For some historians, the recurrent debates about the relationship of our “Framers” to slavery and abolition are irritating at best. What those few white men—preeminently Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—thought and wrote about the presence of slavery is, of course, important. Their words live on and may still play a part in shaping our political culture. But what interests social and cultural historians is how lives were led, even as sentiments were expressed. What did it mean to live in a regime of gradual emancipation, for example in Hamilton’s New York, at the beginning of the nineteenth century? And why should we care about the contradictions that shaped their lives?
For starters, we ought to move beyond our conventional understanding of the relationship of slavery to freedom. Our “neo-abolitionist” commitment to the notion of an antinomic relationship between slavery and freedom, of a binary with an excluded middle, leaves us without resources to understand the in-between legal culture, neither “slave” nor “free,” in which most Americans lived in the years of gradual emancipation.
Until the 1860s, the end of slavery was incremental, not an instantaneous event. Gradual emancipation was defined by a peculiar legal culture in which white people and black people often continued to live habitual lives shaped by coerced labor, even as “freedom” became a norm. Slavery remained a lived experience, in the midst of so-called emancipation. At the same time, it also had become common for right thinking white people to express anti-slavery sentiments, to make known their moral qualms. As Alexander Hamilton did, once or twice.
The moral complexities of such contradictory circumstances should not be unfamiliar to sentient human beings today. Just as the busboy or the gardener or the careworker in the nursing home, who may or may not be a legal migrant, helps constitute our lived experience in the worlds we live in, so it would be in the “free” or freeish society that was emerging along the Hudson in Hamilton’s life. The routine presence of enslaved or semi-enslaved black persons in any number of service positions offers an equivalent to the cheap labor that many of us rely on today.
Alexander Hamilton lived neither in a slave society, as historians have understood that term, nor in anything close to a free society. Gradual emancipation or gradual abolition (the terms were used interchangeably), which is what New York had embarked on in Hamilton’s last years, was a body of distinctive and evolving practices. It was certainly not a switch that flipped people from one status to another, from slavery to freedom. New York’s processes of gradual emancipation lasted more than a generation, at minimum from the last years of the eighteenth century until 1827. Gradual emancipation incorporated habits and ways of being that drew both on moral and social discomfort with slavery and with expectations of continuity. In New Jersey, the practices of gradual emancipation lasted from beginnings in the late eighteenth century until the coming of the Civil War. By then there were still, according to the 1860 census, eighteen New Jersey “slaves,” although New Jersey law labelled them as “apprentices for life.”
Formally, what gradual emancipation meant was that the children born to slaves would not be slaves. Nothing more. And formally, in the law, nothing changed for their enslaved parents. What those children were, and indeed, what they would be called, were matters of controversy. In New York, they would live much of their lives in a peculiar in-between status, owing service to masters until they turned 28 if male, 25 if female. As was sometimes noted, this constituted a large portion of an expected life span. New Jersey’s equivalent “term” required service of young men until they turned 25 and of young women until 21. In both states, these children of slaves would in effect “earn” their freedom through their labor. During their years of service, of semi-slavery or semi-freedom, however one called it, they could be sold, though only for their remaining terms. In New Jersey, courts worked intermittently to distinguish the status of the children of slaves from those of apprentices and other (presumably white) bound servants. Meanwhile, the end of slavery for the parents was never marked by legislation. Some New Jersey slaves would never experience freedom, unless they happened to live to a very old age to survive into the 1860s. Still, by then, and indeed, well before, New Jersey would be known as a free state, part of a non-slaveholding North. Continue reading