- Trading in Jersey Souls: New Jersey and the Interstate Slave Trade
Jacob Van Wickle sat in his Middlesex County home in the spring of 1818 with money on his mind.1 He realized slaves in New Jersey sold at far below the prices Mississippi and Louisiana plantation owners paid for similar chattel from the Upper South. With this knowledge, Van Wickle sought to sell dozens of “cheap” New Jersey born slaves to the New Orleans market. As the ringleader of the largest slave trading organization in the Garden State, he helped undermine the promise of abolition which had begun in New Jersey in 1804.2
In February 1804, New Jersey became the last Northern state to begin the process of dismantling its slave system when it passed an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The law declared children born to slave mothers after July 4, 1804 “shall be free, but shall remain the servant of the owner of his or her mother . . . and shall continue in such service, if a male, until the age of twenty-five years, and if a female until the age of twenty-one years.” The abolition law essentially declared a freedom of the womb as it freed all children born to slaves but required them to serve their mother’s master until they reached the statutory age.3 [End Page 281]
The service requirement for these Jersey children, like those in Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut who had earlier enacted gradual abolition programs attempted to reduce any monetary loss slaveholders might suffer from gradual abolition. In that way, it respected the property rights of the slaveholder and shifted the burden of emancipation to the slave and the slaves’ freeborn children. Masters desperate to continue to reap the benefits of bound labor treated these children the same as their parents, as slaves. The treatment these freeborn children experienced (hard work, whippings, separation from family by sale or inheritance) made them indistinguishable from those who remained in legal bondage. In this sense, these freeborn children became slaves for a term.4
Men like Jacob Van Wickle realized the economic potential these slaves for a term and their enslaved parents represented and sought to reap an immediate profit from their sale to the Deep South. Indeed, this trade represented the largest loophole imbedded in Northern gradual abolition programs, for while it helped destroy the institution of slavery in the Garden State by reducing the total number of slaves, it allowed the removal of slaves for a term from the grasp of the law created to eventually free them. Sale to the South then illustrated that most slaveholders never wavered in their support of slavery and resisted any attempt to alter the world of unfreedom they had helped create in the Garden State.
That New Jersey law allowed the transport of slaves out of state forces us to rethink the identity of gradual abolition in the North. As opposed to the relatively quick elimination of legal slavery in the South after the Civil War, slavery in the North, as historian Shane White has argued for New York, “died hard.”5 Indeed, as the last Northern state to pass a gradual abolition law, New Jersey’s white citizens exhibited an overall apathy for abolition that often gets lost in the debates over the end of Northern slavery. Sales to the South show not only that slaveholders attempted to limit the impact the gradual abolition law had on their slaves but that slave traders harnessed and exploited the public’s apathy for abolition which even further delayed the destruction of slavery. Instead of a triumph of Revolutionary ideology, the Early Republic gave an inhospitable welcome to the large numbers of slaves whose masters continued to exploit them; sale out of state made a mockery of any idea of freedom the Revolution created.6
In the years after the Revolution, the New Jersey legislature concerned itself with not only the prohibition of the Atlantic slave trade but with the regulation of the internal trade in human chattel. In 1788, the state [End Page 282] legislature introduced a requirement which mandated a slave had to...