African slavery flourished in New Jersey prior to the Revolution while Rhode Island flourished as the center of the transatlantic slave trade, surpassing Liverpool by 1750. It was not until 1804 that the New Jersey Legislature passed an act for gradual emancipation, though like New York’s later act, the law held a hidden subsidy for New Jersey slave owners. The latter could free the slave children and place them under State care, while selling the parents in Southern States. Additionally, free blacks could not vote by an 1807 law limiting the franchise to free, white males.
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The Slave State of New Jersey
“Slavery had obtained legal sanction in New Jersey under the [English] proprietary regimes of Berkeley and Carteret. In 1702, when New Jersey became a crown colony, Gov. Edward Cornbury was dispatched from London with instructions to keep the settlers provided with “a constant supply of merchantable Negroes at moderate prices.” He likewise was ordered to assist slave traders and “to take especial care that payment be duly made.”
“These instructions became settled policy, and the slave traffic became one of the preferred branches of New Jersey’s commerce. In rejecting a proposed slave tariff in 1744, the Provincial Council declared that nothing would be permitted to interfere with the importation of Negroes. The council observed that slaves had become essential to the colonial economy, since most entrepreneurs could not afford to pay the high was commanded by free workers.”
But while slaves were encouraged, free blacks were not. Free blacks were barred by law from owning land in colonial New Jersey. Slaves were especially numerous around Perth Amboy, which was the colony’s main port of entry.
“By 1690, most of the inhabitants of the region owned one or more Negroes.” From 2,581 in 1726, New Jersey’s slave population grew to nearly 4,000 in 1738. Slaves accounted for about 12 percent of the colony’s population up to the Revolution.
From 1713 (after a violent slave uprising in New York) to 1768, the colony operated a separate court system to deal with slave crimes [and] special punishments for slaves remained on the books until 1788 . . . [and] New Jersey narrowly escaped a violent slave uprising in 1743.
The 1800 census counted 12,422 New Jersey slaves . . . [and] in the same year New Jersey banned importing of slaves it also forbid free blacks from entering the State with intent to settle there.”