Magazine November 11, 2019, Issue

The New York Manumission Society

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Inspired by America’s exceptional idea, it took a vital step toward securing liberty for slaves

New York was a middling state where slavery was concerned. It did not support the plantations of Virginia and the Deep South, but it was bound to slavery both as a business partner and as a practitioner. Colonial New Yorkers made rum out of Caribbean sugar. Small farmers and artisans before and after the American Revolution employed slave laborers. The wealthy were attended by enslaved servants. An English visitor to Robert Livingston’s Hudson River estate, eager to meet a transatlantic man of enlightened views, was surprised to find himself being served at meals by barefoot black boys wearing fine embroidered coats. The first post-independence census would count 21,193 slaves in New York, out of a total population of 314,366 (there were 4,682 free blacks). Local newspapers statewide were dotted with ads offering to buy or sell slaves and with inquiries after runaway property. For example, from the Albany Centinel: “Twenty Dollars Reward [for] a Negro Woman, named BETT, with her two children: She stole away and carried away a large Cheese, a number of silver Tea spoons, and several other articles. . . . Also, RAN AWAY, About two months since, a Negro Man, named BILL, or WILL [who] induced the abovementioned Negro Woman, (whom he calls his wife), to go off with him, so that it is probable they will be found together.” More slaves lived in New York City than in any other American city except Charleston. 

On January 25, 1785, nineteen New Yorkers met in the house of John Simmons, innkeeper. The American Revolution had been particularly harsh on New York, which the British had conquered in the grim fall of 1776. Washington’s prudent generalship, and the help of Britain’s longtime enemy France, had won victory by 1781. Yet the enemy had not evacuated the city until the end of 1783. A third of it had burned; all its trees had been cut for firewood. Commerce had only just revived. 

The men gathering at Simmons’s house looked to a civic and moral revival. Most of those present were Quakers, many of them interrelated. Robert and Thomas Bowne were descended from an old Quaker family in Flushing. John Murray Sr. and Jr. gave their name to a hill north of the city. Elijah Cock, Effingham and Lawrence Embree, Samuel Franklin, John and William Keese, Edward and Joseph Lawrence, Willet Seaman, and William Shotwell were additional Friends, as Quakers were known. Others in attendance were veterans — James Cogswell, William Goforth, Melancton Smith, and Robert Troup. The meeting was called to order by Troup, a 28-year-old lawyer who had been both a British prisoner of war and a general’s aide at one of America’s great victories, Saratoga. Troup was an amiable young man whom everybody liked; one friend would call him “a better antidote to the spleen than a ton of drugs.” This January meeting had the serious purpose of forming a “Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting such of them as have been or may be Liberated.”

In the chaos of the American Revolution, many slaves in and around New York had freed themselves simply by disappearing. Slave catchers, known as man-stealers or blackbirders, hunted for runaways and scooped up free blacks if authentic runaways were not to be found. In November 1784, city authorities had foiled an attempt to spirit away a group of free blacks on a ship bound for either Charleston or the Bay of Honduras.

This was the immediate stimulus for the New Yorkers to meet, but they had larger ends in view. A committee of five — Embree, Franklin, Murray Sr., Smith, and Troup — was appointed to draw up the society’s regulations and bylaws for approval at the next meeting, February 4. This time the society met at the Merchant’s Coffee House, the city’s largest. This was a larger meeting, attended by George Clinton, James Duane, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton.

These were ornaments of the New York elite. George Clinton, an upstate landowner and speculator, was the state’s first post-independence governor, now serving his third term (he would serve four more, earning the nickname “Old Incumbent”). James Duane, who had married into the Livingston clan, was New York City’s first post-occupation mayor. John Jay, another Livingston in-law, had been a Revolutionary spymaster, diplomat, and politician who had helped write the state’s constitution. Alexander Hamilton was the newcomer to this group: He was the same age as Robert Troup and had roomed with him at King’s College, later Columbia, before the American Revolution. Like Troup, he had served in the war, though in a loftier position: George Washington had tapped him to be a colonel on his staff. 

