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Slavery in New Jersey

Colonial Slavery

        Slavery was introduced into the colony of New Jersey in the 17th century. The colonial system of slavery was a labor system known as chattel slavery, in which the slave was the personal property of his or her owner for life. Men and women brought from Africa, either directly or by way of the Caribbean Islands, were enslaved under this system. Children born of slave women became the property of their motherís owner and slaves for life, perpetuating the system indefinitely. Colonial settlers were encouraged to bring servants and slaves with them through extra grants of land under the 1665 Concessions and Agreements of Sir John Carteret and John Lord Berkeley. By the end of the 17th century, slaves had become an important part of the labor force in the colonyís developing economy, and Perth Amboy had developed into a slave trade port. Special laws were enacted to control the actions of slaves, setting harsh punishments for infractions and crimes; special courts were established to enforce those laws. According to historian Clement A Price, "support for the institution was stronger in New Jersey than in any other northern colony."

Revolutionary Era

       In the 18th century, especially during the Revolutionary era, the contrast between the institution of slavery and the principles of human rights endorsed by New Jersey patriots and Quakers resulted in outspoken opposition to slavery and attempts to cause the colonial legislature to end the slave trade. Despite the service of slaves in patriot military forces and their work on the home front, the 1776 Constitution of the new state of New Jersey did not abolish slavery. Indeed, New Jersey and New York were the only northern states that did not move to limit slavery during the Revolutionary War.
 

        By 1800 there were an estimated 12,422 enslaved men and women in New Jersey, or 5.8 percent of the population. Some steps were taken by the legislature during the late 18th century to improve the condition of slaves, but it was not until 1804 that the New Jersey legislature passed the Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery. Under this act, children born to an enslaved woman after July 4, 1804 were free. However, the law provided that female children were obligated to serve their motherís owner until the age of 21, and male children were obligated until the age of 25. If an owner did not wish to enforce this obligation, he or she could abandon the infant to the local overseers of the poor when it was one year old and be relieved of its care. People who were born into slavery before July 4, 1804 were slaves for life unless their owners chose to manumit them, that is, to give them their freedom. Even as late as the Civil War there were still a few very elderly slaves in New Jersey.

 

Enslaved Women

       
It is important to remember that some slaves and slave owners were women . The documents included here illustrate some of the experiences and conditions of enslaved and free African American women in New Jersey in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. From the very earliest colonial days enslaved women served a dual purpose for their owners. Not only did they labor in households and farms as farmhands, gardeners, cooks, laundresses, nursemaids, nannies, seamstresses, and scrubwomen; they also gave birth to future generations of slaves, expanding their ownerís wealth, and were responsible for the care of their own families. Historical evidence about the lives of these women in New Jersey is rare, making it necessary to imaginatively interpret the meanings of the evidence that remains.

        Note: For more information on slavery in early New Jersey see: Clement A Price. Freedom Not Far Distant: A Documentary History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey. Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1980. For biographical information on enslaved women, emancipated slave women, and free black women see: Joan N. Burstyn, ed. Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

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