Slavery in the Northern Colonies

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Slavery in the Northern Colonies


North and South. During the age of the Revolution enslaved African Americans seized opportunities to obtain freedom. However, these opportunities did not come mostly from the Patriot side. The British on two occasions proclaimed freedom to slaves who joined the Loyalist cause. The Revolution produced two distinct outcomes for African Americans. In the North the ideas of the Revolution and the economic irrelevance of slavery produced gradual emancipation. Free blacks gravitated toward the cities, to live mainly in impoverished circumstances. In the South the British challenge to slavery reinforced the determination of Patriot farmers and planters to defend their slave system. A mere twenty thousand out of some six hundred thousand slaves left the colonies along with the retreating British army.


The census of 1790 reflects the decline, but not disappearance, of slavery in the North and its persistence and growth in the South. The manumissions of the revolutionary years left many free blacks in the North and the Chesapeake region, but the majority of African Americans were still in slavery.

Slave and Free Blacks: Distribution, by States, 1790

StateFree Black PopulationSlave Population
Source: Jessie C. Smith and Currell P. Horton, eds., Historical Statistics of Black America (Detroit: Gale Research, 1995).
New Hampshire630157
Rhode Island3,484958
New York4,68221,193
New Jersey2,76211,423
North Carolina5,041100,783
South Carolina1,801107,094
United States59,557697,624

A Diverse Labor Force . Slaves and free blacks formed a vital part of the Northern workforce. By 1750 Great Britain had consolidated control of the slave trade, taking much of the transatlantic traffic away from the Spanish and Portugese. Large cargoes of slaves arrived in Northern ports for sale and distribution throughout the colonies. Prior to mid century, slaves were expensive and less than abundant in North American slave markets. Most imported slaves were the surplus from West Indian plantations. But with direct large-scale importations from Africa slaves could be employed in a variety of roles in the North. In the 1760s blacks made up more than three-quarters of Philadelphias servant population.

Slaves worked in distilleries, shipyards, manufactories, farms, lumber camps, and ropewalks. Slaves in the cities were often apprentices and helpers in artisan shops. Most lived singly or in groups of two or three in a home or workshop. New York had an unusually high proportion of skilled slaves who learned valuable trades working alongside artisan masters. They were masons, ship-wrights, goldsmiths, and glaziers, among others. Despite the wave of sentiment for emancipation that swept the North in the Revolutionary era, New York did not free all its slaves until 1827. New Jerseys gradual abolition law meant that there were still a handful of slaves in the state in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War.

Runaways . Small free-black communities provided a refuge for escaped slaves, but since slavery was the law in every colony, fugitives had to keep on the move. Even the largest of colonial cities were really only small towns, by todays standards, and strangers soon attracted attention. Owners of runaway slaves posted advertisements in colonial newspapers offering rewards for their capture. Some escapees were able to remain at large for long periods by signing on as sailors on trading and whaling vessels.

Decline . In the colonies north of Maryland slavery would eventually lose ground to free labor. The number of slaves in the North fell rapidly in the 1760s and 1770s. Philadelphia had about fourteen hundred slaves in 1767; in 1775 it was home to just seven hundred slaves. The city was a center of antislavery agitation: Quakers and revolutionary pamphleteers denounced slavery in pamphlets distributed to blacks and whites. The influence of antislavery groups contributed to an increase in manumissionsoutright grants of freedom to slaves by their owners. In addition the ideals of freedom associated with the Revolution and changes in the economy made slavery less viable in the North.


Ira Berlin, Time, Space and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America, American Historical Review, 85 (1980): 44-78;

Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans: Volume I, From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975);

Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800 (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1973);

Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphias Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988);

Jessie C. Smith and Carrell P. Horton, eds., Historical Statistics of Black America (Detroit: Gale Research, 1995).

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Slavery in the Northern Colonies

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