The list of attendees reflected a unique political moment. New York’s political vanguard (loyalists having been driven into exile or hiding) had led a successful revolution. In the years to come, they would split into hostile parties: Jay and Hamilton on one side, contending with Clinton and Melancton Smith (Jay and Clinton would run against each other for governor twice, each of them winning once). But now a united elite joined with Quakers — always outsiders, pursuing their own goals — in a common cause. 

The society’s bylaws began with a preamble, probably written by Troup, stating its goals and its inspiration. It included two sentences on the immediate crisis, the depredation of slave catchers: “The violent attempts lately made to seize and export for sale, several free Negroes, who were peaceably following their respective occupations, in this city must excite the indignation of every friend to humanity, and ought to receive exemplary punishment. . . . Destitute of friends and of knowledge, struggling with poverty, and accustomed to submission, [free blacks] are under great disadvantages in asserting their rights.” 

The first efforts of the society, then, would be directed to preventing black New Yorkers from being enslaved elsewhere. Man-stealing, a southbound underground railroad, was a monstrous practice, well worth stopping. Campaigning to stop it also conveniently focused attention on evil masters somewhere else (the luckless free negroes were seized for export). This smacked of an always popular form of charity: charity at a distance. The owners of Bett and Bill, advertising in the Albany Centinel, need not be concerned.

The opening of the preamble, however, was both more comprehensive and more specific: It addressed an all-American problem, focusing particularly on New Yorkers. The language echoed and amplified that of the Declaration of Independence: “The benevolent Creator and Father of men, having given to them all an equal right to life, liberty, and property, no Sovereign power on earth can justly deprive them of either; but in conformity to impartial government and laws to which they have expressly or tacitly consented.”

Like Thomas Jefferson, the society invoked the Creator. But its Creator was more personal — not nature’s God but a benevolent Father. Its villain was not George III but any unjust sovereign power. That would include unjust power that had been elected; that might include America.

The society shared Jefferson’s emphasis on consent. Punishment could be justly administered only by governments to which men had “expressly or tacitly” given theirs. (“Tacitly” was added to include persons — women and children — who did not vote.)

The preamble went on: “It is our duty, therefore, both as free Citizens and Christians, not only to regard with compassion, the injustice done to those among us who are held as slaves; but to endeavour, by lawful ways and means, to enable them to share equally with us, in that civil and religious Liberty, with which an indulgent providence has blessed these States, and to which these our brethren are, by nature, as much entitled as ourselves.” 

This sentence is not as elegant or as dense as Jefferson at his best, but there is a lot packed in it. It is a political and religious duty (“as free citizens and Christians”) not just “to regard” but “to endeavour.” To act, not just to sympathize. “By lawful ways and means” could be a counsel of conservatism: working within the laws as they now exist. But it could also be a counsel of activism: changing the laws to better suit our goal, which is enabling slaves “to share equally with us” in liberty. Why do we have such a goal? Because “our brethren” are “as much entitled [to it] as ourselves.” All men are created equal. 

Christianity suffuses the entire preamble. As God is a father, so men are brethren. America is free because “an indulgent providence” has “blessed” it. To be sure, Americans had won their liberty by fighting for it; the veterans at the Merchant’s Coffee House had fought, personally. But their efforts had been secured by providence. The preamble, meanwhile, does not neglect enlightened philosophy: Slaves are entitled to liberty “by nature.”

The preamble’s echoing of words in the Declaration of Independence — equal, consented, life, liberty — are not borrowings from it but terms taken from the same source used by Jefferson: the common stock of American political ideas. Troup was not writing out of his head; he and Jefferson both were writing out of America’s head.

Still, there are important differences between the society’s preamble and the Declaration. Slavery, an embarrassment so glaring that it had to be brushed aside in 1776, takes center stage in 1785 alongside the benevolent Father — no longer an adjunct of nature but a person and a personality — Who wishes that it be done away.

After the preamble, the bylaws set the dues — eight shillings, or a dollar, to join, four shillings every quarter to stay a member — and called for elected officers. At the next meeting John Jay was elected president.

Jay, a descendant of wealthy merchants, was a hard-headed man. One of his wartime assignments had been to run the state’s Committee for Detecting Conspiracies; revolutionary-era New York was a dark ground of conflicting loyalties. “Punishments,” Jay wrote, “must of course become certain, and Mercy dormant, a harsh System repugnant to my Feelings, but nevertheless necessary.” As a diplomat, he had remarked that treaties were valid only so far as they reflected the interests of the parties; otherwise, they “had never signified anything since the world began.”

