In July 1788, New Yorkers celebrated the ratification of the constitution with a grand procession of the city’s professions, trades, and civic organizations. The president, professors, and students of Columbia College marched behind a banner, “Science and Liberty mutually adorn and support each other.” Any disappointment that the constitution did nothing to promote the end of slavery remained unspoken. Yet attitudes toward slavery had evolved in New York as a result of the Revolution. Already, the first organized efforts to abolish the institution in New York had made their appearance. In 1785, a group of 18 leading citizens founded the New York Manumission Society. A majority were Quakers, but the Society also included some of the city’s most prominent patriots of other denominations, including a number of persons closely associated with Columbia. As suggested by its full name–the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been or May be Liberated–the group assumed the role of guardian of the state’s slaves and free blacks. Compared to later abolitionist organizations the Manumission Society was genteel, conservative, and paternalistic. It denied membership to blacks. Its constitution forthrightly condemned “the odious practice of enslaving our fellow-men,” but it claimed that because blacks were afflicted with poverty and “hostile prejudices,” and “habituated to submission,” abolition must come gradually and whites must take the lead in securing it: “the unhappy Africans are the least able to assert their rights.”[i]
The Manumission Society eventually grew to a few hundred members, including merchants, bankers, ship owners, and lawyers. Many were themselves slaveholders, including half the signatories on the society’s first legislative petition, in 1786. Its first president was the King’s graduate John Jay, the son of a major colonial slave-trading merchant and son-in-law of a member of the Livingston family. Jay owned five slaves while he headed the organization, and one as late as 1810. (He later explained that he purchased slaves in order to free them, after “their faithful services shall have afforded a reasonable retribution.”) Nonetheless, Jay became convinced during the struggle for independence that the continuation of slavery was incompatible with the principles for which patriots were fighting. The country’s “prayers to heaven for liberty will be impious,” he wrote in 1780, unless steps were taken to abolish slavery. Five years later, he declared, “I wish to see all unjust and unnecessary discriminations everywhere abolished, and that the time may soon come when all our inhabitants of every colour and denomination shall be free and equal partakers of our political liberty.” In 1816, Jay’s son Peter, a Columbia graduate and later a long-serving trustee, followed in his father’s footsteps as president of the society. At the 1821 New York constitutional convention, he strongly but unsuccessfully opposed a provision establishing a prohibitive property qualification for black men to vote. He emphatically denied that “the intellect of a black man is naturally inferior to that of a white man,” and expressed surprise that so retrograde an idea had been expressed “in an assembly as enlightened as this.”[ii]
The Manumission Society’s members were the only whites actively campaigning for an end to slavery and to improve the conditions of black New Yorkers. Over the course of its life (it survived until 1848), the society offered legal assistance to blacks seeking freedom, worked strenuously to oppose the kidnapping of free blacks and slave catching in the city, brought to court captains engaged illegally in the African slave trade, and sponsored antislavery lectures and literature. It encouraged individuals to manumit their slaves and monitored the fulfillment of promises to do so. And it established the African Free School, which became the backbone of black education in the city. Partly as a result of its efforts, New York’s legislature in 1799 finally adopted a measure for gradual abolition, becoming the next to last northern state to do so (New Jersey delayed until 1804). The law sought to make abolition as orderly as possible. It freed not living slaves but slave children born after July 4, 1799, and only after they had served “apprenticeships” of twenty-eight years for men and twenty-five for women, thus compensating owners for the future loss of their property. Slaves continued to run away, including one advertised by Hubert Van Wagenen in 1802, the year he graduated from Columbia. In 1817, the legislature decreed that all slaves who had been living at the time of the 1799 act would be emancipated on July 4, 1827. On that day, slavery in New York finally came to an end.[iii]
Columbians played an important part in the Manumission Society’s activities and in the death of slavery in New York. Robert Troup, Alexander Hamilton’s roommate at King’s, who graduated in 1774, presided at the group’s first meeting. Robert R. Livingston was among those present, as were John Murray. Jr., the son of a wealthy Quaker merchant and later a Columbia trustee; John Lawrence, a trustee, slaveowner, and brother of a West India planter; and Matthew Clarkson, a regent from 1784 to 1787, who introduced an emancipation bill in the state legislature in 1789. Alexander Hamilton joined the Society at its second meeting and succeeded Jay as president for one year. He and Troup tried, but failed, to have the group require its own members to free their slaves. (Troup himself waited a while to do so – he manumitted four slaves between 1802 and 1814.) Upon his return to New York in 1798 after serving as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton resumed working with the society, defending in court blacks claimed by supposed owners from out of state.[iv]
Other prominent public figures connected with both Columbia and the Manumission Society included Gouverneur Morris; Marinus Willet, a King’s College graduate who went on to serve as New York’s mayor in 1807 and 1808 (during which time he owned two slaves); and Egbert Benson, a King’s graduate and Columbia trustee who served in Congress and on the state Supreme Court in the early republic. James C. Duane, a Columbia trustee, federal district court judge, and owner of several slaves (although he freed a number his wife inherited from her father in the early 1790s) was another founding member. Two Columbian trustees in the society were Presbyterian ministers – John Mason and Samuel Miller, the latter the owner of one slave in 1790. In an address sponsored by the Society, Rev. Miller denied that blacks were incapable of being “industrious members of society… Make them freemen; and they will soon be found to have the manners, the character, and the virtues of freedom.” Benjamin Moore, who had served as interim president of King’s College after the hasty departure of Myles Cooper and would return as Columbia’s president in 1801, joined the Manumission Society in its first year. Like many other members, he owned slaves – two according to the 1810 census, during his term as Columbia’s president.[v]
[i]. W. A. Duer, Reminiscences of an Old New Yorker (New York, 1867), 64; Foner, Gateway, 40-41.
[ii]. Ibid., 41; William Jay, Life of John Jay (2 vols.: New York, 1833), 1: 335; John Jay to Egbert Benson, September 18, 1780; John Jay to Benjamin Rush, March 24, 1785, Papers of John Jay, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/digital/jay/; Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of 1821... (Albany, 1821), 183-85.
[iii]. Foner, Gateway, 41-44; Brewington, “Run-away,” 17.
[iv]. Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 243; Moseley, “Manumission Society,” 26, 37-38; Cody Nager, “‘A New Birth of Freedom’: Columbia Alumni, the New York Manumission Society and the End of Slavery in New York,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 1-12; Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York, 2004), 214-15; Gellman, Emancipating New York, 57.
[v]. Edward P. Alexander, A Revolutionary Conservative: James Duane of New York (New York, 1938), 186, 205; “Directions for Selling Mrs. Duane’s Proportion of Her Father’s Slaves,” April 1791, Duane and Featherstonhaugh Papers, New-York Historical Society; Samuel Miller, A Discourse Delivered April 12, 1797... (New York, 1797).