserable consideration of a few years personal service, we suffer a foul blot to remain upon our character, both as Christians, and as freemen.
On January 28, 1817, shortly before his departure to assume the office of vice-president of the United States, Governor Tompkins sent a special message to the legislature, which was read aloud in the assembly, calling on it to determine:
Whether the dictates of humanity, the reputation of the state, and a just sense of gratitude to the Almighty for the many favors he has conferred on us as a nation, do not demand that the reproach of slavery be expunged from our statute book.
*47 In his message, Tompkins downplayed the economic impact of full emancipation, pointing out that most persons of color born before July 4, 1799 "will have become of very little value to their owners," but total abolition would still be "consistent with the humanity and justice of a free and prosperous people." He recommended setting a date "not more remote than the fourth day of July 1827 on which slavery shall cease within this state."
On the following day, a memorial was submitted by the Religious Society of Friends (known as the Quakers) to the New York legislature seeking a law proclaiming "the extinction of slavery in this state."1 On that same day, the governor's message was delivered to the Senate and both the message and the Friends' memorial were referred to a joint Senate/assembly committee.2 Across the state, newspapers representing a broad political spectrum enthusiastically endorsed the governor's recommendation. The Albany Argus, the upstate voice of the Martin Van Buren faction of the Republican Party, called on the legislature to enact a law for "the entire abolition of slavery in this state," declaring:
Such a measure has long been devoutly desired by the Patriots and philanthropists of our country, and its accomplishment will wipe out one of the greatest stains upon our character as freemen.
The Albany Register, the leading Albany outlet for those in the Republican Party who followed DeWitt Clinton, carried a letter signed by "Humanity," exhorting the legislature to adopt the governor's recommendation:
"The period which his Excellency has set for the total abolition of slavery is so far distant, that it will be no infringement upon private rights to pass the law as recommended."
However, ten days after the governor's address, it appeared that the legislature would allow another year to pass without ending slavery. The joint committee instead presented revisions to the existing slave code which would "accelerate the effect of that wise system of gradual emancipation." The joint committee then submitted a bill calling for a general revision of the state's slave laws to mirror the bills passed by the assembly in prior sessions, which the Senate had successfully avoided.5 The bill comprehensively reaffirmed and consolidated the existing state slave code, by shortening the length of uncompensated service for those affected by the 1799 statute; detailing the protocols for the manumission of slaves; and freeing slaves imported into and exported out of the state, with limited exceptions. However, and as promised by Thomas S. Lester, the assemblyman from Suffolk County (a large slaveholding county) when he introduced the joint committee's bill, it did not fix a date for general emancipation.
The abolitionists were not yet ready to abandon the fight. On March 12h, Assemblyman Joseph Smith introduced an amendment freeing all enslaved persons born before July 4, 1799, as of July 4, 1827. The rider read:
And be it further enacted, That every negro, mulatto or mustee, within this state, born before the fourth day of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-nine, shall, from and after the fourth day of July, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, be free; but if such negro, mulatto or mustee, at the time above specified, be above the age of fifty-five years, he or she shall be provided for, as is provided for in and by the seventh section of this act.
The amendment was approved by the assembly by a vote of 62 to 237 and that house approved the amended bill by an even wider margin on March 17h.8 When the senate considered the assembly bill, it added a further amendment relieving former masters of their obligation to support aged slaves emancipated by the legislation and then passed the whole bill by an overwhelming majority.9 The assembly agreed to the Senate's amendment and the total abolition bill became law on March 31, 1817.
The road to freedom in New York was a long and collective effort, to be sure, but by taking that final step and ending legal slavery within its borders, "New York had become the first state to pass a law for the total abolition of slavery."1 On Emancipation Day--July 4, 1827--the number of enslaved men and women born before July 4, 1799 who were freed was as many as 4,680, or 11.5% of the approximately 40,000 persons of color then living in New York State.
In the past few decades, historians have reported perplexingly different estimates of the number of enslaved men and women freed on July 4, 1827 - anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000.3 However, it was widely believed at the time of emancipation among the New York African-American community that the number freed exceeded 10,000. Reverend Nathaniel Paul, the abolitionist pastor of the Albany African Baptist Church, put the number at 10,0884 and Freedom's Journal, the first African-American edited and published a newspaper in the United States, reported 12,000 to 15,000 freed.
Even if the higher estimates of the number freed were somewhat inflated, they served to fuel the joyous public festivities that took place when Emancipation Day finally arrived. On both July 4h and 5h, jubilee celebrations, including parades, public dinners, and religious gatherings, took place in African-American communities throughout New York City and beyond, marking the end of a shameful period in New York's history.
Praise of Tompkins' initiative went so far as to predict that "his memory will be embalmed in the bosom of every human being who ... duly appreciates the equal rights of man for the efficient part he took in behalf of the crushed slave."7 Tompkins was honored by the black community when the Brooklyn African Tompkins Association, a mutual relief society dedicated to public charity founded in 1845, was named for him twenty years after his death.8 While historians have criticized Tompkins' overall record on racial equality and lack of leadership on national slavery issues,9 he has largely been remembered--down to the present--for initiating the total abolition law.
With the passage of the 1817 act, news of the coming end of slavery spread throughout New York. Isabella, an enslaved woman owned by John Dumont in Ulster County, was keenly aware of the law and its path to freedom when, like many, she bartered with Dumont for her early freedom to take effect in 1826 - one year before the emancipation law required. When Dumont reneged, Isabella escaped to freedom with her infant daughter and, after a time, began her antislavery activism under the name Sojourner Truth.
In Griffin v. Potter, the 1817 emancipation law was challenged by a slave owner as unconstitutional on the grounds that it was an uncompensated forfeiture by the state of vested rights. Chief Justice John Savage of the New York State Supreme Court upheld the validity of the act with strong language:
It is contended that the statute assuming to devest a vested right is unauthorized, and void pro tanto. It is a fundamental principle of our government that all men are born free and equal; that is, entitled by nature to equal freedom and equal rights ... The power of the Legislature over this subject is sufficiently ample to justify any act which can come in question in this case. When our government was first instituted, one portion of the population was in bondage to the other. Slavery existed by virtue of the laws which were in force previous to our political existence as a State. It could be justified only by necessity. It was at war with our principles; and ... the Legislature was of opinion that there was no necessity for its continuance
No sooner had slavery been abolished in New York than the political rights of persons of color came under bigoted attack, and a battle raged over the meaning of freedom beyond slavery's end. The New York Constitutional Convention of 1821, called to extend suffrage universally throughout the state, paradoxically extended the vote to all white men regardless of property ownership, while effectively disenfranchising the state's African-American male citizens, including those newly freed, by requiring black men to own $250 freehold property to vote. Factionalized state politics triumphed over the principles of equal rights as Van Buren and his Bucktail Republican colleagues set out to thwart any political advantage their rivals, the Federalists, might reap by universal emancipation among African-Americans who had in the past voted with the Federalist Party.
With the adoption of the $250 freehold voting restriction for African-American men, New York had racialized suffrage standards. Major drives for equal suffrage were undertaken over the ensuing decades by both the black community and abolitionists, but those efforts fell sadly short. The franchise would not be granted to black men in New York until federal intervention with passage of the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1870.
The bicentennial of New York's Final Emancipation Act is well worth remembering as an important chapter in the discourse of slavery and freedom in New York and the long road to be taken in pursuit of a just society. As it turned out, the struggle for equal voting rights in early New York served as a prequel to unjust voter identification laws and other obstacles African-Americans and others continue to suffer in some states. As Faulkner reminded us, "[t]he past is never dead. It's not even past."