25 January 2010

Bad History?

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory recently made this comment on his blog:

"Slavery did not exist in the Northern states by the beginning of the Civil War."

Well, not exactly. At the beginning of the WBTS, citizens of New Jersey still owned 18 of what their laws referred to as "apprentices for life", though the federal census listed such individuals as "slaves." Yes, a minuscule number compared to Southern states but, nonetheless, a fact. And, though New Jersey abolished slavery in 1846 . . .

"New Jersey's emancipation law carefully protected existing property rights. No one lost a single slave, and the right to the services of young Negroes was fully protected. Moreover, the courts ruled that the right was a 'species of property,' transferable 'from one citizen to another like other personal property.' " ~ Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse University Press, 1973 (and republished in 2002). 

And, according to McManus, "New Jersey retained slaveholding without technically remaining a slave state." It was not until the 13th amendment was ratified that involuntary servitude in New Jersey was completely abolished.

So Levin's assertion is factually incorrect.

Will he suffer the same "bad history" criticism that Harry Crocker suffered


WerewolfinExile said...

You learn something new everyday. Very interesting observation and fact on New Jersey.

Mr. Levin needs to do some due diligence. As I recall, Washington, DC, the nation's capitol still recognized slavery as being legal at the outbreak of the war. I also believe that four states that remained with the Union, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland were slave states. While these border states had varying degrees of "northerness" or "southerness" and all fell below the Mason-Dixon line, I think historians who make those blanket assumptions do the trade of history a disservice. The facts are always more nuanced, as you displayed.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mr. Wolf:

Most consider Delaware, Kentucky, MO, & Maryland "Southern" states, though they remained in the Union. I always thought Delaware was a bit of a stretch, but anyway . . .

Nuanced, yes. Thanks for the input.

Arthur B. Breedlove said...

"Slavery did not exist in the Northern states by the beginning of the Civil War."

Of course, statements such as these are used as a device to couch the war in strictly moralistic terms. The result being that the North takes the moral high ground. Even if the above statement were true, it still wouldn't account for the Norths duplicity in profiteering from cotton and slave trading. It was the mayor of New York City who advocated secession from NY state. Such was the dependency of NYC with cotton on the eve of the WBTS.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


True. It is always interesting to observe those who argue against framing the war in moralistic terms and then doing exactly that.

Vince said...


I think it's important to understand the decade-by-decade evolution of slavery/abolition/race in the North, and I think your post confuses the 1800s with the 1840s. The "emancipation law" which McManus assesses was from 1804/1805, not 1848 (which I inferred from your post).

Proper chronology of slavery in the North is important for understanding Northern attitudes toward slavery at the war's outbreak. See page 173 of _Black Bondage in the North_.

Vince said...

Sorry, change that...page 178 of the 2001 paperback edition for the above comment.

Looking at McManus's synthesis on the next page is also instructive for interpretation:

"Although the North's abolition laws provided for only gradual emancipation, the commitment to freedom was complete and irreversible. In 1810 the federal census for New England reported 418 slaves out of a black population of almost 20,000, and ten years later only 145 Negroes remained in bondage. By 1810 New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York had fewer than 18,000 slaves, only about 0.6 percent of the total population. This progress toward freedom had implications for the entire nation. It marked the point at which North and South diverged to pursue separate goals: the one with a commitment, however inchoate, to freedom and equality; the other to a way of life dependent upon slavery and repression. That these goals would surely clash meant that white Americans could expect neither peace nor national unity while black Americans remained in bondage." (McManus, 179)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince - no argument. I acknowledged in the post that the number was minuscule--almost irrelevant--when compared to Southern states. And that was actually part of the point I was making: to point out that when one makes a generalization (as did Crocker and Levin), its easy for someone else to jump on that generalization w/ charges of "bad history." Your clarification does not change the fact Levin's statement was wrong, though a relatively insignificant error - similar to Crocker's. There was, practically speaking, still slavery in at least one Northern state at the beginning of the WBTS.

Of course, this leads to the broader subject of "why?" and we know that was based on the difference in the way the Northern & Southern economies developed rather than primarily some moral aversion to slavery.

Regarding "the North's abolition laws provided for only gradual emancipation, the commitment to freedom was complete and irreversible" I agree. It's also important to point out there were vast differences regarding slavery between the deep South and the upper South. Were it not for the Nat Turner uprising, there is a good chance a very similar emancipation law would have been passed in Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, introduced legislation in the House of Delegates in 1832 that would have ended slavery in Virginia. He proposed an idea that had originated with his grandfather (Thomas Jefferson), a proposal that had been defeated by the General Assembly in 1779. Randolph suggested that every male slave born after July 4, 1840, be granted his freedom upon his twenty-first birthday. The legislation would grant the same freedom to female slaves upon their eighteenth birthday. Randolph’s bill was defeated by only a “small majority.”

