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This article explores how white and black New Jerseyans understood slavery and abolition in their state in the 1830s and 1840s. It examines how the emergence of an active abolition society, fervor over the presence of fugitive slaves, and the increasingly degraded relationship between the North and the South over slavery spurred a localized debate in New Jersey over slavery’s continuation. However, even with active abolitionist pressure and a population that increasingly eyed slavery and the South with suspicion, abolitionists never convinced the general population to support immediate black freedom. When New Jersey legislators finally abolished slavery in 1846, they did so grudgingly and under yet another graduated system. Instead of freeing all bound blacks, the legislature abolished the legal term “slave” and reclassified all former slaves as “apprentices for life.”
New Jerseyans therefore displayed a remarkable ability to resist immediate abolition, which illustrates that slavery survived far longer and more powerfully in the North than previously imagined. More importantly, New Jerseyans did not disown their past relationships with slavery, but instead used them to inform their dealings with the institution in the 1840s and their relationship with the South in an increasingly divided nation. These past relationships then had a tangible impact on the sectional crisis as New Jersey and southern politicians shared an understanding of slavery and an astute knowledge of the various forms of unfreedom associated with it.