Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865

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By , only 13 percent of the state's blacks were enslaved, and slaves made up a mere 3 percent of the total population. In the early s, 60 percent of Delaware's enslaved lived in units of 5 or fewer. Delaware had, proportionally, the largest free black population of any state. This was not merely a statistical abstraction, but it was known and commented upon by the people in Delaware at the time, as in the Wilmington newspaper of that noted that Delaware "has more free colored in proportion to its population than any state in the Union.

Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865

An law threatened to sell free blacks into servitude for a year if they were "idle and poor" and remained unemployed. Blacks had been barred from state-aided schools as far back as In , not long after Nat Turner's rebellion, the General Assembly began to pass "black codes" to control the lives and activities of freedmen. Soon these harsh rules made Delaware "the least hospitable place in the Union for freedmen prior to the Civil War. An attempt to abolish slavery in the new state constitution in failed.

Bills to abolish slavery were introduced in the General Assembly in and ' An attempt at gradual emancipation in was killed by the speaker of the state House of Representatives, who cast the tiebreaking vote. Further attempts were made, but the abolition bills generally were smothered or starved in parliamentary procedure.

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By this time, the pattern had been established of anti-slavery New Castle County in the north vs. An bill for gradual abolition was "indefinitely postponed," but in a gradual emancipation bill that would have freed all African-Americans born into slavery after made it out of committee, with a recommendation of approval on economic grounds. Industrial Wilmington was eager to keep up with its bigger rivals, and the Northern political rhetoric of the times held that free laboring men, working to better their condition in factories or on farms, were the key to a region's prosperity.

The committee report warned that "the carelessness, slovenly and unproductive husbandry visible in some parts of our state, undoubtedly result mainly from the habit of depending on slave labor. It is no longer a disputable question that slave labor impoverishes, while free labor enriches people. But it was tabled in the state Senate by one vote. Ironically, the deciding vote against it was cast by a senator who probably lived in Pennsylvania, in an area where the Mason-Dixon survey had left the boundary doubtful: a small spike of land that technically belonged to Pennsylvania but traditionally had been administered by Delaware.

The 1639 Story: Slavery & Freedom in Wilmington, Delaware

Slavery debates in Delaware were a clash of morality and conservatism. The state's congressional delegation, on instruction from the General Assembly, opposed the extension of slavery in , in the crisis that led up to the Missouri Compromise. The General Assembly passed resolutions against the annexation of Texas and the spread of slavery into territories conquered from Mexico.

Yet the same General Assembly would not end slavery where it had power to do so, at home. By the time the Civil War began, fewer than 1, slaves lived in Delaware, and 75 percent of them were in Sussex County, mostly in the Nanticoke River basin in the far southwest of the state.

In the fall of , Lincoln proposed to George P. Fisher, Delaware congressman, a plan to compensate Delaware's remaining slaveholders from federal funds if they would free their slaves. Lincoln hoped that, if this could be shown to work in Delaware, it could be done as well in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, and eventually become a model for the states then in the Confederacy. In his proposal to Fisher, he called it the "cheapest and most humane way of ending this war and saving lives. He told them that if they repudiated slavery it would remove one of the South's principal causes in continuing the war: that the slave border states were being kept in the Union against their will.

And he laid out the practical, economic argument: "How much better for you and for your people to take the step which at once shortens the war and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event! How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it! Room in South America for colonization can be obtained cheaply and in abundance, and when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go.

William H. Williams papers | Manuscript and Archival Collection Finding Aids

Lincoln also mentioned Gen. Hunter's proclamation of emancipation in his theater of the war, and the embarrassment it caused Lincoln to have to repudiate it. This, he said, had caused "disaffection Burton listened to the President's plan, and assured him the state's farmers would go along with it if the price was fair. Fisher then went to Dover, and, with the help of Republican Nathaniel P. Smithers, drew up a bill and presented it to the General Assembly. It would free all slaves over 35 at once, and all others by It was more than a prime field hand was worth, and was five times the value of a typical slave in the state.

But Lincoln was unpopular in Delaware -- he had finished third there in the election , with 24 percent of the vote, behind Breckenridge and Bell -- and even if the money offered was good, the state's politicians seemed disinclined to help the government. Delaware also had a suspicion of federal interference in its internal affairs. In , the General Assembly replied to Lincoln's compensated emancipation offer with a resolution stating that, "when the people of Delaware desire to abolish slavery within her borders, they will do so in their own way, having due regard to strict equity.

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Delaware's Sen. Joseph A. Bayard, an opponent of the administration, admitted, "slavery does not exist as a valuable source of prosperity" in Delaware. Others played on the old fear that free blacks would prey on whites. Samuel Townsend, a Democrat writing in opposition to the plan, portrayed the white population of Delaware as riding on the back of a tiger from which it dared not dismount, for, "in a short time," free blacks in the state "might equal the white population and cause a massacre.

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