The Manumission Society, Colonizationists, and Abolitionists

While many Columbians were opposed to slavery, not all were abolitionists. Early opponents of slavery in New York formed the Manumission Society, an organization dedicated to gradual emancipation. While the Manumission Society could be conservative and paternalistic, it was also one of the few – and indeed perhaps the only – organization advocating on behalf of slaves in New York State at the time. Colonizationists opposed the institution of slavery, but did not believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between races was possible post-emancipation. Instead, they proposed creating a country (Liberia) in Africa settled by former slaves. Some proposed that emigration to this "colony" was to be voluntary; others veered towards deportation. Abolitionists were more radical: they believed in immediate, uncompensated emancipation for all slaves. Abolitionist views on racial equality varied; some, but not all, believed in complete social and political equality.

John Jay

Gilbert Stuart - John Jay

John Jay is best known as a prominent Revolutionary statesman who helped to secure American independence and shape the early government of the United States. In 1787 and 1788 Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison authored The Federalist Papers to promote the ratification of the Constitution and argued for a strong central government. In 1789 Jay became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President George Washington, and in 1795 he was elected Governor of New York.

Jay was a member of a prominent New York mercantile family. His father, Peter Jay, was a major colonial slave-trading merchant, and his wife, Sarah Livingston, was a member of the powerful Livingston family, which had extensive slaveholdings and connections to the slave trade. Jay graduated from King’s College in 1764, and he served as a regent of Columbia College from 1784 to 1787.

Sarah Van Brugh Livingston Jay

In spite of his background, Jay became known for his opposition to slavery. He argued that the patriotic principles of liberty and equality was at odds with the continuation of slavery in the United States. Jay became the first president of the New York Manumission Society, which was founded in 1785. Jay owned five slaves during his tenure as society president, and, according to census records, he owned one slave as late as 1810. Slave ownership was not inconsistent with the conservative mission of the Manumission Society. Jay and other members of the society saw themselves as guardians of New York’s enslaved and free black population. Nevertheless, Jay was an early and vocal proponent of ending slavery, and his anti-discrimination rhetoric paved the way for later antislavery reformers. 

Peter Augustus Jay

Peter A. Jay

Peter Augustus Jay was the son of John Jay, a Columbia graduate, and a college trustee. He was a lawyer, and he served in the New York Assembly in and as the New York City Recorder. Like his father, he was a Federalist, and he also followed his father in becoming the president of the New York Manumission Society in 1816.

Peter A. Jay took his antislavery views further than his father. At the 1821 New York constitutional convention, he strongly opposed a provision that established a prohibitive property qualification for black men to vote. While his efforts were unsuccessful, Jay denied that “the intellect of a black man is naturally inferior to that of a white man.” In voicing this view, Jay countered some of the more conservative policies of the Manumission and Colonization Societies.

John Jay II

John Jay II

John Jay II was the grandson of John Jay and a graduate of Columbia College in 1836. He followed the example of his grandfather and his father, William Jay, becoming an active abolitionist. William Jay was a judge and an abolitionist who became the president of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society in 1835.

In 1834, while he was still a student at Columbia, John Jay II became a manager of the New-York Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society, which advocated for the immediate abolition of slavery. In the same year, New York was roiled by anti-abolitionist riots. Jay was among those who defended the home of Arthur Tappan, president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, from the mob.

While Jay found few among his fellow Columbians who also supported the antislavery cause, he embarked on a long career of abolitionist activism. As a lawyer, he defended fugitive slaves in New York City in the 1840s and 50s. He also protested against racism in the Episcopal Church. Columbia, since its founding, had close ties with that religious denomination, and Jay came into direct conflict with several alumni. Jay also attempted to combat discrimination at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. When James Parker Barnett was summarily expelled from P&S in 1850 after it was discovered that he was of African descent, Jay took on his case. Jay filed a petition in the Supreme Court of New York for a writ of mandamus in an effort to compel P&S to readmit Barnett. This writ was eventually ruled invalid in a later contest.

During the Civil War, John Jay II served as the president of the Union League Club in New York. In this role, Jay strove to cultivate unity and patriotic support of the Union war effort, especially among members of the city’s wealthy business community.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is widely known as one of the founding fathers of the United States, taking a central role in shaping the nation’s government and economy in the aftermath of the Revolution. Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote The Federalist Papers together, and Hamilton served as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

A native of St. Croix, Hamilton attended classes at King’s College for a little over two years before leaving to join the Revolutionary cause. He and fellow King’s College alum John Jay were central figures in the college’s revival after the war. Hamilton became a Columbia trustee in 1787, and he served until his death in 1804, when he was shot in a duel by Aaron Burr, his political rival.

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton had been exposed to the brutality of slavery during his youth in the Caribbean, and he was opposed to the institution from an early age. Nevertheless, other priorities, including his own personal advancement, generally outweighed his personal aversion to slavery. The money he earned as a clerk for Nicholas Cruger in St. Croix came from the family’s trade in slaves and goods produced by slave labor. Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, came from a major slaveholding family in New York.

