2.2.4. The Mid-Atlantic States (1776-1825): The Slow Death of Slavery


1790:  Slave population - 21,193








 1800:  Slave population – 20,613

1786:  Slave trade prohibited; owners no longer required to post bond as condition of freeing slaves

1788:  Slaves must be taught to read; cannot be sold outside state

1790:  Slave population – 11,423

1798:  Revised slave code; restrictions on assembly of slaves loosened


1800:  Slave population – 12,422

1780:  Gradual emancipation law:  [details]

1788:  Emancipation law amended [details]

1790:  Slave population – 3,707




 1800:  Slave population – 1,706


1801:  Gradual emancipation law:  slaves’ children born after 1789 are free but must serve masters until age 28 (men), 25 (women)

1801:  Slaves may not be brought into New York for trading purposes

1807:  Slaves may not be removed from state if owner has had them less than 10 years

1810:  Slave population – 15,017


1817:  Emancipation law expanded:  All slaves born before 1799 will be free in 1827; slaves born after 1799 are free but must give service until age 28 (men), 25 (women); all slaves brought into New York in future will immediately be free; any slave in transit through state will be free if he is kept in state for more than 9 months

Slave children must be taught to read

1825:  Slave population – 10,088


1827:  All slavery ends

1804:  Gradual emancipation law:  children born into slavery will be freed at age 25 (men), age 21 (women)





1810:  Slave population – 10,851








 1825:  Slave population – 7,567









1810:  Slave population – 795








 1825:  Slave population – 211

Key Cases:

Presumptions of freedom:   Respublica v. Betsey – Pennsylvania, 1789 (1 Dallas 469); State v. Heddon – New Jersey, 1795 (Coxe 328); Griffin v. Potter – New York, 1835 (14 Wendell 209)

  •  The success of the mid-Atlantic states’ gradual emancipation plans depended in part on how liberally the courts would construe them.  In general, the courts construed emancipation laws liberally in favor of early freedom – with the notable exception of Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice McKean.
  • The Pennsylvania and New York emancipation laws required all owners to register their slaves.  In Betsey, the Pennsylvania supreme court held that failure to comply would automatically free unregistered slaves.  McKean objected, reasoning that the law should be interpreted to provide that such slaves would continue to be indentured servants until age 28, but his colleagues disagreed with him.  Forty years later, New York’s highest court reached the same result in Griffin.  And in Heddon, the New Jersey supreme court held that in cases of doubt, black New Jerseyites would be presumed to be free rather than slaves; this presumption proved to be an important tool for freeing blacks accused of being fugitive slaves. 
Courtesy New York Public Library

“[A]s upon a clause of so obscure a kind [the terms of Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation law], I would not wish to press an argument against liberty.” – Justice George Bryan, in Betsey