Author Q&A: James J. Gigantino II, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775–1865

15280James Gigantino is the author of The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775–1865. Contrary to popular perception, slavery persisted in the North well into the nineteenth century. This was especially the case in New Jersey, the last northern state to pass an abolition statute, in 1804. Because of the nature of the law, which freed children born to enslaved mothers only after they had served their mother's master for more than two decades, slavery continued in New Jersey through the Civil War. Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 finally destroyed its last vestiges. The Ragged Road to Abolition chronicles the experiences of slaves and free blacks, as well as abolitionists and slaveholders, during slavery's slow northern death.

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Penn Press: For what reasons (economic, geographic, etc.) did New Jersey attract such a large slave population?

James Gigantino: We have to remember that New Jersey had the second largest slave population in the North, behind New York, and it really was the breadbasket of the Atlantic World in the 18th century. Its wheat, corn, hogs, and a whole host of other items fed New York, Philadelphia, and were exported to the Caribbean as well. That economic need built a larger population of slaves, though the early settlement of many Barbadian immigrants in the late 17th century surely helped create the racial boundaries that New Jerseyans dealt with, both socially and legally, in the early eighteenth century.

How did historians that lived during this time period feel about New Jersey’s slave population?

There are not many we would truly call “historians” at this point, though there were plenty in the late 19th century who start writing about slavery’s end. Some hit it spot on, discussing the incredibly slow death of slavery and how slaves remained in different forms of bondage until the Civil War. But then others suffered from amnesia—they confuse the meaning and impact of the laws in the state and argue that New Jersey eliminated slavery very quickly. In my conclusion, I explore this idea more in-depth.

How difficult was it for those in New Jersey to legally enact abolition of slavery?

It very much was a struggle—you might say the journey to legal abolition was a ragged road! New Jersey was the last state to enact a gradual abolition law, in 1804, and it was a painfully slow process to convince legislators of the necessity of it. In the end, it was done for a political purpose and few believed that anything more needed to be done afterwards. Moreover, the gradual abolition law was constantly reinforced in the antebellum period, only eliminated in 1846 when a final abolition law passed that eliminated slavery but reclassified all slaves as “apprentices for life.” They were, in fact, slaves in all but name, thus we do not see the full elimination of all forms of slavery until 1865, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment—which New Jersey rejected due to partisan bickering between Democrats and Republicans in the state.

Were there many known accounts of slaves running away from New Jersey into another northern state that had already abolished slavery?

Well, you have to remember that few states in the North actually abolished slavery. Most (NY, RI, CT, and PA) enacted the same type of gradual abolition law that New Jersey used, so slavery still operated there. Recent research into the situations in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire has even called into question the end of slavery there. There are several instances where New Jersey slaves left New Jersey and headed to Ohio, New York, Maine, and several other states—one of my chapters, “Slavery in Motion,” shows how these slaves were caught in a complicated legal position and actively fought for their freedom in a number of instances.

How was it possible for abolitionists to hold racist attitudes yet still hope for slavery’s end?

Especially in the first abolition movement, many abolitionists were slaveholders themselves or held negative views of African Americans—it was quite common. Abolitionism was not fundamentally about equality. Instead, it was about ending slavery, so few abolitionists saw any hypocrisy in being racist or holding slaves and fighting for the gradual abolition of slavery.

I think especially when we think of the movement in the 1780s–1810s, we have to remember that most abolitionists were not interested in immediate abolition but instead in gradually ending the system under white supervision. The very idea of gradual abolition inherently assumed that African Americans could not live on their own—they needed to be “educated” about freedom through a prolonged period of servitude mediated by whites.

Did tension exist between those who wanted slavery to end gradually and those who wanted slavery to end immediately?

Very few before 1830 wanted to end slavery immediately, so there really was not that much tension. The New Jersey abolition society disbanded by 1810, thus from 1810 until the late 1830s the only remotely anti-slavery organization in the state was the American Colonization Society (ACS). Gradualists did join the ACS, though few left to join the immediate abolition societies formed in the 1830s and were more concerned with sending free blacks to Liberia than in debating the merits of abolition. Those immediate abolition societies did have a significant interest in eliminating slavery in New Jersey even though few white New Jerseyans saw it as a problem in the antebellum period.

Which historical figures in New Jersey wanted slavery to continue?

There were plenty of people in New Jersey who fiercely defended slavery until the very end. Even in 1846, when the final abolition law (that really did not end slavery at all) was debated in the legislature, representatives from the heaviest slaveholding counties in East Jersey fought to keep slavery intact. Even though by the 1840s slavery was a relatively minor institution in the state, the fact that it never actually died is important—the institution had staying power no matter how integral it was to the economy.

Were there any slave rebellions or times of noted unrest in New Jersey during this period?

Well, the most important and powerful of course would be the American Revolution, where thousands of slaves rebelled against their masters and ran off to British lines to claim their freedom. In New Jersey, which was really embroiled in the war from almost day one, the war destabilized the institution of slavery but instead of helping to end it, actually strengthened it. In the second chapter, I explore how and why state legislators rejected abolition in the war’s aftermath and why slavery actually expanded after the Revolution.

Were older slaves (from before 1804) disgruntled at the “slaves for a term” because their freedom was ensured?

When I started my research I figured that we would see a large break between these two different generations of slaves—I never really found it, though. Primarily, their lives really did not change that much. The slaves for a term were not treated any differently than other slaves until they reached their age of freedom (25 or 21 years depending on gender).

More importantly, you have to remember that slaves for a term were the children of slaves, so it would be as if the parents resented their children. Instead, parents tried everything to help their children sustain their freedom, as well as keep their families intact after that freedom. Since family members could live in so many different graduations of freedom at this point in time, it was very hard to sustain family structures. Some could be slaves, some slaves for a term to be freed at a future date, some term slaves that did not qualify for freedom under the abolition law but negotiated for it at a future date, or even fully free. That is what makes this period both so complicated but also so important to our understanding of what slavery means in the American experience.

What legislative problems occurred as New Jersey transitioned from a system of slavery to widespread freedom?

The biggest issue at stake was that many lawmakers, county clerks, and average citizens got confused about the different gradations of freedom. You see that come out a lot when former slaves or former slaves for a term fell into the care of the overseers of the poor—the law treated their care differently based on their former status. More interestingly for me, though, was that as the society shifted towards freedom, whites imposed historical definitions of unfreedom on free blacks and used the continuing system of slavery in the state as a way to sustain blacks' lack of civil rights.

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James J. Gigantino II teaches history at the University of Arkansas. The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775–1865 is available now.