In February 1784, finally free from imperial constraints, a group of merchants assembled at the Coffee House to organize New York’s first bank. Banks were considered essential for commercial expansion, and proposals for one kind or another had been circulating around the city since before Evacuation Day. Hamilton had been trying to arrange something with Robert Morris’s Bank of North America at Philadelphia, but when the Coffee House meeting came out with an attractive proposal for a Bank of New York, he changed his mind and resolved to “fall in” with the project. He also helped turn the new bank into an instrument for reconciling former enemies and deflecting radical attacks on the Tories. Alexander McDougall became the bank’s first president; William Seton, a Tory, took the job of cashier. Its board of directors included Thomas Stoughton, lately arrived from England, and such prominent Tories as Joshua Waddington and Nicholas Low. Patriots like Melancton Smith, Marinus Willett, Isaac Sears, and John Lamb signed its petition to the legislature for a charter. As early as June 1784 the bank was doing business out of the old Walton Mansion on Pearl Street.
Prominent merchants also revived the Chamber of Commerce, the bulk of whose pre-Revolutionary members had sided with the British. Like the bank, the chamber heeded Hamilton’s plea for reconciliation. Many Tories gained admission at its first meeting in April, and one of them, John Alsop, was elected president. More Tories joined up over the next few years, along with Whigs of every description, including William Duer, John Lamb, Alexander McDougall, and Isaac Sears, who became the chamber’s vice-president. This was a signal that the town’s principal men of business were welcome regardless of their opinions (allegiance to money being the only really reliable test of character) and that at least some radical Whigs too were eager to advance the city’s trade and commerce.
Hamilton’s program for rehabilitating Tories moved into the courts in the summer of 1784 with the case of Rutgers v. Waddington. Widow Elizabeth Rutgers had fled New York in 1776, leaving behind the family’s brewery on Maiden Lane. Joshua Waddington, a very rich and highly unpopular Tory merchant, became the agent for two British brewers who took over the Rutgers brewery and operated it under license of the British commissary-general and, later, the commander-in-chief. When Rutgers pressed Waddington for eight thousand pounds in damages and back rent under the 1783 Trespass Act, Waddington refused to pay. Rutgers sued, and the case went before the Mayor’s Court in June. To represent her, Rutgers hired a team of distinguished attorneys that included John Laurence, Robert Troup, and Attorney General Egbert Benson. Hamilton appeared for Waddington.
Hamilton took the position, as he had in his Phocion letters, that the Trespass Act was null and void. It violated a maxim of international law that citizens could not be held liable for actions, otherwise illegal, committed at the order of military forces. It also specifically violated the Treaty of Paris. Congress had negotiated and approved the treaty in the name of the Confederation, Hamilton reminded the court: it was the law of the land and couldn’t be repealed at the whim of one or another state. Benson and Troup responded that the Trespass Act was a proper exercise of legislative power and couldn’t be set aside or repealed except by the legislature.
Duane’s ruling, handed down in August, was a split decision. Rutgers could recover for the period when Waddington held the property under license from the commissary-general; she couldn’t recover for the time Waddington held it by authority of the British commander-in-chief, who was acting in accordance with the law of nations. As for the validity of the Trespass Act itself, Duane found no legislative intent to overrule international law. He did allow, on the other hand, that when a legislature failed to anticipate all the consequences of a statute, courts were obliged to interpret or even disregard it altogether.
Radical Whigs were appalled. The Assembly hauled in Duane to explain himself, censured his decision as a violation of legislative autonomy and a threat to law and order, then reaffirmed the Trespass Act. Hamilton was savaged in the papers for giving aid and comfort to “the most abandoned and flagitious scoundrels in the Universe,” and there were rumors of a plot to have him killed. Waddington, worried that the case might be lost on appeal (if not that his attorney would go down in a blaze of pistol fire), negotiated a compromise settlement with Mrs. Rutgers.
