james j. gigantino ii
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
The old periodization of slavery and abolition in the North is breaking down. So too, if historian James J. Gigantino II has his way, is the old historical geography of slavery. Scholars used to consign slavery’s end north of the Mason-Dixon Line to the Revolutionary era and only pick up the story of antislavery activism years later, in the three decades preceding the Civil War. Gigantino’s extensively researched study adds compelling evidence to the notion that neither African American experience nor the mechanics of abolition fell into neatly divided eras. Too much painful history and too many complicated developments occurred between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War to sustain established chronologies. Gigantino’s claim that his careful study of New [End Page 477] Jersey requires scholars to scramble their mental map of American slavery stands on shakier ground. The “ragged road to abolition” in the Garden State shares key features with similarly ragged roads in other northern states and has much to teach about the cruelly conditional nature of black freedom in the new nation. But this state study also highlights the ways in which New Jersey was an outlier in important respects.
The timing and tempo of abolition in New Jersey magnified all the shortcomings of emancipation in the North in general and the slave-dependent portions of the mid-Atlantic in particular. New Jersey initiated gradual abolition in 1804, later than all other states that traveled down this particular legal path. Rather than try to catch up to other states, lawmakers in New Jersey committed to the slowest possible form of gradualism. The law declared children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1804, to be free, but with females obligated to serve their mothers’ master until age twenty-one, males until age twenty-five. Since children born to females bound under this arrangement would remain in their masters’ control until at least age twenty-one, this stipulation significantly extended the life of the institution. Indeed, one of Gigantino’s main arguments is that this approach did not end slavery, but rather created a new form of slavery. Whites still bought, sold, and inherited term-bound people held in servitude. Unscrupulous whites exploited and dodged the law to their further advantage, for example by ignoring the requirement to register the birth of black children. Without recorded births, the date of actual freedom for individuals remained in doubt. Gradualism also facilitated the sale of African Americans into southern slavery, even though such sales violated New Jersey law. Rather than schedule an end date for slavery as neighboring New York did in an 1817 law, New Jersey reaffirmed gradualism in 1820. Only in 1836 did New Jersey courts cease to regard blacks prima facie as slaves. The 1846 law that finally abolished slavery came with features that sustained time-bound servitude under the guise of apprenticeship for years to come.
This legal framework had severe consequences for African Americans. Community and institution building, processes that historians of slavery in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England have detailed as part and parcel of the gradual emancipation process, occurred much less robustly in New Jersey. The varying legal status of family members made independent family formation much more difficult. What Gigantino terms slavery’s “flexibility” in the state—masters extracting not only agricultural labor [End Page 478] but also work in factories and roads, hiring out and transferring titles— exacted a heavy price. And yet despite the author’s insistence that gradual abolition did not usher in a new era, he notes that masters and slaves engaged in negotiations to limit their terms and to arrange self-purchase. Resistance took on new meaning. News of jailbreaking, poisoning, and slaves attacking masters unnerved whites. The author asserts, “No longer could masters exert the same type of control over their chattel that they had used before gradual abolition for fear that their slaves might kill them” or, more likely, run away to New York City or Philadelphia (125). In those cities on New Jersey’s borders, blending in as free and availing oneself of a thickening network of religious and secular institutions was possible. Gradual abolition perpetuated lopsided power relations everywhere, but even in New Jersey, blacks and whites interacted on a significantly altered landscape.
The conditions that propelled and retarded changes in New Jersey’s slave regime were complex and, in Gigantino’s narrative, somewhat opaque. The legacy of the state’s colonial division between West Jersey and East Jersey seems to have both weakened and sustained the institution. West Jersey, with a substantial Quaker population and with close ties to Pennsylvania, took an early lead in fighting slavery. Indeed, renowned antislavery pioneer John Woolman haled from Burlington County; Friends William Dillwyn and Samuel Allinson followed in his footsteps, pressing New Jersey authorities to act against the institution in the wake of internal efforts to end the practice within their own religious community. Across the Delaware River, Pennsylvania enacted the new nation’s first gradual abolition law in 1780.
