How much do we really know about slavery?

Posted: April 02, 2007

The 200th anniversary last week of the end of the British slave trade, the ongoing controversy over George Washington's slave quarters at the President's House site at Sixth and Market Streets, and the proposed demolition of a house outside Princeton containing slave quarters ("N.J. slave quarters threatened," March 26), bring to mind how little we know (or have been taught) about slavery.

I attended last spring's "Slavery in New York" exhibit at the New York Historical Society, and one statistic bowled me over more than anything else in the show. In a comparison of tax records from 1703, 3 percent of Boston taxpayers were slave-holders, as were 6 percent of Philadelphia taxpayers, and 42 percent of New York City taxpayers. Forty-two percent! A higher percentage than even in the Deep South.

That means slaveholding wasn't just an upper-class, or even a middle-class, phenomenon. Enslaved Africans were so cheap and plentiful in New York City that even working-class people could, and did, choose to own them. It also speaks volumes about the price of manual labor, white or black.

Pennsylvania's was the first government in the Western Hemisphere to begin an abolition of slavery - something of which we can be justly proud. But the 1780 Gradual Abolition Law was so respectful of slaveholders' property rights that it freed no one at first. Importing additional enslaved Africans into the state was prohibited, and the future children of those already here were to be born free (although indentured to their mother's master until age 28). All enslaved Africans held in the state before the law went into effect remained enslaved for life.

It wasn't until 1847 that the Pennsylvania Assembly finally ended legal slavery and freed these people, the youngest being 67. Slavery didn't end in New Jersey and Delaware until 1865, the same time it ended in the South.

The Independence Hall Association has posted a primer on slavery at the President's House at Slavery in the North is likely to become a major subject of study for the next generation. This primer may be a good place to start.

Edward Lawler Jr.


Independence Hall Association


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