As the first anniversary of Evacuation Day approached, New York’s Tories, reassured by Hamilton’s exertions on their behalf, had begun to make their peace with independence and republicanism. This in turn facilitated the growth of an alliance with conservative Whigs that would, in Hamilton’s words, confront the radicals with “all the mercantile and monied influence” of the city—old Anglo-Dutch merchant families, newly arrived exporters and importers, resident agents of British trading firms, key members of the bar and other professions, and leading public creditors. For Robert Troup, one of Hamilton’s most dedicated lieutenants, this was perhaps the most decisive event of the city’s postwar history. “Soon after we regained possession of New York,” Troup later recalled, “we permitted the Tories to enlist under our banners; and they have since manfully fought by our side in every important battle we have had with the democracy.”
Over the fall and winter of 1784-85, Hamilton broadened the scope of his alliance by wooing the great Hudson Valley landowning families—Livingstons, Schuylers, Van Cortlandts, and their ilk. Their incessant jockeying for precedence had always made it difficult for them to work together, but Hamilton’s message was brutally frank: cooperate or go under. As he told one of the redoubtable Livingstons, this was no time for men “concerned for the security of property or the prosperity of government” to quibble among themselves.
Hamilton’s bid for the support of New York City’s laboring population also began to get results. When elections were held for the state assembly in June 1784, defecting mechanic voters scuttled the radical ticket. Even Isaac Sears went down to defeat, running behind conservatives like Comfort Sands. (Among the new assemblymen that year was Aaron Burr, making his political debut with no principles to speak of—a development almost as noteworthy as the election of former Tories.) Several months later, the Tory merchant Nicholas Bayard drew enough votes in the balloting for City Council to defeat the incumbent Out Ward alderman Thomas Ivers. Stunned, Ivers protested that Bayard was ineligible because of his previous collaboration with the enemy. The council seated Bayard anyway, which must have struck even Hamilton as something of a miracle.
The movement of artisans and tradesmen into Hamilton’s camp gathered momentum over the next several years as Governor Clinton and his supporters appeared to lose interest in restoring the city’s trade and grew increasingly disdainful of Congress. Toward the end of 1784 the legislature’s radical majority slapped a 2.5 percent duty on goods imported into the state and a punitive 5 percent duty on British goods entering from the West Indies. Outside the city, Clinton’s impost was wildly popular, not least of all because the hundreds of thousands of dollars it soon funneled into the state treasury kept land taxes low.
Inside the city, however, the impost threatened disaster. New Jersey and Connecticut, over half of whose imports came through the port, objected vociferously to the New York impost and threatened an all-out trade war that could devastate the municipal economy. Britain not only kept its West Indian islands off limits to American shipping but began dumping its own products in the New York market. By 1786 almost twice as much tonnage had entered the port from the former mother country than from all other foreign nations combined. Local artisans and mechanics, confronted with an avalanche of cheap British manufactured goods—thirty thousand hats and ninetyseven thousand pairs of shoes between 1784 and 1786 alone—charged that Clinton had played into Britain’s hands with a policy “which tends in some degree to defeat the purposes of our late revolution.”
Nor were they happy with Clinton’s go-it-alone strategy for the state. In 1786, buoyed by revenues from the impost, the legislature enacted a financial program that was tantamount to a declaration of independence from the Confederation. The law provided for an issue of two hundred thousand pounds in paper money. It also set aside revenues sufficient to “fund” (i.e., pay off) the entire state debt as well as that portion of the federal debt represented by Continental Loan Office certificates and notes issued for supplies furnished to the Continental Army. Holders of Continental securities (worth around $2.3 million in all) could exchange them for state securities of equal value, at the same rate of interest. Some fifty thousand pounds of the new paper money would go to pay part of the back interest that the United States had thus far failed to pay on these securities.
Clinton’s program dismayed Hamilton and his circle. For years moderate and conservative Whigs had urged federal assumption of all Revolutionary War debts on the theory that the surest way to strengthen the Confederation government was to get the resources and influence of the public creditors behind it. Now, at least in George Clinton’s New York, public creditors would be harnessed to the state government instead, and the idea of a stronger Confederation seemed suddenly more remote than ever. The city’s working people had their own reasons for repudiating the governor’s policy. His veiled threats of secession from the rest of the country were an affront to people who had for twenty years advocated both republicanism and national union.
