Empire State Slavocracy
New York’s experience as a slave State is little discussed as is New England’s role in the infamous slave trade. From the very beginning the Puritans solved their labor shortage by enslaving Indians – in 1645 Emanuel Downing, John Winthrop’s brother-in-law, hoped that slaves could be supplied because the colony would never thrive “until we get . . . a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business.” Highly recommended for further reading on this topic is Leon F. Litwack’s “North of Slavery,” University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa 1865
Empire State Slavocracy
“New York was slow in drawing white settlers until after mid- [eighteenth] century, and the shortage of labor led to a considerable use of slaves; indeed it is possible that in the early Dutch days it was slave labor that enabled the colony to survive.
Most of the first slaves were not from Africa but were re-imported from Curacao in the Dutch West Indies. It was a profitable system: in the 1640’s it cost only a little more to buy a slave than to pay a free worker’s wages for a year.
After the English took control of New Netherland in 1664, a brisk and highly profitable trade in skilled slaves was carried on. Most slaveholders in the province were flourishing small farmers or small artisans who, in the absence of an adequate supply of free labor, needed moderately skilled help, and were able to pay the rising prices for slaves.
A partial census of 1755 showed . . . most owners having only one or two slaves, only seven New Yorkers owning ten or more. Among the largest lots held were those of elder Lewis Morris with 66 slaves on his large estate and the first Frederick Philipse, an affluent landowner, with about 40. William Smith . . . was reputed to keep a domestic staff of 12 or more to run his New York City household, and other citizens travelled with Negro footmen.
From the first the competition of black labor was resented by the whites. Competition in the labor market was intensified by the slave owners’ widespread practice of putting out their slaves for hire, under-cutting white laborers who were paid twice the slaves’ wages.
Miscegenation, which began in New York under the Dutch, yielded such a number of persons of mixed blood in the colony that by the end of the seventeenth century slave status had to be defined not by color but by the status of the mother. Some light-colored runaways won freedom by passing into the white population . . . Yet even under the relatively open system of slavery that prevailed, family structure was weak and there were a large number of broken and female-headed families.
The New York slave, suspended in an awkward equipoise between complete bondage and half-freedom, was often restive. After 1702, flogging was prescribed if three slaves gathered together on their own time. They were not permitted to gamble or to buy liquor . . . nor could they engage in trade without their masters’ consent.
Fires were a frightening problem in the eighteenth-century towns and blacks were commonly suspected of arson . . . [and the] penalty for committing arson was death. The killing of a white person by a black was punished by torture followed by execution, a sentence that courts did not hesitate to impose.”
(America at 1750, A Social Portrait, Richard Hofstader , Vintage Books, 1973, pp. 99-101)