Jay’s best portraits, however, show a face marked by acquaintance with grief. He was the grandson of a Huguenot refugee; two of his siblings had been blinded by smallpox, and two others suffered from mental problems.

He was sincerely committed to the gradual abolition of slavery. He wanted language approving such a goal included in the constitution he had helped write for New York State in 1777: “The rights of human nature and the principles of our holy religion loudly call upon us to dispense the blessings of freedom to all mankind.” The proposed language was voted down. In a letter written three years later, he stated that until America adopted such a measure, “her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious. This is a strong expression,” he added, “but it is just.” 

Yet Jay himself owned five slaves. He bought them, he said, in order to free them, once they had worked off their purchase price, thrift tracking charity; he calculated that Benoit, a slave he bought in 1779, would earn his freedom by 1787. Jay was not the only slave-owning member of the society: Troup owned two. 

Troup tried to resolve the anomaly via that favorite recourse of small-group politicians, a committee. At the society’s February 1785 meeting, he was assigned to a committee of three members, along with Hamilton and White Matlack, a silversmith who had been expelled from the Quakers for his too-zealous support of the American Revolution. The committee’s mandate was “to Report a Line of conduct to be recommended to the Members of the Society in relation to any Slaves possessed by them.”

At the society’s November 1785 meeting, the Troup committee presented four resolutions. “All slaves” age 28 or younger “who shall be owned by any of the members of this Society” should be freed when they turned 35; all slaves older than 28 and younger than 38 should be freed “within seven years of the present time”; all other slaves should be freed when they turned 45, those who were now that age or older to be freed “immediately”; and finally, members should not sell any slaves except on the condition that their purchasers agree to adopt this schedule of manumission.

These recommendations struck the rest of the society as too bold, and they were killed by that other favorite recourse of small-group politicians, another committee. Troup’s report was assigned to a second committee for reconsideration; that committee dragged its heels until November 1787, when it was dissolved at its own request. The manumission of the Manumission Society’s slaves would be left, at least in the short run, to the initiative of members.

One thing the society did do, as early as May 1786, was begin planning for a school in the city to educate the children of “poor Africans.” In its very first meeting, the society had noted that free blacks fell easier prey to man-stealers because they were “destitute . . . of knowledge.” Education would make them better able to defend their rights.

The African Free School was opened for boys in 1787; girls were admitted five years later. All were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic; girls were taught needlework, boys astronomy needed for navigation. Both sexes were enjoined to avoid “immorality,” “idleness,” and “fiddling, dancing or any noisy entertainments in their houses.” In 1797 an evening school was added for adults. By the time it was folded into the public school system in the 1830s, the African Free School had seven branches scattered across the city.

Protecting free blacks was important (the society also compiled a list of them, against which the victims of man-stealing could be checked). But liberating slaves required political action. The society successfully petitioned the state legislature to achieve small but crucial reforms: forbidding new slaves to be brought into the state or current slaves taken out of it; freeing the slaves of exiled loyalists that the state government had confiscated as punishment. Finally, in 1799, Governor John Jay, serving his second term, signed an act for the gradual abolition of slavery. Slave children born after July 4 that year were to be freed after 28 years (for males) or 25 years (for females). Eighteen years later a new law mandated that all slavery in the state would end by July 4, 1827. 

New York’s slowness in ridding itself of slavery has cast the New-York Manumission Society into retrospective disrepute. Scholars sniff at its gradualism. Every other northern state except New Jersey had begun the process of abolition, or completed it, before the Manumission Society was even founded. Massachusetts ended slavery at a stroke by a decision of its state supreme court in 1783; Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation law in 1780, New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784; Vermont never had any slaves to begin with. The society’s willingness to dispense lifestyle advice to its charges in the African Free School — no fiddling or dancing at home — seems paternalistic and, given the later direction of American popular culture, just plain dumb (without fiddling and dancing, by blacks and whites, what popular culture would we have?). The quasi-aristocratic status of leaders like Jay, and the aristocratic aspirations of arrivistes like Hamilton, give the society a veneer of elitism (the many Quaker outsiders in its ranks are, for the purposes of this indictment, forgotten). 