In fact, the Reverend Randolph McKim (1842–1920), a Confederate chaplain and one-time rector of Christ Church in Alexandria, wrote in "A Soldier’s Recollections" that Randolph assured him in 1860 “that emancipation would certainly have been carried the ensuing year, but for the revulsion of feeling which followed the fanatical agitation of the subject by the Abolitionists of the period.” And although the bill was defeated, the Virginia legislature “passed a resolution postponing the consideration of the subject till public opinion had further developed.” An editorial in the March 6, 1832, Richmond Whig praised the legislature’s efforts and further noted: “The great mass of Virginia herself triumphs that the slavery question has been taken up by the legislature, that her legislators are grappling with the monster, and they contemplate the distant but ardently desired result [emancipation] as the supreme good which a benevolent Providence could vouchsafe.”

BorderRuffian said...

Brooks Simpson comment on the other blog-

"The census does not list the people in question as slaves. It's very specific about their status. Mr. Williams is also factually incorrect, in that he simply relied on one source, and took the source to his liking as being true, and failed to do more research."

Wrong, Mr Simpson.

"Slaves" it is...

Go to "Classified Population of the States" then click on New Jersey-


BorderRuffian said...


The link is page one of New Jersey-


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


It sure looks like 18 slaves to me. How in the world does BS know how many sources I checked? I cited just one, but looked at several others, including a couple of the ones he cited. As usual, he fires a dud.

Simpson and Levin are pulling their usual stunts and ad hominem responses, which is what I expected.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

So if one calls involuntary servitude "apprentices for life" then that means they weren't slaves? Sounds like Southerners who preferred to call their slaves "servants."

msimons said...

Kevin also calls people out then blocks them from posting the evidence to back up their claims.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

No, he does not accept challenges to his views very well. If you notice in the responses to my post, the comments very quickly descended into ad hominem attacks.

MSimons said...

Thanks Mr. Williams for letTing me post here. I emailed Kevin the information I found and requested my ability to post at CM be restored. We will see if he is a Southern Gentleman or simply a Wrongley Educated Yankee boar.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


No problem. I think he would be offended if you called him a Southern Gentleman.

Vince said...

I think the question of when emancipation would have happened "naturally"--especially in the Upper South--is indeed an interesting one, although I think it would be hard to find an objective opinion on the topic from the period.

Fortunately, it seems that this question could be answered by examining the money trail. During the growth of the 1850s, what was the trajectory of major industrial and infrastructure projects, say, in Richmond? How much did the economy depend on slavery and depend on slavery's continuation? Did it grow or shrink over the 1850s? In other words, where did wealthy/powerful Virginians' (and others') money lie?

I think answers to these questions would give a pretty good guess at slavery's future. Unfortunately, I don't have the answers...and won't have a chance to look for them anytime soon.

Vince said...

I could be wrong, but the conclusion that there were 18 slaves in New Jersey in 1860 sounds like the product of a bureaucratic version of "whisper down the lane".

Maybe some motivated genealogist could find their names and help understand their stories.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Frankly, I think it is absurd to think that slavery would not have collapsed of its own weight by the end of the 19th century (if not sooner), especially with the coming industrial revolution and just considering the economic inefficiencies of slavery, let alone the moral implications.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


So you don't equate "apprentices for life" with involuntary servitude?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


As to my point about the "industrial revolution" - isn't that what preceded the demise of slavery in the North? We know that one of the advantages the North had over the South was their industrial and manufacturing base - thus the need for a skilled labor force, along with mechanized means of production - had diminished the practical need for slaves - why would we assume that would not have happened, albeit slower, in the South?

I think that, at least with some, the answer lies in their not so subtle belief that Northerners were morally superior to Southerners.

Msimons said...

Mr Williams I believe the advances by Deere and McCormick and Case would have made Slavery economically unfeasible by the 1920's at the latest.

Plus everyone know kept his wife slaves around because Good Help is so hard to find.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Slavery, beyond the immorality of the institution, was an economically inefficient institution. Forced labor is NEVER efficient, especially for the long term. Economics 101 - when you remove and/or separate the economic benefits of labor from the laborer, you automatically create an environment of low production and inefficiency. Booker T. Washington explained this fundamental principle quite well:

"The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape.
The slave system on our place, in large measure, took the spirit of
self-reliance and self help out of the white people. My old master had
many boys and girls, but not one, so far as I know, ever mastered a single trade or special line of productive industry."

Anonymous said...

