Slavery and the New York State Senate

By Ned Benton (draft 7/4/2017)

In the 1790s, slavery abolitionists faced a major political and legal barrier: many of the members of the New York State Senate were slave-holders. We have set up two search tags – “SEN1790” and “SEN1800” and have tagged the census records of all of the State Senators who are listed as slave owners.You can generate the list by selecting the Search For Owners page and choosing either tag in the tag menu at the bottom of the search form.

This political reality explains why the Gradual Abolition Act was incremental.

The Senate in 1790

  • The Southern District (9 seats) consisted of Kings, New York, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk and Westchester counties.
  • The Middle District (6 seats) consisted of Dutchess, Orange and Ulster counties.
  • The Eastern District (3 seats) consisted of Washington, Clinton, Cumberland and Gloucester counties.
  • The Western District (6 seats) consisted of Albany, Columbia and Montgomery counties.

Of the 24 Senate seats in 1790, 17 were slave holders.

The Senate in 1800

  • The Southern District (9 seats) consisted of Kings, New York, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk and Westchester counties.
  • The Middle District (12 seats) consisted of Dutchess, Orange, Ulster, Columbia, Delaware, Rockland and Greene counties.
  • The Eastern District (11 seats) consisted of Washington, Clinton, Rensselaer, Albany, Saratoga and Essex counties.
  • The Western District (11 seats) consisted of Montgomery, Herkimer, Ontario, Otsego, Tioga, Onondaga, Schoharie, Steuben, Chenango, Oneida and Cayuga counties.

Of the 43 Senate seats in 1800, 23 were slave holders.

The Gradual Emancipation Act

An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery March 29, 1799, State of New-York, Passed at the Twenty-Second Meeting of the Legislature Begun the Second Day of January, 1799 (Albany, 1799).

Be it enacted … That any child born of a slave within this state after the fourth day of July next shall be deemed and adjudged to be born free: Provided nevertheless. That such child shall be the servant of the legal proprietor of his or her mother until such servant, if a male, shall arrive at the age of twenty-eight years, and if a female, at the age of twenty-five years. And be it further enacted … That such proprietor, his, her or their heirs or assigns, shall be entitled to the service of such child until he or she shall arrive to the age aforesaid, in the same manner as if such child had been bound to service by the overseers of the poor. And be it further enacted … That the person entitled to such service may, nevertheless, within one year after the birth of such child, elect to abandon his or her right to such service, by a notification of the same from under his or her hand, and lodged with the clerk of the town or city where the owner of the mother of any such child may reside; in which case every child abandoned as aforesaid shall be considered as paupers of the respective town or city where the proprietor or owner of the mother of such child may reside at the time of its birth; and liable to be bound out by the overseers of the poor on the same terms and conditions that the children of paupers were subject to before the passing of this act.