The Ambiguity of North and South in 1790

Update: This post is not as accurate as it could be. None of the numbers are wrong, but the standard deviation does not give us measures as useful as one would hope. This doesn’t change any facts, but does have interpretive consequences. Short version: ambiguity remains but the regions do have larger differences.

Given the length, I’ve opted to cease using Slavery by the Numbers as part of the post title. It remains in the categories over on the sidebar.

With the exception of the immediately preceding longitudinal post, I have drawn all Slavery by the Numbers data from the 1860 census.  But the United States conducted censuses every decade, on the decade, from 1790. Those census figures highlight continuities that one might expect, but also interesting differences. To tease those out, I’ve decided to do some comparisons. In addition, I plan to use the data compiled in this post as a starting point for future posts with more detailed analysis.

My categorization of North and South rests on the familiar 1860 definitions, not on 1790 understandings of the regions. I have marked non-state areas with a (T) for territory, regardless of their then-current legal status.

America according to the first census in 1790

America according to the first census in 1790 (Click image for a bigger version.)

Immediately continuity leaps out: 94.25% of the nation’s slaves lived South of the Mason-Dixon line. One could take away from that the notion that slavery had only a transient, irrelevant existence in the North. Massachusetts, Maine (then a part of Massachusetts) and Vermont had no slaves at all. New Hampshire had less than two hundred and Rhode Island less than a thousand. All in all, only 5.75% of the nation’s slaves lived in Northern states or territories, where they amounted to 2.04% of the population.

But in 1860, Delaware enslaved only 1.60% of its people. In 1790, New Jersey and New York both enslaved almost six and a quarter percent of their populations. Those two states alone account for 32,616 (81.37%) of the North’s 40,086 slaves in 1790. Rhode Island (1.39%) and Connecticut (1.11%) come quite close to 1860 Delaware. While it feels strange, a century and a half later, to call barely-enslaved Delaware a slave state, we ought to find it just as strange not to think of 1790 New Jersey and New York as slave states. While neither matches 1860 Missouri, the second least enslaved state of the then-South, they get within two-thirds of its 9.72% enslaved population.

All of the previous, however, looks at slavery from a distinctly white perspective. White people enslaved this percent or that percent of other people. We at least implicitly measure their virtue in the size of that percentage and then look askance at the South for exceeding it. The data do support it; one cannot get around the fact that the South had slavery on a far larger scale, enslaving vastly more people even when Northern law still permitted slavery. Of course the South also had slavery longer and much of the South fought a bitter war to keep it.

But what did that noble North look like to black people? Across the North, 59.72% of the black population lived in bondage. Place by place that varies from 100% in the states with no slaves at all to a mere 18.09% in New York. The regional average comes to 40.28% free, but that figure includes areas with rather few people of any color or condition. The three places with no slaves, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont account for only 6,174 free black people, a mere 9.20% of the North’s free black population.

To contextualize this a bit more, 1790 New York and 1790 New Jersey’s enslaved black populations (81.91% and 80.53%, respectively) exceed 1790 Delaware’s  69.51%. A random black person from those states is more likely enslaved than one from Delaware. For that matter, the same is true if we compare 1970 New York and New Jersey to 1860 Maryland. The 1860 Border States had 21.56% (maximum of 91.69% in Delaware, minimum of 3.01% in Missouri) of their black populations living free, at least in the eyes of the law.

All of this touches the edges of a related story. White people accounted for 96.56% of the 1790 North’s population and the white North comprised 59.89% of the nation’s white population. The rest of the white people, 40.11%, lived with 91.14% of the nations black people. Of that third of the South’s population, they owned 95.29%. Whatever virtues and vices each section had, and each had its fair share of both, the South had far more black people on hand to hold as slaves. Taking into account pervasive racism, that also translated into far more reason to adopt and maintain far harsher means of racial control.

To turn things around a little and touch on a point from this blog’s infancy, since slavery forms the common ground on which the states we call Southern stand, in 1790 the South included at least New York and New Jersey. Both still practiced de jure slavery. Residual slavery persisted in the form of eighteen people in New Jersey up into 1860. Despite its early emancipation law, Pennsylvania still had some residual slavery until 1847. Slaves also appear for Connecticut in the 1840 census.

Colors on a map give the impression that people live in worlds of bright lines and clear distinctions, but those exist for our convenience in making generalizations. Those generalizations have many uses and we could not make any sort of progress at anything of consequence without making some kinds of generalization. But North and South do not reduce to colors on the map or islands in the sea, all one or the other with never the two meeting or mixing. Instead both coexist to varying degrees and in varying amounts from place to place and time to time.


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