The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty: Urban Slavery (Section A)

Escaped urban slave, abolitionist lecturer, author, newspaper editor, and U.S. ambassador to Haiti. (1818-1895).
Escaped urban slave, abolitionist lecturer, author, newspaper editor, and U.S. ambassador to Haiti. (1818-1895). | Source

More research needs to be done, specifically, on urban slavery in the United States. Someone needs to write a book titled: Urban Slavery: Its Relationship To and Impact Upon the American Economy, 1783-1865.

I picked the year 1783 because a historian, Thaddeus Russell [A Renegade History of the United States: 2010] uses the terms "the early American economy," though I do not know precisely when he means by it; he is, however, broadly referring to the eighteenth century.

America became America, leaving behind the identity of the Thirteen Colonies with the War of Independence from 1776-1783. If you want to think of "early America" in that way, 1783 is a good place to start, I suppose.

I chose 1865 for two reasons: A) It was the nominal end of the slavery period in the United States; and B) The year 1865 just so happens to be a nice, twenty-five year halfway point between 1840 and 1890.

The reason the latter point is significant is because, it is between 1840 and 1890 that the U.S. economy first becomes the most dynamic in the world. Between 1840 and 1890, the population quadrupled, the U.S. featured the world's largest network of railroads, and a degree of technological innovation that matched or exceeded Britain's and Germany's. That period saw the emergence of the world's largest industrial capacity. And finally, in "more or less" constant dollars, the U.S. gross national product of 1890 was six times larger than in 1840 (1).

Now, one thing we can say about that collection of statistics is this: It is useful to think of the United States of America as the "China" of its day. The United States had more people, and more importantly, was using the manpower in a way that its competitors were not. That is to say, no European country had four million slaves, as the United States had up through 1865.

We also know that in 1850, there were 400,000 slaves --- one-tenth of the total nationwide population --- living in urban communities; and that the vast majority of them were surely engaged in nonagricultural pursuits (2).

We are all used to thinking of slavery as a southern and rural phenomenon in the United States. But, of course, it was also a northern (there had been slavery in all thirteen colonies) and urban phenomenon. The poet Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784) was an urban slave; Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the famous educator, author, speaker, had been a, sort of, urban slave. Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), abolitionist lecturer, author, newspaper editor, and U.S. minister to Haiti, had been an urban slave.

We know that there had been slaves in all of the trades. There had been slave carpenters, slave masons, slave mechanics, slave coopers, slave tailors, slave shoemakers, slave cabinetmakers, slave painters, slave plasterers, slave seamstresses, and the like. Not only that, but it seems likely that their number was "augmented by those plantation slaves whose owners hired them out to townspeople. There is no way of knowing how many slaves were hired out, but there must have been thousands, especially in the period between the harvest and the new planting" (3).

That's an important point to hang on to: That thousands of slaves were probably hired out to townspeople.

What this means is that: If we were to go back to 1850, in a time machine, and talk to a townsperson, say, a shoemaker, who did not "own" slaves, he would not be able to plead innocence, to us, of having participated in slavery, unless he could pass a sodium pentothal lie detector test, swearing that he had never, ever, even once rented slave labor.

Are you following me?

By the way, there were even slave inventors. And we might note here, that the Confederacy specifically passed legislation which said that even if a slave actually invented a device, it was his owner which would be awarded the patent (4). This opens up the can of worms of (Who exactly invented what during this period of American history?), since the United States is all about intellectual property. But let's move on.

Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784). Urban slave; perhaps Black America's first poet laureate.
Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784). Urban slave; perhaps Black America's first poet laureate. | Source

I just want to parenthetically note that southern, rural slavery did not stop on a dime in 1865. There were eighty years of sharecropping and tenant farming, followed by convict leasing, which brings us into World War Two (5). Since that is the case, have we any right to expect that urban slavery stopped on a dime in 1865?

But there's a complication. Let's take New York as an example.

But before we do that, let me say a word about the relationship between urban and rural, plantation slavery.

First of all, the northern, urban system of slavery was milder, gentler, more flexible, and far less physically punishing and taxing than that of the southern, rural plantation, since a slave in the former system frequently worked side-by-side with his owner (6). Southern, rural, plantation slavery was harsher in every way, which basically goes without saying.

Now then, if you think about it, urban slavery relates to rural slavery like the proverbial "good cop-bad cop." If you're trying to run a system of urban slavery, you need the system of rural slavery to exist as a threat. That is to say, one thing you need to be able to do, to keep urban slaves compliant and orderly, is to threated to sell them into the far harsher circumstances of rural, plantation slavery.

In other words, you would want a Boston urban slave, of some kind, to "count his blessings," as it were; and realize that if he ever becomes a problem, you might very well sell him down into Virginia, or sell him down into South Carolina, or sell him down into Alabama, or perhaps worst of all, sell him down into Jamaica, for example.

