“Our Original Sin” (feature, Nov. 8) states that New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery. The legislative history on slavery has been a slippery fish ever since the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There the delegates artfully avoided using the term “slaves,” referring to them as non-free “other” persons worth only three-fifths of a person for representation in the U.S. Congress (Article I, Section 2) and remanding them (if they fled slavery) to the “party to whom labor may be due” (Article IV, Section 2).
New Jersey’s 1804 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery provided that male children of enslaved women could be held in slavery until age 25 and females until age 21. Those enslaved before passage of the 1804 law remained enslaved for life. Under the 1846 New Jersey Act to Abolish Slavery, existing slaves were renamed as apprentices, who could be sold only with their written consent. Children born to them were free from birth. Under similar evasive terminology, slavery was practiced legally in several Northern states until the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect in December of 1865. It would be more accurate to say that New Jersey tied for last place with several other states in the date of prohibiting the practice of slavery.