The war proved particularly destructive in the case of New York, and the state was a battleground from one end to the other. Little was done during the war towards ending slavery, except that in 1781 the legislature voted to manumit slaves serving in the armed forces. But the war itself wrought havoc with the institution. Many slaves ran off to the British during the occupation of the state. Others achieved freedom by taking up the rebels' offer of manumission in exchange for military service. The slave population of New York City was permanently reduced. When the British and the American Loyalists pulled out of New York at the end of the war, some 3,000 blacks left with them.
In 1785, when the fighting was over, New York got around to the slavery question. As before, most of the legislators were anti-slavery, but by now a split had developed between moderates, who favored gradual emancipation, and a minority of hard-liners behind Aaron Burr who sought an immediate end to slavery. The moderates won, and out of the Assembly in 1785 came a plan that children born to slave women after 1785 would be free from birth. But it was passed up to the state Senate with a number of riders attached, which reflected fears of potential power in an ex-slave population and racist concerns about social order. Blacks would be denied the right to vote or hold public office, or to intermarry with whites or give testimony against them in state courts. This combination of gradual emancipation with restrictions on black civil rights was the plan that had succeeded in Connecticut the previous year. "The representatives in effect sought to blunt the political and social impact of emancipation by relegating the Negro freedmen to a civil limbo of second-class citizenship."
The majority in the Senate, however, was more aristocratic and had less to fear from black economic competition. They rejected the restrictive provisions, not only because they were undemocratic, but because they would perpetuate a caste system based on race, which could awaken dangerous civil strife. The Senate sent the bill back to the Assembly for revisions.
The Assembly dutifully stripped off the other provisions, but it would not budge on withholding the right to vote. The Senate, recognizing a line had been drawn, agreed to this.
The emancipation plan faced one more hurdle: the Council of Revisions. Under leadership of Chancellor Livingston (whose family had not long before been slave traders), the bill was indignantly rejected, with the suffrage clause called "shocking" to the "principal of equal liberty." The Council also echoed the Senate's earlier objection to permanent class divisions based on race, which would weaken blacks' commitment to the civil society of the new nation, turning them into a potentially subversive force without a stake in the social order.
The Council sent the bill back to the Senate. But the Senate had made up its mind for emancipation as soon as possible, and the Senators felt this was the price that had to be paid for it. They passed the bill back to the Assembly unchanged. Yet now the Assembly was having second thoughts on the matter. It failed to break the Council's veto, and the bill died. "In the final analysis, emancipation was blocked by a majority that feared Negro power more than it desired Negro freedom." All this concern about the power of a black vote took place in a state where blacks made up less than 8 percent of the population, and even in the county (Kings) where they had the highest population concentration, they were outnumbered 2 to 1 by whites.
In 1788, the slave trade in New York was banned outright (but with important loopholes), and the special courts which had held power of life and death over slaves for 80 years were abolished. The loosening of restrictions filtered down to the municipal level, and Albany abolished the custom of flogging slaves for curfew violations.
The New York Manumission Society, based in the Quaker population of Long Island and headed by the most prominent and wealthy men in the state, had formed in 1785. It kept up a relentless pressure of economic intimidation. It hectored newspaper editors against advertising slave sales, pressured auction houses and ship-owners, and gave free legal help to slaves suing their masters. This effort, along with a booming birth rate and a flood of white workers from other states who did not have to be maintained during periods of unemployment and were willing to work for low wages, made slavery economically obsolete.
In 1799 the Legislature passed "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" with only token opposition. It provided for gradual manumission on the Pennsylvania model, which allowed masters to keep their younger slaves in bondage for their most productive years, to recoup their investment. The law freed all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, but not at once. The males became free at 28, the females at 25. Till then, they would be the property of the mother's master. Slaves already in servitude before July 4, 1799, remained slaves for life, though they were reclassified as "indentured servants." The law sidestepped all question of legal and civil rights, thus avoiding the objections that had blocked the earlier bill.
The activity of kidnappers and cheats in selling slaves out of the state in spite of the laws was said to have been the impetus for the 1817 statute that gave freedom to New York slaves who had been born before July 4, 1799 -- but not until July 4, 1827. Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, in proposing the change in 1817, also suggested an economic motive for slaveowners:
"I do therefore, respectfully, but earnestly, recommend to the legislature, to establish some future day, not more remote than the 4th day of July, 1827, on which slavery shall cease in this state. Before the arrival of that period, most coloured persons born previous to the 4th of July, 1799, (and others are now free by the existing laws,) will have become of very little value to their owners, indeed many of will, by that time, have become expensive burthen."To fix a day thus remote for general emancipation, will consequently impair, in a very small degree, any private right, and will, at the same time, consistent with the humanity and of a free and prosperous people." Slavery was still not entirely repealed in the state, because the new law offered an exception, allowing nonresidents to enter New York with slaves for up to nine months, and allowing part-time residents to bring their slaves into the state temporarily. Though few took advantage of it, the "nine-months law" remained on the books until its repeal in 1841, when slavery had become the focus of sectional rivalry and the North was re-defining itself as the "free" region.The state's slaveholders had seen the writing on the wall after 1785. And part of their response was to sell their slaves south while they still could. As early as the 1780s, after commissions and insurance costs, an able-bodied New York slave could be sold south for a profit of at least £40. Owners avoided the ban on the slave trade by disguising purchases as long-term leases or indentures (one importer brought a "free" black over from New Jersey under a 99-year "indenture"). Free blacks were victimized, too, sold into slavery for debt or under terms of fraudulent contracts or apprenticeships. The New York Manumission Society rescued 33 blacks from such schemes in 1796 alone; uncounted others certainly slipped past their vigilance.
In "A History of Negro Slavery in New York" , Edgar J. McManus writes that an analysis of census figures shows an extremely sharp drop in the growth rate of New York's black population after 1800. Many blacks must have left the state, he writes, and few left voluntarily. "The conclusion is inescapable," McManus writes, "that the exodus was largely the work of kidnapers and illegal traders who dealt in human misery."
As it did elsewhere in the North, freedom in New York, even with the right to vote, opened up a new set of hardships for blacks. Organized pressure from white workers drove them from the skilled and semi-skilled positions they had filled under slavery. Working class mobs harassed them in riots large and small, the largest of the period being the one in July 1834 in New York City that leveled hundreds of black homes.
Blacks voted in New York, and though they were too few to be a political power on their own, they tended to remember the aristocrats who had been the chief backers of emancipation, and they backed the party of Jay and Hamilton. In certain close races, their block votes were credited with victories for the Federalists. This earned them the enmity of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party, which made a political issue of the black vote and attempted to discredit the Federalists by marrying them, in the public mind, to the most vicious racist stereotypes of blacks.
As the Federalists faded in the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans moved to shut out the black voters. In 1815, they pushed a bill through the legislature that required blacks to get special passes to vote in state elections. Then in 1821 the Democratic-Republicans successfully sponsored an amendment to the state constitution that, while it entirely abolished the property qualification for white voters, raised it for blacks from $100 to $250 -- the cost of a modest house in those days. The caste system foreseen with fear by the men of 1785 had come into effect, even without legal sanction.
2. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse University Press, 1973, p.172.
3. Daniel D. Tompkins, public message, Jan. 13, 1817, quoted in full in "The African Observer," Twelfth Month, 1827; also in McMaster, History of the People of the United States, 1910, vol. V, p.192.