It is well known that northern, urban slaves were more likely to be able to read and write (7). If you were the owner of said, hypothetical, Boston urban slave, perhaps, in a 'perverse' way, you welcome this. Let him read for himself, in the papers, about the horrors endured by slaves in Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Jamaica; and let what he reads serve as a self-check on his own behavior and comportment.

Now, something that is, perhaps, not very well known is the fact that, from the beginning, southern, rural slaveholders promoted the use of slaves for various kinds of work other than agricultural. They did this in order to try to seed the broadest and deepest possible nationwide acceptance of the system of slavery (8).

Let's return to the New York State example.

It seems that New York enacted legislation for the gradual abolition of slavery, within its borders, in 1799 (9).

Now then, on January 6, 1861 the mayor of that ultimate urban area, New York City, His Honor Fernando Wood, presented his recommendation to the "Gentlemen" of the "Honorable Common Council," that the "Big Apple" secede from the United States of American, along with the Southern Confederacy --- "With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States," as he put it (10).

In that document Mayor Wood sought to distance New York City from other northern states, and even other parts of New York State, which had "participated in the warfare upon their constitutional rights or their domestic institutions" (11).

The Mayor made it perfectly clear what New York City had at stake. He said: "We have respected the local interests of every section, at no time oppressing, but all the while aiding in the development of the resources of the whole country. Our ships have penetrated to every clime, and so have New York capital, energy and enterprise found their way to every State, and, indeed, to almost every county and town of the American Union. If we have derived sustenance from the Union, so have we in return disseminated blessings for the common benefit of all. Therefore, New York has a right to expect, and should endeavor to preserve a continuance of uninterrupted intercourse with every section" (12).

What is going on? What are we looking at here? What are we to conclude from this? And, by the way, how does this relate to the legislation gradually abolishing slavery in the state of New York, in 1799?

1. Well, obviously, Mayor Wood believed himself to represent significant commercial and financial interests, in New York City, which, in 1861, desired to continue trade relations with the Southern Confederacy (in addition to every other "section" of the Union).

2. Mayor Wood and these interests believe that the secession crisis threatens to, unfairly --- from their point of view --- block them from continuing to enjoy the benefits of these relations.

3. Mayor Wood and these financial and commercial interests are so upset at the prospect at the interruption of the commercial and financial "intercourse" with the Southern Confederacy, they would have rather left the Union, so as to continue to enjoy "intercourse" with "every section."

4. The document also makes clear that New York City is even at odds with other parts of New York State.

As I said, this area needs more research but...

Suppose urban slavery is the missing ingredient here?

Suppose Mayor Wood's proposal was born of New York City's devotion to the specific institution of urban slavery?

What if New York City's financial ties to the Southern Confederacy were not merely born of simple profit? Suppose they were born of New York City's devotion to the relatively milder, gentler system of urban slavery, which, as we discussed, necessitated the continued existence of the harsher, more brutal form of plantation slavery as the "bad cop" half of the "good cop-bad cop" dyad?

More research, in this regard, probably needs to be done for all Northern cities.

Here's the thing, and I'll close with this: No system of oppression and control can be uniform and "one-size-fits-all," as it were.

If you create a uniform system of oppression and control, the entire targeted population is liable to revolt against you, in force, at the same time. Of course, you don't want that. You want to do the classic "divide and rule" thing.

You have got to set some of the targeted group aside, and tell them that they are better than the rest. You, in fact, tell this subsection that you and they are a lot alike, after all. Maybe some of them even believe you.

But you must have the more degraded majority in existence, again, as a kind of implicit, existential threat.

Therefore, pending further research, questions present themselves.

A. If I am right about New York City's devotion to urban slavery, what was the effect of the 1799 state legislation gradually abolishing slavery?

B. Did this law, somehow, only strike at "classic" agricultural, planation-style slave labor in the state?

C. Was the practice of urban slavery in the cities left untouched? If so, why?

D. What was the urban-rural situation in the rest of the Northern states, with regard to slavery?

E. Was urban slavery even thought of as slavery by urbanites?

F. Did urbanites hold urban slaves, not think of themselves as "slaveholders," somehow, and yet, condemn southern slaveholding planters as dirty, rotten slavers?

G. But if point F were true, the southern institution would never have received such consistent financial support from northern merchants, financiers, and traders, would they?

I'm going to leave it there. We'll do more in Part Twenty One: Urban Slavery (Section B)

Thank you so much for reading!


1. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 37

2. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 121 (paperback)

3. ibid

4. ibid, 122

5. Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Double Day, 2008.

6. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making Of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 43

7. ibid

8. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom. 122

9. ibid, 76

10. Wood, F. (1861, January 6). Mayor Wood's Recommendation of the Secession of New York City. Retrieved June 17, 2015

11. ibid

12. ibid

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