- The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775–1865 by James J. Gigantino II
james j. gigantino ii
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
The old periodization of slavery and abolition in the North is breaking down. So too, if historian James J. Gigantino II has his way, is the old historical geography of slavery. Scholars used to consign slavery’s end north of the Mason-Dixon Line to the Revolutionary era and only pick up the story of antislavery activism years later, in the three decades preceding the Civil War. Gigantino’s extensively researched study adds compelling evidence to the notion that neither African American experience nor the mechanics of abolition fell into neatly divided eras. Too much painful history and too many complicated developments occurred between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War to sustain established chronologies. Gigantino’s claim that his careful study of New [End Page 477] Jersey requires scholars to scramble their mental map of American slavery stands on shakier ground. The “ragged road to abolition” in the Garden State shares key features with similarly ragged roads in other northern states and has much to teach about the cruelly conditional nature of black freedom in the new nation. But this state study also highlights the ways in which New Jersey was an outlier in important respects.
The timing and tempo of abolition in New Jersey magnified all the shortcomings of emancipation in the North in general and the slave-dependent portions of the mid-Atlantic in particular. New Jersey initiated gradual abolition in 1804, later than all other states that traveled down this particular legal path. Rather than try to catch up to other states, lawmakers in New Jersey committed to the slowest possible form of gradualism. The law declared children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1804, to be free, but with females obligated to serve their mothers’ master until age twenty-one, males until age twenty-five. Since children born to females bound under this arrangement would remain in their masters’ control until at least age twenty-one, this stipulation significantly extended the life of the institution. Indeed, one of Gigantino’s main arguments is that this approach did not end slavery, but rather created a new form of slavery. Whites still bought, sold, and inherited term-bound people held in servitude. Unscrupulous whites exploited and dodged the law to their further advantage, for example by ignoring the requirement to register the birth of black children. Without recorded births, the date of actual freedom for individuals remained in doubt. Gradualism also facilitated the sale of African Americans into southern slavery, even though such sales violated New Jersey law. Rather than schedule an end date for slavery as neighboring New York did in an 1817 law, New Jersey reaffirmed gradualism in 1820. Only in 1836 did New Jersey courts cease to regard blacks prima facie as slaves. The 1846 law that finally abolished slavery came with features that sustained time-bound servitude under the guise of apprenticeship for years to come.
This legal framework had severe consequences for African Americans. Community and institution building, processes that historians of slavery in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England have detailed as part and parcel of the gradual emancipation process, occurred much less robustly in New Jersey. The varying legal status of family members made independent family formation much more difficult. What Gigantino terms slavery’s “flexibility” in the state—masters extracting not only agricultural labor [End Page 478] but also work in factories and roads, hiring out and transferring titles— exacted a heavy price. And yet despite the author’s insistence that gradual abolition did not usher in a new era, he notes that masters and slaves engaged in negotiations to limit their terms and to arrange self-purchase. Resistance took on new meaning. News of jailbreaking, poisoning, and slaves attacking masters unnerved whites. The author asserts, “No longer could masters exert the same type of control over their chattel that they had used before gradual...