Today marks the 150th anniversary of another Civil War milestone: the proposal by Mayor Fernando Wood to the city council that New York City secede from the Union, in order to continue its relationship with the South, just as southern states were beginning to declare their secession.

I’ve co-authored an opinion article coming out soon describing this event, and discussing its broader significance for our understanding of the Civil War and the role that slavery and race played for the North and the South. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a quick picture of the role of slavery in New York up to the time of the Civil War, as a counterweight to the myth that the North at the outbreak of the war consisted of free states eager to abolish the scourge of southern slavery.

First, a side note: I’m currently attending the four-day American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting in Boston, and in particular, a multi-session workshop on slavery and public memory. I plan to report back here  on some of the latest scholarship related to slavery, race, and public history, all themes directly related to this blog and my work at the Tracing Center.

Support for the South and slavery in New York

Last month, I mentioned that as South Carolina prepared to secede from the Union in 1860, thousands of New Yorkers rallied on Wall Street in support of slavery and the southern cause. Today’s anniversary involves New York’s mayor proposing that the entire city secede from the Union to form an independent city-state, so that the city could continue to do business with the South after the Union dissolved. This proposal, while mocked by the city’s intelligentsia, had substantial support from many ordinary New Yorkers, and in fact had already been discussed by its business leaders as a possible solution to the southern crisis.

One reason for the support shown by New York City for the south and slavery, and its willingness to consider leaving the Union, is that the city’s economy was intimately bound up in southern slavery. New York’s leading businesses, including banking, insurance, shipping and manufacturing, depended heavily on the cotton trade, the cotton textile industry, and southern plantation agriculture. As a result, many ordinary working-class New Yorkers depended directly on the slave economy of the South for their own livelihoods.

However, why didn’t this economic self-interest clash more directly with a sympathy for southern slaves and a desire to see slavery abolished?

The reality is that New York, like all of the northern states, was still deeply enmeshed with slavery at the time of the Civil War.

Slavery in New York

The history of slavery in New York City began in 1626, when the Dutch West India Company sent a cargo of eleven enslaved Africans to the province of New Netherland. At the time, the Dutch were transporting large numbers of Africans to their colonies in the West Indies, and in due course, the Dutch began relying heavily on slave labor to build and maintain New Amsterdam, which was to become New York City.

The importation of black slaves only increased after the British took control. The colony of New York came to have the largest slave population in the North, while slaves of African descent made up one-third of all immigration through the port of New York. By 1746, New York City had a resident population of 2,440 slaves, or about a quarter of the white population; Charleston and New Orleans were the only cities in the colonies to have more slaves.

In the 18th century, nearly all successful middle- and upper-class households in New York City had at least one slave for domestic service; about 40% of all white households owned at least one slave. Slaves in New York City labored at a wide variety of other jobs, working alongside white laborers as sailors and dock hands, farm laborers, and in such skilled professions as blacksmith, carpenter, and shoemaker.1

Colonial slavery in New York City was not mild by any standard, either. The colony’s laws closely regulated the behavior of slaves, and prescribed whippings and similar punishments for routine violations. At least one account from the colonial era describes a slave burned alive at the stake. The laws also generally prohibited slaves from having a family life, while free blacks could be, and were, enslaved if they were unable to prove that they were not runaways. In response, there were brutal slave uprisings in New York City over the years.

Gradual emancipation in New York

After the American Revolution, slavery in New York City, as elsewhere in the North, gradually became less economically viable and slowly began to die out. Northern attitudes towards slavery and race, however, did not change even that quickly. In New York State, proposals to abolish slavery after the Revolution failed repeatedly, defeated by coalitions of those who wanted to perpetuate slave-owning and those who, while seeing no profit in holding slaves, were wary of a large population of free blacks or the economic competition their labor would represent.

Finally, in 1799, a gradual emancipation bill was passed. Under this legislation, all existing slaves would remain slaves for the rest of their lives. Those children born to slaves after July 4, 1799 would be enslaved for 25 years, if female, or 28 years, if male, and then freed.

In 1817, New York reconsidered and decided to free those slaves born before July 4, 1799—but not until 1827. Even then, slaves could be brought into New York and kept there for up to nine months at a time. (A similar law in Pennsylvania is what allowed George Washington, serving as the first president of the United States in Philadelphia, to keep slaves in the first White House—by rotating them in and out of the state.)

In 1841, New York finally decided to prohibit slavery altogether.

Attitudes towards slavery and race in New York

Hopefully this brief timetable suggests the extent to which slavery was an integral part of the history of New York City, and had only recently, and grudgingly, been abolished by the eve of the Civil War.

Yet this history only begins to hint at the extent to which the citizens of New York City still, by the time of the Civil War, tended to accept slavery elsewhere as a natural and acceptable part of life. New York City first rose to global prominence, prior to the Civil War, on the strength of its role in the cotton trade. New York businesses and laborers financed, insurance, and supplied southern slave plantations; transported and marketed the vast quantities of cotton being produced by slave labor; and played a key role in establishing the cotton textile mills throughout the northeast which served as the impetus for northern industrialization prior to the Civil War.

The depth of New York’s, and the North’s, lingering racial prejudice and profound ambivalence towards emancipation would not be fully revealed, however, until July of 1863. This was the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the introduction of new draft laws. From July 13 to July 16, mobs of angry New Yorkers, largely Irish immigrants, roamed the city. The mobs targeted draft offices and other symbols of their anger, such as prominent businesses and the mansions of the wealthy. But they quickly turned their anger on the city’s free black population, destroying black homes and a Colored Orphan Asylum, and lynching free black citizens in the streets.The largely working-class mobs feared that freed slaves would compete for their jobs, but they also made clear that they had little sympathy for the cause of emancipation, carrying banners which read, “We won’t fight to free the nigger.” Union troops had to be sent from Gettysburg itself to put down the riots, but not before more than 100 people had died.

While these facts are largely unknown to Americans today, they were part of the common experience at the time for those involved. These are the historical facts which explain why New York City, and the rest of the North, was not an abolitionist paradise in 1861, intent on ending southern slavery and marching off to war to emancipate the slaves.

  1. David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). []

One Response to “New York and slavery at the time of the Civil War”


  1. Blayney Colmore says:

    James, I am a friend and Kent classmate of your father. I recently bought and watched (again) Traces of the Trade, a compelling, well done piece. My interest in all this goes back a long way. Like your father i was raised in the segregated south (NC) and, like so many who were, have long felt race is the soft underbelly of our history.

    All that was etched deeper by seeing you family film and then by discovering my own family's legacy with slavery in Cuba. My grandmother (de Murias) was from Cuba, her family coming from Spain a couple of centuries before she was born. They had to have been involved in the slave trade in some way. I have recently discovered they were also involved in the Cuba Libre movement and must have gone into semi-permanent exile around the time of Jose' Marti's execution. They seem to also have been involved in the Freedom (from Spain)m movement in other parts of Latin America as one of them was executed in Tabasco Province, Mexico.

    My wife and I recently went to Cuba with my cousin and visited the family tomb in Colon cemetery in Habana. I hope to get back there for more research as I have begun a novel that will rely heavily on all that.

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