During the Revolutionary era, Hamilton spoke out against slavery, arguing that it threatened to weaken the economy of the new nation. He urged the enlistment of black soldiers in Washington’s army, and he rejected the idea that black people were innately inferior to white people. Still, during the constitutional convention of 1787, Hamilton said nothing about slavery, and he reluctantly agreed to compromises with Southern states that embedded slavery in the Constitution.

Back in New York after the war, Hamilton joined the Manumission Society, and he briefly served as its president after John Jay. He tried, but failed, to institute a requirement that members of the society manumit their own slaves.

Governeur Morris

Gouverneur Morris

Governeur Morris, of the prominent New York Morris family, was a politician, lawyer, and diplomat during the Revolutionary and Early National eras. He was a delegate to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. Having attended King’s College (he graduated in 1765), Morris was also was a trustee of Columbia College from 1805 to 1816.

Despite growing up in a slaveholding family (his father’s estate, Morrisania, was home to 46 slaves), Morris himself harbored anti-slavery sentiments. He pushed anti-slavery resolutions at the 1777 New York State constitutional convention, and spoke strongly against the institution at the federal Constitutional Convention. His objections, however, did not pass muster in either case, and he became a strong supporter of the federal Constitution. He later became a member of the New York Manumission Society.

Later in his life, Morris was a Federalist senator from New York, and also championed the construction of the Erie Canal.

Charles and Rufus King

Rufus King

Rufus King was a politician and diplomat during the Revolutionary and Early National periods. He was also a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and was a strong supporter of both the Constitution and the new federal government. King was a trustee of Columbia College from 1806 to 1824. His son, Charles King, eventually became president of the university.

King’s opposition to slavery was often muted. Notwithstanding his origins as the son of a slaveholding family, King came to oppose the institution, and worked to bar slavery from the Northwest Territories. He voiced opposition to the ⅗ clause and the continuance of the slave trade at the Constitutional Convention. But in 1790, when faced with an anti-slavery petition in the Senate, King declared that the government had no power to interfere with the institution.  King himself owned at least one slave, who he freed in 1812. Perhaps his anti-slavery feelings reemerged later in his life, when he opposed the admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave state.

Charles King

King’s son, Charles, held more forceful views on the matter. Having become president of Columbia College in 1849, the younger King became an outspoken anti-slavery activist. He strongly supported the Union during the Civil War, and presented a regimental flag to an all-black battalion who he referred to as, “Fellow-countrymen…   emancipated, regenerated and disenthralled; the peer[s] of the proudest soldier in the land."

Robert Troup

Robert Troup was Alexander Hamilton’s roommate during his time at King’s College. Both were involved in the Revolutionary escalation while there, and Troup’s letters and recollections provide a window into Hamilton’s changing perspectives – though perhaps not an entirely clean window, as one historian describes him as being an “arrant gossip.”

Hamilton and Troup remained friends, and appeared together frequently for the duration of Hamilton’s life. Later, Troup, along with Hamilton, presided over the first meeting of the New York Manumission Society.

Daniel D. Tompkins

Daniel Tompkins

Daniel D. Tompkins was a New York politician in the Early National period, and Vice President of the United States from 1817 to 1825. He was Governor of New York from 1807 to 1815. Tompkins was a Columbia College graduate, having graduated in 1795.

Despite owning one slave himself, Tompkins did not approve of slavery as an institution. While at Columbia, he penned an essay denouncing “the inhumanity of slavery,” and after graduating became counsel to the New York Manumission Society. During his administration, New York State passed another, more complete gradual emancipation law at Tompkins’s urging.

Henry Rutgers

Henry Rutgers

Henry Rutgers was a wealthy landowner and politician in the Early Republic period. Rutgers graduated from King’s College in 1766.

Rutgers owned several slaves, and was the President of the New York auxiliary branch of the American Colonization Society, a group which sought to end slavery by deporting black people (free or unfree) to Africa.

A philanthropist of sorts, Rutgers donated to many causes, particularly schools and universities. Rutgers University bears his name

John Daniel Gros

Professor John Daniel Gros taught Moral Philosophy, Geography, and German at Columbia College after the Revolution. Originally from Germany, Gros was lured to the New World by the promise of his own pastorship. He was a pastor in various congregations throughout Pennsylvania and New York until moving to New York.

An unorthodox professor for his time, Gros was a well respected teacher known for teaching beyond the standard British-oriented curriculum that was then the norm. He may have discussed slavery in his classes, having authored several anti-slavery writings.

Gros was a trustee of the university from 1785 to 1792, and was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from the College in 1789.

James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith was an African American doctor, scientist, and abolitionist in the mid-19th century. While Smith was not a graduate of Columbia College, this was not for lack of trying; when he applied to Columbia in 1831, he was rejected, he said, "on account of his complexion."

Smith – whose mother was a slave – was educated at the Free School established by the New York Manumission Society, and went on to obtain his medical degree from the University of Glasgow. In addition to his achievements as a doctor, Smith became an important spokesperson and advocate for African Americans, free and enslaved alike; he helped found numerous community organizations and institutions committed to his philosophy of racial uplift. He was also a prominent member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and other abolitionist organizations.

Smith was something of a latter-day renaissance man: in addition to his medical practice, he was also a prolific author (particularly but not exclusively focused on racial matters), essayist, newspaper editor, and climate scientist.

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