and Slavery: Context
When Princeton Seminary was founded by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1812, slavery in New Jersey remained very much alive. To be sure, the state had passed a law eight years earlier declaring that any child born to a slave mother after July 4, 1804, would eventually be free. Those children, however, had to serve the mother’s master for a term—women until the age of 21, men until 25. Those already in bondage prior to 1804 remained slaves until they died. As late as the Civil War, New Jersey continued to have a slave population, albeit a steadily dwindling one. As one historian has observed, the last thirteen African-Americans “held in bondage in New Jersey in 1860 were liberated by death or the thirteenth amendment.” In short, gradual abolition also meant prolonged bondage, and it shifted the financial cost of freedom from the slaveholders to the enslaved themselves. The slow movement toward freedom in other northern states often (though not invariably) paralleled that of New Jersey, but the Garden State was clearly in the rear of the procession. This fact meant that those who taught in the Seminary during its first years and those who studied here encountered slavery as a familiar part of life. They also encountered freed African-Americans in a greater number than would have been the case in most New Jersey towns. In 1840, the census listed approximately twenty-one percent of the community as black—about three and a half times the percentage for the entire state.2
Princeton Seminary’s relationship to slavery also needs to be set in a national and international context in which support for the institution of slavery was declining and yet its effects were deeply enmeshed in nearly all aspects of social and economic life. “Everywhere in the country,” Gordon Wood has written of the 1780s, “most of the Revolutionary leaders assumed that slavery was on its last legs and headed for destruction.” Between 1777 and 1804, Northern states outlawed slavery or provided for the gradual emancipation of those in bondage. Even in the South, particularly the Upper South, many felt the institution to be waning. In some places the strict slave codes passed at the beginning of the eighteenth century were laxly enforced. Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland passed laws making it easier for masters to free slaves, and there was often talk in the South of the eventual demise of the institution. Then, in 1807, largely with Southern acquiescence, Congress outlawed the foreign slave trade, effective the following year.
But as early as the 1790s, there were also signs of growing wariness about anti-slavery rhetoric. The black rebellion in the French colony Saint-Domingue (Haiti), and later, in 1800, the revolt in Henrico County, Virginia, led by the artisan slave Gabriel, made many Southerners uneasy with loose talk about freedom or ameliorating the condition of slaves. Laws now obliged free blacks to carry papers or wear patches proving their freedom, and Virginia in 1806 passed a statute requiring that freed slaves depart the state. With the invention of the cotton gin and the opening of new territories east of the Mississippi River and then in the west with the Louisiana Purchase, the use of slave labor spread rapidly and became more—not less—entrenched as cotton became an economic powerhouse. The controversy over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1820 deepened divisions over slavery. As these events were unrolling, Princeton Seminary was created and entered the first decades of its life.3