Chances are, if you went to public schools as a kid, you learned a very easy narrative about slavery and geography. The South had slaves, and thus the South was bad. The North did not, and the North was good. From there, it was an easy jump to whitewash the motives behind the Civil War: The North was opposed to slavery, and went to war. The South was for it, and went to war, too.
The truth, however, is that New York’s economy was, from its early days, inextricably bound up in the slave trade, and its residents to slave owning. And while geography had everything to do with slavery, it had little to do with morality and a lot to do with the sort of markets geography allowed. The sprawling plantation country of the South made raising cotton and other raw materials lucrative, and large slave populations necessary, while the rocky soil, small farms and harbors of the North made for comparatively small agricultural slave populations but big incentives to act as financial and shipping go-betweens.
But while slavery was part of New York’s economy from early on, the modern idea of slavery and its trappings—brutal, total, carceral, and race-based—did not emerge until the 18th century. This is not to excuse the system of slavery that was operating in the colonies from the beginning; it was inexcusable. It's important to mention, however, because it shows how the practice of antebellum slavery emerged as a deliberate tactic for dividing races and classes, and that it morphed into ever more brutal forms in keeping with emerging markets. For example, in the 17th century slaves came from many ethnic backgrounds; were seldom privately owned; were granted the same legal protections as whites; could own property; testify in court; and marry. But then the sugar craze hit, and—as England clamored for more of the sweet stuff—New York merchants became key players in the triangle trade, moving slaves to the Caribbean, raw materials from the Caribbean to England, and finished products from England to New York.
As the slave trade began to soar, New York doubled down on its “investments,” continuing to trade in human life while importing more slaves for personal use. By 1775, over 7000 slaves had been imported, bought and sold to New York families—more than the entire population of the city at the turn of the 18th century, and the largest concentration of slaves north of Virginia. And, as slavery grew, slaves’ rights diminished in kind. In 1702, New York released its first slave code, which—along with subsequent decrees—associated slavery with black skin; granted masters near total power over their slaves; set up special slave tribunals so masters would have impunity for all action; decreed slavery to be heritable through the female line; banned freedom of assembly; declared a curfew; and banned slaves from selling goods on the street. The laws also tamped down anti-slavery activity by proclaiming severe penalties for whites found assisting blacks in any meaningful way.
With the booming slave economy, the city eventually declared a physical market for buying and selling human beings. Located at the foot of Wall Street, the market symbolized the crucial impact of slavery on New York’s economy.
Since slave owners were allowed to hire out their slaves for half the rate of the average laborer, much of New York City was built on the backs of these slaves.
Eventually, public opinion and waning economy caught up to the slave trade, and—coupled with anti-slavery laws introduce in the legislature—seemed to be on shaky ground by 1790s. But when Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin, the whole country was pulled into another orgy of slave-based profiteering, and New York reinvented itself as a broker between Britain and the American South, swapping the original triangle trade in human bodies for shipment of raw materials and finished products in what was known as the Cotton Triangle. The whole enterprise was so profitable—40 cents of every cotton dollar went to line the pockets of New York businessmen—that when the South threatened to secede from the Union, those same businessmen swore fealty to their white brothers and sisters over their country.
Eventually, New York would end up standing with the Union, but only because of financial reasons. Terrified of the South’s threat to repudiate its Northerndebts and the disruption of trade markets, New York turned in favor of war almost overnight.
In the long run, our public school education got one thing right: the Civil War was, in many ways, about geography. But it wasn’t a geography of good and bad. It was one in which the geographical perks of participating in the slave trade eventually clashed with the geographic downsides.
In the Financial District today, you can still see signs of slavery’s presence—in the buildings and streets built off slave labor, of course, but also at the site the old slave market and a well where slaves used to gather.
To learn more about the slave history of New York City, check out our People’s History of Lower Manhattan Tour.