In the 1785 Assembly elections, accordingly, conservative and moderate Whigs ran well ahead of the field, capturing the votes not only of former Tories but of many working people as well. Isaac Sears received the fewest votes of any winner, and only two mechanics were elected, shoemaker William Goforth and smith Robert Boyd, neither strongly identified with the radicals. Only James Duane’s defeat by Thomas Tredwell in a race for the state senate could have been construed as a radical victory. The Mechanics Committee, recently reorganized as the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, played a key role in swinging public opinion against radical candidates. It endorsed three conservative merchants known for their close ties to Hamilton: Robert Troup, William Duer, and Evert Bancker.
During the summer and fall of 1785, city newspapers were full of talk that merchants and artisans had begun to realize that each had an interest in the prosperity of the other. Popular hostility to Clinton mushroomed the following year, when the city stumbled into a mini-recession that was widely blamed on the governor’s paper-money and funding bills. Caught short by a sudden rise in the price of depreciated public securities, a number of prominent investors went under, dragging their creditors down too. Others dumped huge quantities of imported goods on the market to raise cash, driving down prices and, briefly, causing a spasm of unemployment in the city’s laboring population. Although timely loans from the Bank of New York saved a few of the better-connected casualties, among them the Sands brothers, petitions for bankruptcy inundated the legislature.
The almshouse, built to hold no more than four hundred people, became so overcrowded during the summer and fall of 1786 that the city government ran out of funds for public assistance and had to borrow nine hundred pounds from the bank. New commissioners of poor relief appointed by the City Council (which had only the year before scrapped the old system of elected vestrymen) struggled to rid the town of nonresident paupers. So many debtors were languishing in jail by the beginning of 1787 that a Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors was organized to provide them with bread, wood, clothing, and other essentials.
Against this background, Hamilton’s conservative alliance swept into power. Richard Varick, Nicholas Bayard, and Hamilton himself won seats in the Assembly in 1786 (this was the only elective office Hamilton would ever hold). Nicholas Bayard, Richard Harison, Comfort Sands, and Richard Varick followed suit in 1787 along with two former Tories, Gulian Verplanck and Nicholas Low. That year’s local elections confirmed that Clinton and the radicals had lost their grip on the city and its environs. Former Tories were voting openly throughout the region, and in Queens nearly one-fourth of the successful candidates had supported the crown during the Revolution.
THE RADICAL RETREAT
Though Governor Clinton won reelection in 1786—no conservative was even willing to run against him—the radicals were already too weak to prevent the reversal of nearly the entire body of anti-Tory laws for which they had been responsible over the previous decade. In 1784 and 1785 the legislature removed the acts of attainder against thirtyodd loyalists. By 1785 numerous rank-and-file Tories began to make their way back to New York from Canada and other places of refuge, hopeful that the worst was at last over.
Tories not banished by name were restored to full citizenship in 1786, and the act disqualifying them from the practice of law was repealed. In 1787, led by Hamilton and Varick (now speaker), Assembly conservatives easily beat back an attempt to deny seats to a number of former Tories. They then removed all election laws denying Tories the vote and methodically revoked the Trespass Act, the Citation Act, and, early in 1788, all other statutes inconsistent with the Treaty of Paris. In 1792 the legislature would decide to allow even banished Tories to return, providing only that they recognized the state’s tide to confiscated property, including slaves.
