James 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.
+ + +
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.