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THE PROTECTION OF BLACK RIGHTS IN SEWARD'S NEW YORK Paul Finkelman1 The role of free blacks in the antebellum North was ambiguous. Most scholars describe the North as a place where blacks were unwanted and unaccepted. Leon Litwack, for example, has argued that "Most northerners . . . favored voluntary colonization, forced expulsion, or legal and social proscription" of blacks. He described blacks in New York as having "quasi-freedom." This analysis, which has been endorsed by numerous other scholars, overstates the discrimination Northern blacks faced, while at the same time ignoring countervailing forces and trends.2 The policies of New York Stateduring the governorship of William H. Seward (1839-43) illustrate an alternative to our understanding of the rights of free blacks in the antebellum North. Working within the confines of the realpolitik of antebellum New York, Seward advanced the cause of civil rights in his state. By the end of his administration blacks in New York had statutory rights, and equally important, statutory protections , that they had in few other places. In addition, as chief executive of the state, Seward used his position to protect free blacks, fugitive slaves, and white abolitionists from kidnappers, slave catchers, and the force of Southern law enforcement. During the election of 1838 abolitionists in New York questioned candidates on three issues. The abolitionists wanted to know if the candidates supported 1) the right of blacks to a jury trial when seized as fugitive slaves; 2) a law freeing slaves-in-transit the moment they were 1 Research for this article was made possible through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York State Archives, the New York African-American Institute, and the SUNY-Binghamton Research Foundation. Portions of this essay were presented at "The South and the American Constitutional Tradition," sponsored by the University of Florida and Vanderbilt Law School and at the Second Krefeld Conference on Germany and the United States, in Krefeld, West Germany. 2 Leon Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), 64, 66. For a rejection of the prevailing view, see Paul Finkelman, "Prelude to the FourteenthAmendment: Black Legal Rights in theAntebellum North," 14 Rutgers Law Journal 415-482 (Winter, 1986-87). Civil War History, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, © 1988 by The Kent State University Press 212CIVIL WAR HISTORY brought into the state by their masters; and 3) equal suffrage for blacks. The Democratic incumbent William Marcy and his running mate gave unsatisfactory answers. As a Northern doughface, Marcy's response was to be expected. Luther Bradish, the Whig candidate for lieutenant governor , completely endorsed the antislavery goals. Seward, the shrewd politician, gave mixed answers. He endorsed jury trials for all persons, provided that they did not violate the United States Constitution. He said he opposed repealing the law which allowed masters-in-transit to keep their slaves in New York for up to nine months. Similarly, he declared his opposition to unrestricted black suffrage.3 These responses indicate that Seward, while campaigning in 1838, fit the model of a Northerner who cared little for the rights of blacks. The answers also led the antislavery movement in New York to endorse Bradish, but to urge their members not to vote for Seward. Once elected Seward altered his positions. In 1840 he signed a law guaranteeing a jury trial for all alleged fugitive slaves. In 1841 he signed a repeal of the nine-months law, which meant that slaves-in-transit brought into the state became instantly free. Since a change in the suffrage rules would have required a constitutional amendment, Seward lacked the power to push for that abolitionist goal. He did, however, sign two other bills which affected the status of blacks in the Empire State. An 1840 law empowered the governor "to appoint and employ" agents to negotiate the rescue of free blacks kidnapped and sold as slaves. In the late antebellum period New York governors would expend state funds under this law to help free blacks escape from illegal bondage and return to their home state. Finally, a law of 1841 guaranteed public education for all children, regardless of their race. While leaving...