Radical threats against Trinity Church and Columbia College were repelled as well. One of Hamilton’s law clerks dug up a long-lost deed that rescued Trinity’s Manhattan real estate from confiscation, and shortly thereafter the relieved vestry began construction on a new church building. The college was saved when Duane, Jay, and Hamilton convinced the legislature to let Columbia elect its own board of governors, leaving it within the state university yet well insulated from meddlesome radicals. The new board promptly offered the job of president to William Samuel Johnson, the Tory son of William Johnson, first president of King’s College.1
Perhaps the most telling sign of the ebbing of anti-Tory radicalism came in 1788, when the state commissioners of forfeiture closed their books on the formerly occupied counties. Over the previous five years they had confiscated, broken up, and sold off the estates of more than two dozen prominent Tories in the New York area, including James De Lancey, Oliver De Lancey, William Bayard, Roger Morris, John Watts, Frederick Philipse, and Isaac Low. Their combined losses exceeded $1.2 million (claims for compensation they filed with the British government put the total closer to $10 million).
Yet given contemporary assertions that Tories owned two-thirds of the property in the city, this was a far cry from the leveling frenzy initially feared by moderate and conservative Whigs. Statewide, some 70 percent of all confiscations had occurred in Albany and Tryon counties. New York, Kings, and Queens counties together represented a mere 2 percent of the total, and the estates of some very conspicuous Tories survived more or less intact.
Nor had there been a serious shift in the class composition of landownership in the city. While some tradesmen and shopkeepers had purchased parts of confiscated estates, a substantial majority of buyers were well-to-do Whig lawyers, merchants, and established landowners. Nearly two hundred individuals acquired pieces of James De Lancey’s holdings on the east side of Manhattan. Yet fully half of the total sales can be attributed to no more than fifteen or so buyers, including William and James Beekman, four members of the Livingston clan, merchants John Delafield, Dominick Lynch, and John Delameter, and sugar refiner Isaac Roosevelt. Many of De Lancey’s former tenants, unable to compete against these high bidders, promptly found themselves thrown off land they had occupied for years, with no compensation for the often extensive improvements they had made at their own expense.2
It was much the same story in neighboring counties. In Kings, Colonel Aquila Giles, Esq., snared all of William Axtell’s Flatbush estate. The bulk of John Rapalje’s estate, the largest in Brooklyn, went to ex-Tories Comfort and Joshua Sands. In Queens, property belonging to the Ludlow and Golden families went to no more than a dozen purchasers. The Manor of Bentley, Christopher Billopp’s Staten Island estate, went to a single purchaser. North of the city there was a more democratic redistribution of confiscated Tory property, and many tenants of Frederick Philipse’s ninety-two-thousandacre Westchester estate purchased their holdings.
Big buyers, in fact, had an edge. State law gave preference in the purchase of confiscated estates to holders of soldiers’ pay certificates and allowed purchasers to pay for land with state securities. Speculators had been purchasing both kinds of government obligations at fire-sale prices from the original holders—who either needed cash or didn’t believe that the government would ever make good on its promise to pay off, or both. The gamble was that if the government did redeem the certificates and securities at or near par (face value), the current holders would pocket a very considerable profit. This so-called stockjobbing—buying and selling government notes to make money—had a very unsavory reputation. Nonetheless, by the mid-1780s millions of dollars’ worth of depreciated securities had already been engrossed by a handful of New York’s leading merchants and financiers.
Confiscated-estate sales gave the speculators a splendid opportunity to convert still-doubtful paper into solid land, overwhelming smaller buyers as they did so. Many then subdivided their new tracts for profitable resale, thus sustaining secondary speculation in forfeited Tory property well into the next decade. The legislature did little to deter any of this, since a number of radical as well as conservative Whigs were deeply implicated in the game. Indeed, Sears made such a poor showing in the 1784 Assembly elections partly because of revelations that he, Marinus Willett, John Lamb, John Morin Scott, and other sometime Sons of Liberty were using depreciated veterans’ pay certificates to speculate in confiscated Tory estates. In his two Phocion letters, Hamilton had warned the city’s mechanics that their heros had feet of clay. Who could deny it now?
ORDER OUT OF CONFUSION
Four or five years after Evacuation Day, radical and conservative Whigs had come to agreement on a number of fundamental political and social questions. This “Revolution Settlement,” to borrow a term from British history a century earlier, was unplanned, informal, tacit, unenforceable, and extremely fragile. It was nonetheless real, and its effect, as James Hardie would later recall in his Description of New York (1827), was that “the British had scarcely left our city, when order seemed to arise out of confusion.”
