New York Manumission Society

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The New York Manumission Society was an early American organization founded in 1785 by U.S. Founding Father John Jay to promote the abolition (or Manumission) of slaves of African descent within the state of New York. The organization was made up entirely of white men, most of whom were wealthy and held influential positions in society. Throughout its history, which ended in 1849,[1] the society battled against the slave trade; and for the eventual emancipation of all the slaves in the state. It founded the African Free School for the poor and orphaned children of slaves and free people of color.

John Jay

John Jay had been a prominent leader in the antislavery cause since 1777, when he drafted a state law to abolish slavery. The draft failed, as did a second attempt in 1785. In 1785, all state legislators except one voted for some form of gradual emancipation. However, they did not agree on what civil rights would be given to the slaves once they were freed. In 1799, an emancipation bill passed by ignoring the subject of civil rights for freed slaves at all.[2][3]

Jay brought in prominent political leaders such as Alexander Hamilton. He also worked closely with Aaron Burr, later head of the Democratic-Republicans in New York. The Society started a petition against slavery, which was signed by almost all the politically prominent men in New York, of all parties and led to a bill for gradual emancipation. Burr, in addition to supporting the bill, made an amendment for immediate abolition, which was voted down.


Jay founded the "New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May be Liberated" (New York Manumission Society), and became its first president in 1785.

The organization originally comprised Jay and a few dozen close friends, many of whom were slave-owners at the time. The first meeting was held on January 25, 1785, at the home of John Simmons – who had space for the nineteen men in attendance since he kept an inn. Robert Troup and Melancton Smith were appointed to draw up rules; Jay was elected President. There were 31 members, including Alexander Hamilton, at the second meeting held on February 4,.[4] Several of the members were Quakers.

The Society formed a ways-and-means committee to deal with the difficulty that more than half of the members, including Troup and Jay, owned slaves (mostly a few domestic servants per household). The committee reported a plan for gradual emancipation: members would free slaves then younger than 28 when they reached the age of 35, slaves between 28 and 38 in seven years' time, and slaves over 45 immediately. This was voted down; and the committee dissolved.[5]

This society was instrumental in having a state law passed in 1785 prohibiting the sale of slaves imported into the state, and making it easy for slaveholders to manumit slaves either by a registered certificate or by will. In 1788 the purchase of slaves for removal to another state was forbidden; they were allowed trial by jury "in all capital cases;" and the earlier laws about slaves were simplified and restated. The emancipation of slaves by the Quakers was legalized in 1798. At that date, there were still about 33,000 slaves statewide.[6]

Lobbying and boycotts

The Society organized boycotts against New York merchants and newspaper owners involved in the slave trade. The Society had a special committee of militants who visited newspaper offices to warn publishers against accepting advertisements for the purchase or sale of slaves.

Another committee kept a list of people who were involved in the slave trade, and urged members to boycott anyone listed. As historian Roger Kennedy reports,

"Those [blacks] who remained in New York soon discovered that until the Manumission Society was organized, things had gotten worse, not better, for blacks. Despite the efforts of Burr, Hamilton, and Jay, the slave importers were busy. There was a 23 percent increase in slaves and a 33 percent increase in slaveholders in New York City in the 1790s."[7]

Beginning in 1785, the Society lobbied for a state law to abolish slavery in New York, as all the other northern states (except New Jersey) had done. Considerable opposition came from the Dutch areas upstate (where slavery was still popular),[8] as well as from the many businessmen in New York who profited from the slave trade. The two houses passed different emancipation bills and could not reconcile them. Every member of the New York legislature, but one, voted for some form of gradual emancipation, but no agreement could be reached on the civil rights of freedmen afterwards. Success finally came in 1799, when the Society supported a bill which said nothing about such rights. Jay signed this statement into law as governor.[9]

The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery 1799 declared that, from July 4 of that year, all children born to slave parents would be free. It also outlawed the exportation of current slaves. However, the Act held the caveat that the children would be subject to apprenticeship. These same children would be required to serve their mother’s owner until age twenty-eight for males, and age twenty-five for females.

The law defined the children of slaves as a type of indentured servant, while scheduling them for eventual freedom.[10] The last slaves were emancipated by July 4, 1827; the process was the largest emancipation in North America before 1861.[11] Thousands of freedmen celebrated with a parade in New York.

Other anti-slavery societies directed their attention to slavery as a national issue. The Quakers of New York petitioned the First Congress (under the Constitution) for the abolition of the slave trade. In addition, Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society petitioned for the abolition of slavery in the new nation; but the NYMS did not act. (Hamilton and others felt that Federal action on slavery would endanger the compromise worked out at the Constitutional Convention, and so the new United States.) [12]

African Free School

Lithograph of second school, 1922

In 1787, the Society founded the African Free School.[13]

See also


  • Berlin, Ira and Leslie Harris, eds.. Slavery in New York. New Press, 2005. ISBN 1-56584-997-3.
  • Gellman, David N. Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery And Freedom, 1777-1827 Louisiana State Univ Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8071-3174-1.
  • Gellman, David N. "Pirates, Sugar, Debtors, and Slaves: Political Economy and the Case for Gradual Abolition in New York." Slavery & Abolition (2001) 22(2): 51-68. Issn: 0144-039x
  • Gellman, David N. "Race, the Public Sphere, and Abolition in Late Eighteenth-century New York." Journal of the Early Republic (2000) 20(4): 607-636. Issn: 0275-1275 Fulltext: online in Jstor
  • Leslie M. Harris. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (2003),
  • Horton, James Oliver. "Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generation" New-York Journal of American History 2004 65(3): 16-24. ISSN 1551-5486
  • Roger G. Kennedy, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character (2000)
  • Littlefield, Daniel C. "John Jay, the Revolutionary Generation, and Slavery." New York History 2000 81(1): 91-132. Issn: 0146-437x
  • Edgar J. McManus, History of Negro Slavery in New York (1968)
  • Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8078-2671-5.
  • Schaetzke, E. Anne. "Slavery in the Genesee Country (Also Known as Ontario County) 1789 to 1827." Afro-Americans in New York Life and History (1998) 22(1): 7-40. Issn: 0364-2437
  • Jake Sudderth," John Jay and Slavery" (2002) at [1]
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  1. Davis, New York’s Manumission (Free the Slaves!) Society & Its African Free School 1785-1849, as cited.
  2. Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay; John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay; 2005; pp 297-99; accessed November 2015
  3. McManus, Edgar; History of Negro Slavery in New York; Syracuse University Press; 1966
  4. Davis; Chernow; Alexander Hamilton p.214
  5. Chernow, Ron; Alexander Hamilton; p. 215
  6. Nelson, Peter Nelson; The American Revolution in New York: Its Political, Social and Economic Significance; 1926; p. 237
  7. Kennedy, Roger G.; Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character; 2000; p. 92
  8. Parmet, Herbert S. and Hecht, Marie B.; Aaron Burr (1967); p. 76
  9. McManus, Edgar J.; History of Negro Slavery in New York
  10. Edgar J. McManus, History of Negro Slavery in New York
  11. John Jay and Slavery; Suddeth, Jake; 2002;
  12. McDaonald, Forrest ; Alexander Hamilton, a Biography; 1982; p. 177
  13. no title listed

External links