Different conditions prevailed within New Jersey to prevent antislavery progress during and immediately after the Revolutionary War. Slave-holders in East Jersey, historically in the orbit of New York, the northern colony with the largest system of black bondage, did not develop the same antislavery culture. Meanwhile, the war devastated the economy of the state, making the cost of abandoning slave labor seem prohibitively high. Moreover, whites in these northern and eastern parts of New Jersey keenly felt the sting of their former slaves, who fought on behalf of the British, launching raids against their former masters. An escaped Monmouth County slave known as Colonel Tye during the war was most notorious in this regard. Such conditions help explain why New Jersey’s political class [End Page 479] did not take steps against slavery in the 1780s, unlike Pennsylvania and the New England states. Less clear is why New Jersey acted to initiate gradual abolition two decades later. Absent sustained attention to public opinion or the internal dynamics of state politics, Gigantino’s claim that the law emerged out of Democratic Republican political interests is unsatisfying.
The book passes up the opportunity to make a sustained comparison to or seek connections to the emancipation process in neighboring New York, which passed a gradual law in 1799. It is worth noting in this regard that the book that most closely resembles Gigantino’s in subject and scope is Graham Russell Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863 (UNC Press, 1999), the title of which suggests the linkage between these two states. Even before New York enacted gradual abolition, the New York Manumission Society minutes recorded cases of New Jersey slaves reportedly sold across state lines in violation of New York law.
Comparison and connected contextualization are not The Ragged Road to Abolition’s strong suit. To be sure, the author peppers his narrative with informative parallels to other states as far away as Virginia and Connecticut. But the study lacks an overarching framework for assessing New Jersey as part of national and regional developments. The author at times is surprisingly spare in his analysis of national political events such as the US Constitution’s handling of slavery and the Missouri Compromise, though later in the book he makes the intriguing point that New Jersey politicians were eager to announce their slavery bona fides when trying to mitigate intersectional political controversy. The turbulent currents of transatlantic antislavery discourse do not buffet Jersey’s shoreline to any discernible degree in this account: no Somerset decision, no Equiano autobiography, no Clarkson treatise. Despite the book’s opening assertion that “[t]his book is about the meaning of slavery and freedom in the United States” (1), it remains very much a state study—a weakness in some respects but a strength in others.
Indeed, the story of slavery and emancipation in New Jersey has some tellingly unique features. The lack of a major seaport differentiated the Garden State from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and even Rhode Island. Urban ports, especially Philadelphia and New York City, became the intersecting nexuses of black and white opposition to slavery. Although some historians emphasize the elitism and paternalism of early white antislavery [End Page 480] organizations such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the New York Manumission Society, New Jersey demonstrates the perils of a weak antislavery infrastructure. As Gigantino notes, organized antislavery essentially vanished from the state’s landscape early in the nineteenth century. The enslaved lacked allies to seek legal representation to advance freedom claims and to advocate for more progressive laws in the statehouse. Thus, Gigantino charts the virtually uncontested rise of the American Colonization Society as the deeply compromised voice of antislavery critique in the state. New Jersey also lacked the developing western hinterland of New York and Pennsylvania. New Jersey was geographically isolated from the thrust of US growth. One can speculate how this hemmed-in geography affected the state’s political and cultural development. Certainly, West Jersey’s weak commitment to slavery is not much of an analogue to rapidly expanding western New York, where slavery barely took hold and which increasingly became a hotbed of religious and reform enthusiasms, including abolitionism and free soil politics. Be that as it may, it is also striking that there is no attempt to account for the cultural, political, and social transformations wrought by the Second Great Awakening and the Market Revolution. Either New Jersey was exceptional in this regard or there is something missing. Gigantino’s own statistics are indicative: in 1838, denizens of New Jersey had founded a mere 14 abolition societies, while New Yorkers had established 369 and Ohioans 251 (229).
Regardless of the issues that remain unaddressed, this volume admirably fulfills its primary purpose of telling the story of freedom and slavery in early national New Jersey. The book will serve historians and literary scholars alike as a resource. The author is certainly correct that the crediting of the American Revolution or antebellum northern development for facilely rousting slavery from half the country does not stand up to scrutiny: not in the Old Northwest, not in the mid-Atlantic, not even in New England. Whatever its unique qualities, New Jersey tells a familiar but instructive story—from race riots to segregated churches, to the denial of the right of free blacks to vote until the addition of the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Gigantino notes that some New Jersey politicians sought to protect “order on the border” (222) between North and South by emphasizing their state’s willingness to return southern fugitive slaves passing through the state. No one proposed to build a wall to secure that border. Instead, Americans between the American Revolution and [End Page 481] the Civil War continued to construct a house divided against itself. In the end, neither New Jersey doughface politicians nor anyone else in the North could keep that house from collapsing.