Key elements of New York’s Revolution Settlement read like an obituary for the radical resurgence of 1783-84. By 1786 or 1787 it was accepted on all sides that the rule of self-appointed committees should give way to the rule of law, that there were to be no further confiscatory assaults on private property, that former Tories should be admitted to the full privileges of citizenship, and that vital institutions—the municipal corporation itself, Columbia College, Trinity Church—would remain in the hands of the propertied classes.
Conservative Whigs knew, however, that the radical insurgency had been blunted, not defeated, and that the base lines of public discourse in the city would have to change. To avoid the taint of royalism, they could no longer dispute such principles as natural rights, government by consent of the governed, and popular sovereignty. Never again could they advocate religious establishments as essential for the preservation of order and property, and they raised no objection when the state legislature adopted a succession of laws between 1782 and 1787 that repealed primogeniture and entail, provided for the commutation of quitrents, and abolished all feudal obligations and tenures in the state—gutting, that is, the legal infrastructure set up in the wake of the 1664 conquest and Leisler’s Rebellion. They squirmed but didn’t resist when the legislature divided every county into townships, further weakening the power of the great upriver manor lords. They likewise accepted the fact that the legislature would henceforth determine the powers and privileges of banks, colleges, benevolent societies, and other chartered corporations. Even former Tories understood that from now on the issue wouldn’t be whether to have a republic but what kind of republic to have.
What was more, following Hamilton’s lead, conservative Whigs and former Tories had begun to acknowledge that the route to public office now ran through a mobilized, demanding electorate. Gone forever were the days when men of wealth and social position could presume the deference or indifference of voters: political power henceforth required organization, a readiness to curry support among ordinary people, and a willingness to abide by what happened at the polls. That Hamilton and company had virtually driven the Clintonians out of town by 1787 or 1788 only clinched the point. Public life in New York would never be the same.
Some things, on the other hand, did not change, and the outer limits of the Revolution Settlement were defined by its failure to address issues of gender and race.
DAUGHTERS OF LIBERTY
For New York women, as women, the Revolution was an ambiguous experience. On the one hand, they had helped mobilize resistance to Britain and made often crucial contributions to the war effort—spying on the enemy, collecting money and clothing and provisions for the army, making bandages and ammunition, tending the wounded, carrying water and powder during battle, on occasion fighting alongside regular troops (women were active on the Tory side too, but much less so). The state legislature acknowledged the extent of their involvement when it allowed that women could be convicted of treason—an unprecedented admission that they had the capacity to choose their own political allegiances, independently of their husbands and fathers. None of this, on the other hand, led to fundamental changes in the gender system itself—the different roles and rights assigned to men and women—which survived the conflict with Britain unchanged, even strengthened.
Most important, republicanism put new emphasis on defining the right to participate in politics and government as an attribute of property. It was axiomatic among male revolutionaries that republics were vulnerable to persons with the wealth, power, and influence to make others do their bidding. This meant, among other things, that voters as well as officeholders must possess sufficient property to be politically independent—free, that is, to discern and serve the public good without fear for their livelihoods.
By the same token, people having little or no property should be disqualified from taking part in public affairs because they were too easily led, swayed, and dominated. Inasmuch as New York law continued to follow the doctrine of “coverture,” which didn’t allow women to hold property in their own names, it seemed more obvious than ever (to men) that women, like children and slaves, had no right to vote, much less hold office. Thus, while colonial authorities sometimes permitted well-to-do widows to cast ballots in municipal and provincial elections, that practice would not survive the Revolution. In fact, New York became the first state to officially disfranchise women when the constitution of 1777 specifically defined the electorate as male. No matter the extent of their contributions to the struggle against Britain: republican women were destined by republican men to be passive, second-class citizens.
