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  • The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865 by James J. Gigantino
  • Jonathan Mercantini (bio)

New Jersey, Slavery, Emancipation, Abolition, Labor

The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. By James J. Gigantino, II. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. 359. Cloth, $39.95.)

The history of slavery in New Jersey has always defied easy explanation. The peculiar institution in the Garden State possessed similarities to slavery in the Upper South and the Border States, as well as New England. Even the geography of slavery was reversed. The northern and northwestern parts of the state, particularly Bergen, Morris, Essex, and Hunterdon Counties that were tied to New York City, possessed considerable numbers of slaves. Conversely, slavery was of declining importance even before the American Revolution in the heavily Quaker southern counties where abolitionism was embraced early. New Jersey’s legacy as the only state that did not secede and yet which failed to vote for Abraham Lincoln in either the 1860 or 1864 presidential election has long been used as a shorthand to show the strength of slavery or at least of southern sympathy in the state after most of the industrializing north had abandoned this form of unfree labor.

James J. Gigantino II’s new book on the subject is, therefore, a welcome addition that greatly improves our understanding of slavery in New Jersey. Gigantino’s findings are also useful for understanding the contradictions and complexities of abolition in neighboring states. Abolition and then emancipation were both gradual processes in New Jersey and were shaped by persistent white animosity toward blacks. Many slave owners actively subverted gradual abolition by selling slaves out of state or by creating new categories of unfree labor. Overall, the author finds a strong commitment to slavery and to various forms of pseudo-slavery throughout the state from the Revolutionary era through the election of Lincoln. [End Page 195]

Several notable national trends are apparent in New Jersey. Gigantino finds that, rather than leading to calls for black liberty and freedom, the disruption and destruction of the War for Independence in New Jersey served to strengthen the institution of slavery as whites feared a black revolt. The state’s central location—the ‘‘Crossroads of the American Revolution’’—therefore contributed to New Jersey’s status as the last northern state to pass an act for gradual emancipation. This legacy of the American Revolution remained important throughout the long and winding path toward emancipation, but for Gigantino that legacy was mixed. He argues that, ‘‘Slavery’s destruction in New Jersey then did not occur as an immediate by-product of the American Revolution, but of the Civil War’’ (250). Slavery continued to grow at a rate of approximately 20 percent from 1790 to 1800 in the northern counties of the state. While the Revolution did eventually lead to gradual emancipation, the African American freedom struggle required much more than the words and actions of the Revolutionary era.

Moreover, as Gigantino shows, gradual emancipation did little to end slavery; it simply modified the institution into other forms of unfree labor. While the state’s 1804 gradual emancipation act did offer avenues to freedom for Jersey slaves and especially their children, mostly it created ‘‘slaves for a term.’’ The ambiguities of the law together with the grudging acceptance by some whites, and the resistance to the emancipation by many, led to the persistence of slavery well into the nineteenth century. During the first decades of the new nation, one can see slavery evolving into a flexible system, with regional and even local variations in New Jersey and other states as they struggled to construct a system to manage African American labor. It is important, Gigantino tells us, to understand that abolitionism, in both its gradual and its eventual immediate forms, was consistently contested as whites feared black liberty, economic competition, and potential political power, and relied on white supremacy to locate themselves in a changing America. These trends will be readily recognizable to scholars of slavery elsewhere in the United States. In New Jersey, they serve to reinforce the extent to which the state was...


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pp. 195-197
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