No such reservations occurred to William Hamilton, a black carpenter, orator, and journalist, when slavery finally ended in New York in 1827. He marked the occasion with a speech at the African Zion Church, which he had helped found, on the Fourth of July: “This day has the state of New York regenerated herself — this day has she been cleansed of a most foul, poisonous, and damnable stain.”

How, in Hamilton’s opinion, had this happened? “The cause of emancipation,” he said, “has ever had its votaries, but they stood single and alone. After the Revolution, they drew nearer together.” Common hopes bred fellowship, and fellowship bred action. Hamilton mentioned New York’s Quakers as an organized body of slavery opponents. “That venerable body of religionists, called Friends, ought ever to be held in grateful remembrance by us.”

But there was a still greater body. “The most powerful lever, or propelling cause was the Manumission Society.”

Hamilton paused to savor an almost ecstatic thought. “How sweet it is to speak of good men! [It] yields a pleasure such as the young feel when talking of their lovers, or the parent feels, when telling of the prattle of their infants.” So much for paternalism, if the patriarchs are compared to young lovers and beloved infants.

Hamilton then proceeded to speak of men “who ought to be deeply inscribed on your memories, and in your hearts: The names of Washington and Jefferson should not be pronounced in the hearing of your children until they could clearly and distinctly pronounce the names I am about to give.” Hamilton was proposing a parallel hierarchy of founding fathers — the founding fathers of manumission.

The first name he gave was “that great and good statesman, the right honorable John Jay. . . . Blessed God! How good it is, he has lived to see, as a reward, the finishing of a work he helped to begin.” Jay, then 81 years old and long retired from politics, still had two more years to live. Hamilton next named five more men: John Murray — “a man that calumny never did approach, but that she bit her tongue”; Samuel Franklin — “good”; John Keese — “the zealous, the virtuous, the industrious”; Alexander Hamilton — “that excellent soldier”; and Robert Bowne — “that man of more than sterling worth.” (Rumor had it that William Hamilton was Alexander’s illegitimate son, which was almost certainly untrue, though the white Hamilton’s antislavery convictions make him a legitimate precursor.) 

Hamilton then called a roll of 19 other members of the society, including Robert Troup. “These are the men that formed the Manumission Society, and stamped it with those best of principles, found in the preamble to the constitution, framed by them. It is too excellent to pass over.” And so he read it. 

There is a historians’ fashion that identifies all propelling causes with large forces or, if with individuals, then only with little-known ones. Many causes, great and small, undermined slavery in post-revolutionary New York. The state filled with antislavery immigrants as New England sent its surplus population westward. New York’s Dutch, so long set in their ways, began at the end of the 18th century to abandon many customs, from Dutch-language church services to slave owning. More important than demography or cultural assimilation, slaves freed themselves. The 1799 law seemed like permission to run away: If the institution was doomed, why not escape it now? In its wake, manumissions spiked as slaves and masters negotiated short-term deals: I will still work for you, if you promise to free me after five years, or two.

All these factors played their part. But the best of principles, and a common commitment to them, was, as William Hamilton said, a powerful lever.

The Manumission Society was a fortuitous alliance of outsiders and insiders — oddball Quakers and Manhattan elitists. But whatever side they came from, they were determined to lead. Change requires action, which requires some person, or group of people, to be the first to take it. Change always requires what William Hamilton called a “propelling cause.”

New York’s moment of regeneration in 1827 found no imitators; the other remaining northern slave state, New Jersey, had passed its own gradual-abolition law in 1804. New York only moved itself out of the column of slave states. A vital move. New York would be a political swing state throughout the 19th century, pivoting from party to party, its gyrations often deciding close elections. Its partisan preferences were never more consequential than during the Civil War, which many New Yorkers resisted, even to violence. How much stronger would they have fought if a culture of slave owning had persisted there?

The Manumission Society was not thinking of future wars when it first met in 1785. They were moved by an all-American idea: that slavery deprived “our brethren” of liberty.

–This essay is adapted from Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea, due from Basic Books in November.

This article appears as “‘These Our Brethren’” in the November 11, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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