Then, too, what conventional male wisdom considered to be the inherent foibles of women—their impulsiveness, their love of luxury and self-indulgence, their limited powers of reason—only made it more apparent that they deserved no role in republican politics and government. Not surprisingly, the new republic’s ideal citizen was unfailingly identified by male attributes and duties: his preparedness to take up arms in defense of the state, his authority as the head of a household of dependents, his pride as an autonomous producer of wealth, his responsibility to sit on juries and pay taxes. If anything, “woman” and “citizen” were considered irreconcilable opposites, states of being forever at war with one another.
Among the propertied classes, this resurgent patriarchalism gave rise to a notion that the chief duty of women was to bear and raise sons for service to the republic. But while it seemed to endow their work with new public significance, what came to be called Republican Motherhood essentially compelled women to return to the “sphere” of family and household. For women of the white laboring classes, republican patriarchalism could have still more calamitous consequences. War heroine Elizabeth Burgin, finding herself penniless, wrote General Washington directly: “I am now Sir very Desolate without Money without Close or friends to go to,” she explained, as “helping our poor preseners Brought Me to Want Whitch I dont Repent.” Her plea brought results, but it was an isolated success: few women who worked for the army, or widows of enlisted men, ever received equitable assistance. Poor women, moreover, could hardly afford to devote their lives to childrearing and found the new standard of republican motherhood virtually impossible to meet—which to men and women of property became prima facie evidence of irresponsibility and moral depravity. Although propertylessness brought poor men too under increased suspicion, they at least could derive some small measure of comfort from knowing that the republic belonged to men.
Within a year of the Treaty of Paris, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—all of the northern states, that is, except New York and New Jersey—had either abolished slavery outright or adopted programs for its gradual abolition. When Gouverneur Morris and John Jay tried to insert a clause into the 1777 state constitution “recommending” the eventual abolition of slavery, they ran into a wall of resistance; Morris himself admitted that “it would at present be productive of great dangers to liberate the slaves within this state.” In 1781 the legislature did agree to manumit slaves who had taken up arms against the British, but this was a grudging response at best to General Clinton’s offer of freedom to slaves who remained loyal to the crown. When the Society of Friends took steps to free all slaves owned by the state’s Quakers, their example inspired little or no imitation. (The appropriateness of indentured servitude was another matter. In 1784 a group of citizens purchased the freedom of a parcel of servants, observing that “the traffick of White People” was contrary “to the idea of liberty.”)
Slaves in and around the city grew increasingly restless after the war, stirred by the ideals of the Revolution as well as by local traditions of resistance and rebellion. For Jupiter Hammon, a slave who had published occasional religious verses and essays while serving three generations of the Lloyd family in Queens, this new mood was profoundly troubling. In An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York (1787), the seventy-year-old Hammon urged his fellow bondsmen not to dwell upon the idea of freedom and not to forget their duty to obey their masters. Many slaves had nonetheless already rejected that advice. Some pressured their masters for improved treatment, occasionally even extracting written promises of freedom. Large numbers of others simply disappeared—so large, in fact, that runaway notices filled local papers and gangs of white “blackbirders” were able to make a living as free-lance slavecatchers.
In January and February 1785, frustrated by the state’s foot-dragging on abolition and alarmed by a recent attempt to seize free blacks for sale as slaves, thirty-two prominent citizens of widely divergent political views—radical Whigs, conservative Whigs, even the odd Tory or two—met at the Coffee House to organize the New York Manumission Society. Among those present were Governor George Clinton, Alexander Hamilton, Egbert Benson, Mayor James Duane, Melancton Smith, and a strong contingent of Quakers (including Robert Bowne and John Murray). John Jay was elected president of the society, notwithstanding the fact that he owned five slaves—no disqualification, to be sure, considering that at least half the society’s founders were slaveowners; Governor Clinton alone owned eight.
That same year, antislavery members of the legislature—urged along by the New York Society of Friends and the Manumission Society—brought in a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery. After a ferocious fight with assemblymen from Kings, Richmond, and Ulster counties, whose predominately Dutch constituents still relied heavily on slave labor to work their farms, the bill passed. The Council of Revision promptly vetoed the measure because it denied free blacks the right to vote or hold public office.
