Title Reviewed:
A History of Negro Slavery in New York

Author Reviewed:
Edgar J. McManus

John A. Dittmer


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 62, Issue 4, pp 361-362

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A History of Negro Slavery in New York. By Edgar J. McManus. (Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1966. Pp. xi, 219. Notes, appendix, bibliographical note, index. $5.95.)

Until recently most historians confined their accounts of the Negro and slavery to the southern colonies and states, leaving the impression that slavery in the North was an insignificant, relatively mild institution. Scholars are now taking a closer look at involuntary servitude in the North and are finding that it possessed many of the harsh, repressive characteristics heretofore regarded as peculiarly southern. In this work McManus places special emphasis on the urban slave, tracing the development of slavery from its introduction in early New Netherland to its final abolition by the New York state legislature in 1841. Under Dutch rule slavery had been essentially a private institution, with slaves permitted considerable personal freedom. But when the English obtained the colony, they imposed rigid slave controls, creating a separate legal code and judicial system for slaves.

The author emphasizes the diversity of slave labor in colonial New York, where a shortage of free labor quickly created a demand for slave artisans. These talented, ambitious Negroes played a significant role in the struggle for emancipation, with many bondsmen eventually negotiating their own freedom. Paradoxically, the nature of the work performed by slave craftsmen placed them in direct competition with white workers, a condition leading to bitterness, hostility, and periodic violence on a scale unmatched in other colonies.

Of particular interest is the account of the New York City slave conspiracies of 1712 and 1741, the latter paralleling in many respects the infamous Salem witch trials. The outrageous accusations of Mary Burton, an indentured servant, threw the city's inhabitants into panic; and before the hysteria subsided fourteen slaves had been burned at the stake, eighteen hanged, and seventy-two deported from the province. In the author's opinion these conspiracy trials were "judicial murders" (p. 138).

In discussing the movement to abolish slavery in New York, McManus contends that although some of those leading the fight against slavery were motivated by idealistic considerations, the institution was outlawed only after it had ceased to be profitable. It was not until 1799 that the state legislature passed a law providing for gradual emancipation, and slavery continued to exist in the state for nearly a half century thereafter. Unfortunately emancipation did not bring equality; for while many New Yorkers opposed slavery, few were willing to grant the freed Negro political freedom or equal economic opportunity.

McManus has done little to fit slavery in New York into the context of northern slavery as a whole. When he does employ analogy or comparison, it is usually to show that a particularly harsh slave practice in New York compared favorably with similar practices in the South (p. 93). More meaningful—though less flattering—would be comparison with the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, where the lot of the slave was generally better. Too, the student of American history would be interested in learning more about the antislavery activities of such nationally prominent New Yorkers as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Aaron Burr. The author mentions these figures but does not dwell on their contributions in detail.

Although McManus adequately explores the concept of slavery, he has little to say about slaves as individuals. Aware of this shortcoming, the author states in his preface that such information is simply not available (p. x). While the slaves themselves may not have left personal records, enough is known about certain prominent New York slaves to merit their inclusion. Consideration of the activities of these individuals would not only add to the reader's interest, it would also help document the author's assertion that Negroes in New York generally were more intelligent, ambitious, and independent than their southern counterparts.

Indiana University John A. Dittmer

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.