2.3.4. The Mid-Atlantic States (1825-1865): A Region Against Slavery

  • By the late 1820s, New York’s and Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation laws had been in place for several decades and slavery had been almost completely eliminated.  Citizens in both states voiced increasing opposition to slavery, although their economic connections with the South acted as a mild check on such sentiment. 
  • This opposition surfaced in the form of “personal liberty” laws, which prohibited local citizens and officials from helping slaveowners and federal authorities recapture runaway slaves.  Mid-Atlantic courts were cool to such laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck these laws down in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842).  But opposition to slavery and slavecatching grew steadily, particularly as the Civil War approached, and the courts increasingly reflected that opposition.


New York

New Jersey



1808:  Personal liberty law:  free blacks may not be seized and removed from state with the intent to enslave them

1827:  Personal liberty law extended to all blacks; blacks may not be removed without issuance of a warrant and a hearing 

1830:  75 slaves



1840:  4 slaves 



1826:  Personal liberty law: blacks may not be removed without issuance of a warrant and a hearing 

1830:  2,254 slaves

1836:  Supreme court strikes down 1826 law because it doesn’t give fugitive slaves right to jury trial

1837:  Legislature reenacts fugitive law with right to jury trial

1840: 674  slaves



1826:  Personal liberty law:  blacks may not be seized and removed from state with the intent to enslave them; may not be removed without issuance of a warrant and a hearing; struck down by U.S. Supreme Court (Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842)

1830: 403 slaves


1840:  64 slaves


1840:  Law giving fugitive slaves right to jury trial

1841:  Law allowing slaves in transit through New York to remain for 9 months is repealed

 1850:  No slaves

1860:  No slaves

1846:  Emancipation law:  1804 law amended to provide that all children of slaves born in future will be immediately free 


1850:  236 slaves

1860:  18 slaves





 1850:  No slaves

1860:  No slaves

Early fugitive cases: 

Respublica v. Richards – Pennsylvania, 1795 (2 Dallas 224); Jack v. Martin – New York 1834-35 (Supreme Court, 12 Wendell 311; affirmed, Court of Errors and Appeals, 14 Wendell 507); State v. Sheriff of Burlington – New Jersey, 1836 (unpublished)

  • The Pennsylvania and New York supreme courts, choosing to favor federalism over antislavery sentiment, both held that under the compact made between the North and South in the U.S. Constitution, northern states were obligated to assist federal authorities in recapturing fugitive slaves.  Pennsylvania reached this result very early in Richards, at Chief Justice Thomas McKean’s urging.  In Jack, New York’s highest court agreed (over the opposition of Chancellor Reuben Walworth) and rejected the state’s personal liberty law.  The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned all personal liberty laws in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842). 
  • But surprisingly, in Sheriff of Burlington the New Jersey supreme court went the other way, even though New Jersey was the most conservative of the mid-Atlantic states in its attitude toward  slavery.  The court, speaking through Chief Justice Joseph Hornblower, agreed with Walworth that the federal government had no power to compel the states to help it capture fugitives, and went further by suggesting that the federal fugitive slave law was unconstitutional because it denied slaves a jury trial.  The court decided not to publish its decision for fear of triggering a general wave of opposition to federal authority in New Jersey, but abolitionists became aware of Hornblower’s opinion and used it to good political effect as northern opposition to slavery mounted in the 1850s.

New Jersey’s lag in abolishing slavery: 

State v. Post – New Jersey, 1845 (20 N.J.Law 368 )

  • In 1844 New Jersey enacted a new constitution, providing in its bill of rights that:  “All men are by nature free and independent and have certain natural and unalienable rights, [including] … life and liberty.”  Abolitionists then tried to persuade New Jersey’s supreme court that this clause abolished slavery, but in Post they failed:  the court held that if the constitution’s authors had intended to abolish slavery they would have said so, and that the state’s 1804 law providing for gradual abolition was still in effect.   

Later fugitive cases: 

Kauffman v. Oliver – Pennsylvania, 1849 (10 Pa. 514); Lemmon v. People – New York, 1860 (20 N.Y. 562)

  • Antislavery sentiment grew rapidly in the North after 1845, and courts in the mid-Atlantic states sometimes expressed that sentiment .  In Kauffman, Pennsylvania’s supreme court grudgingly accepted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Prigg that states must assist federal authorities in recapturing fugitive slaves, but it refused to allow slaveowners to sue Pennsylvanians for aiding slaves to escape.
  • The question of whether slaves who traveled with their masters into free states thereby became free vexed northern and southern courts alike for several decades before the Civil War.   At first, many courts held that slaves remained in bondage unless it was clear the master intended to keep them on free soil indefinitely.  But as northern antislavery feelings intensified, some northern courts reversed course and held that slaves would be presumed free unless their master removed them from the state quickly. 
  • In Lemmon, New York’s highest court took the new presumption to its limit by holding that any slave coming into New York instantly became free.  The court reasoned the only logical alternative was to hold that slaves brought into New York would remain in bondage indefinitely, which would be intolerable:  it would make New York a slave state.  The New York court’s was appealed to the U..S. Supreme Court in 1860, and it was widely feared that court would adopt the rationale New York had rejected and, thus, effectively make all states slave states.  But the Civil War soon intervened:  the Lemmon appeal was never decided, and emancipation of all slaves at the end of the war made it moot.
Print (1843) - "On the side of the oppressors there was power- The officer of justice! arresting a helpless female fugitive in New York" (Print, 1843) - courtesy New York Public Library)

Liberation of Henry "Box" Brown, who literally mailed himself from Virginia to Philadelphia (1850) - Courtesy Wikipedia

What, first transport a man out of [New Jersey] on the charge of his being a slave, and try the truth of the allegation afterwards … transport him in chains to Missouri or Arkansas, with the cold comfort that if a freeman he may there assert and establish his freedom?  No, if a person comes into this sate, and here claims the servitude of a human being …, here he must prove his case, and here prove it according to law.”
– Chief Justice Joseph Hornblower, in Burlington

“Slavery was planted in this State, not by her sons, … but the lords and owners of the country … [W]armed by [the Revolution’s] spirit and influenced by the principles of the declaration of independence, … the legislature abolished slavery in the State; not in every respect and instantaneously, not at once thrusting out the aged and decrepit and the helpless infant … but it was done as most great and good things are done, gradually.”
– Justice ___, in Post

“[Pennsylvania’s emancipation law was enacted] “in grateful commemoration of the then certain prospect of escaping from the house of bondage and the hand of the oppressor …. Outside the compact [of federal law], we breathe more freely.  We feel the genial influence of the common law on this subject [freedom].” – Justice __, in Kauffman

“The position that a citizen carries with him, into every  State into which he may go, the legal institutions of the one in which he was born, cannot be supported.” – Justice __, in Lemmon