Some weeks later, however, the council did approve a voluntary emancipation law that allowed masters to manumit slaves between twenty-one and fifty years of age without any obligation for their subsequent upkeep (a break with colonial precedents)—on condition that local overseers of the poor first certified, in writing, that the slaves would be able to provide for themselves. (Manumission of a slave over fifty still required owners to post a bond of two hundred pounds to ensure that he or she wouldn’t become a public burden.) Getting the “poor certificate” now became central to the process for obtaining liberty. In Quamio Buccau’s case, as he later recalled, his master, William Griffith, having decided to free him and his wife, Sarah, summoned the overseers of the poor to the house. The couple was called into Griffith’s office “and there we stood as if we were just married. Squire Adams asked me how I felt—and I told him ‘I feel very well. I tank you, Sir: I feel very well in my limbs.’”
Though the Manumission Society prodded other masters to free their slaves, few New Yorkers followed Griffith’s example during the next fifteen years. The society, lowering its sights, concentrated instead on publicizing cases of abuse and set up a registry to protect freedmen against reenslavement. In 1786 it won adoption of a law freeing all slaves who still remained state property as the result of the confiscation of Tory estates. (How many is unknown, though a dozen or so men and women formerly belonging to the Philipse, Axtell, Bayard, and other Tory families were being supported at public expense as late as the 1820s.)
That same year, too, the society founded an African Free School in a one-room building on Cliff Street. There, besides learning to read and write, boys could acquire the values and discipline that would keep them from “running into practices of Immorality or Sinking into Habits of Idleness.” Girls were admitted after 1792. To be accepted, however, free blacks had to stay sober, not associate with slaves, and live clean lives—by which the society meant, among other things, that they would tolerate no “Fiddling, Dancing or any noisy Entertainments in their houses.”
In 1788, having discovered that numbers of New Yorkers were selling a “very considerable” number of slaves to agents of southern planters in anticipation of further restrictions, the society persuaded the legislature to stop the sale of slaves for removal to another state and to prohibit the importation of slaves into the state. It did not, on the other hand, oppose the adoption of New York’s first comprehensive slave code since 1730—a severe setback to the antislavery cause inasmuch as it ensured that the institution would have a solid legal foundation for the foreseeable future. Nor did it press to have the port closed to ships involved in the slave trade, as other northern states had done.
By 1790 slavery had been solidly reestablished in New York. True, the percentage of blacks in Manhattan’s population had fallen to 10 percent, and roughly one-third of the 3,096 African Americans in the city were now free. Yet the absolute number of slaves was growing, and, taking the southern six counties of New York as a whole, nearly three of every four blacks were still slaves. Moreover, those 9,447 men, women, and children represented an investment of nearly one and a half million dollars, a sizable obstacle to emancipation.
The use of slave labor remained as widespread as ever. One in five white households in the city, scattered broadly through every ward and representing all but the very poorest classes, owned at least one slave. Two-thirds of the merchants kept slaves, mostly for use as domestic servants—cooks, butlers, gardeners, stable hands, and the like. (Females still significantly outnumbered males, constituting 57 percent of the total black population in 1786.) One of every eight artisans held slaves too; numerically, artisans remained the city’s largest group of slaveholders and continued to depend on slave labor for production in workshops, breweries, ropewalks, sail lofts, and shipyards. In the immediate hinterlands of Manhattan, the pervasiveness of slave labor was even more striking. Forty percent of the white households within a ten-mile radius of the city owned slaves—a higher proportion than in the whole of any southern state. In Kings County, still strongly Dutch and still heavily dependent on its servile work force to produce goods for the urban market, blacks comprised one-third of the forty-five hundred residents; in some parts of the county, two of every three white households owned slaves. Only in Westchester, two-thirds of whose slaves disappeared between 1776 and 1783, did it appear that the Revolution had inflicted any lasting damage on the institution of slavery.