It's well-known that NJ was a big slave state, and that they had slaves up through the CW. http://www.slavenorth.com/newjersey.htm

There was an official end and an actual end to slavery in each state. NJ's ended in 1865. Of course we know the oppression of blacks in both regions of the country continued long after the CW.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Correct. Harper's done some excellent work on the subject.

Vince said...

"Why would we assume that would not have happened, albeit slower, in the South?"

Because history is about evidence, not assumptions.

That assumption sounds plausible, but it's also plausible that industrialization incorporated slavery even with its inefficiencies (as an inefficient system can be very hard to change if some people profit from it). I asked the question about industrialization and slavery basically out of ignorance. What does the evidence say?

Certainly Richmond experienced industrialization during the 1850s. Without doing research on that or a similar topic, I don't see how anyone can have such a strong opinion on the topic.

Vince said...

"So you don't equate "apprentices for life" with involuntary servitude?"

Without any further information, yes--although another internet resource mentioned "apprentices for life" on the 1900 New Jersey census--so something seems funny about it. It doesn't change the interpretation (we already know much of the North had a very ugly time of race relations), but it would be nice to know the 18 names anyway. Were they forced agricultural laborers? Were they forced domestic workers? Were they perhaps unable to support themselves and called "apprentices for life" as some sort of care arrangement?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Because history is about evidence, not assumptions."

Precisely, so why do you assume it would have continued? The evidence strongly indicates that as the South's economy became more industrialized, slavery would have suffered the same fate as it did in the North - slower in the deep South for sure.

"an inefficient system can be very hard to change if some people profit from it"

The slave trade was extremely profitable for the North. It built New York City, yet they were able to abolish it over time. So, again, the evidence stands in favor of my "strong opinion on the topic."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Some additional thoughts. Slavery was much more a part of the Southern economy (obviously) than it was in the North by 1860. Comparing 1850 Richmond and the North would not lead one to a reasonable conclusion as to how Southern slavery would have come to an end due to industrialization. Due to the pervasiveness of Southern slavery, along with the slower pace of the South's industrialization, it obviously would have taken longer, but, again, I think its absurd to believe it would have lasted more than a few decades knowing what happened in the North as well as other Western nations.

Vince said...

"isn't that (the industrial revolution) what preceded the demise of slavery in the North?"

I guess it depends on how you define the industrial revolution, but I believe slavery had decreased to an economically insignificant role before the factory system's advent (say the 1810s).

I think slavery's demise was more due to the fact that an economic--and cultural--system built on family farms had already been put in place that was incompatible with a slave system. I'm thinking mainly of south-central Pennsylvania, with whose history I'm most familiar, and can't envision those farms being "retrofitted" for a slave system.

An interesting comparison, then, would be farms of the Shenandoah Valley from 1800-1860, since there were ethnic/economic similarities to south-central Pennsylvania. Did the average farm have slaves? Was the average farm bigger or smaller? Did the role of slaves on those farms increase or decrease 1800-1860?

Vince said...

"Precisely, so why do you assume it would have continued?"

I don't assume...I claimed ignorance to the question's answer in my post. I'm only asking research questions.

I'm not asking to compare 1850 Richmond with the North. I'm asking to compare 1850 Richmond with 1860 Richmond.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"An interesting comparison, then, would be farms of the Shenandoah Valley from 1800-1860, since there were ethnic/economic similarities to south-central Pennsylvania."

Good point and I agree. I've been careful to make the distinction between the lower and upper South. Of course, the eastern part of the state (Tidewater) was much differen - large plantations, tobacco, cotton, etc.

Richmond - as I attempted to point out, slavery was much more entrenched in the South for a variety of reasons - culture, climate, economic, immigration differences, etc. - all these factors played a role and caused slavery to "hang on" longer in the South than it did in the North. Even comparing 1850 Richmond to 1860 Richmond has to take these differences into account - in my opinion.

No one can predict with any absolute certainty how long slavery would have continued in the South had things been different. I simply look at how/why it died in the North, look at what happened and why in other Western nations and come to what I believe is a reasonable conclusion - it could not have lasted more than a few decades as some have suggested - there were just too many forces that were coming into play for that to have happened - economic, political, and cultural.

Michael Bradley said...

One Delaware slave had an interesting experience. He was emancipated by Capt. Raphael Semmes of the Alabama. The slave was David White.

Semmes captured the Tonawanda off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, finding White and his master aboard. Semmes offered to set White ashore, along with all the other prisoners from captured ships, but this would leave White a slave. Instead, White accepted an offer to join the crew of the Alabama.

White was a mess steward. When the fight with Kersarge was about to take place Semmes sent all non-combatants ashore. White volunteered to stay aboard and went down with the ship.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


'Were they perhaps unable to support themselves and called "apprentices for life" as some sort of care arrangement?"

As were similar situations in the Southern states.