Gest Fellow Jonathan D. Sassi is Professor of History at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His project is entitled “Toward Gradual Emancipation in New Jersey.”
I am studying the political struggle that eventuated in New Jersey’s gradual emancipation act of 1804. New Jersey was the last state to pass such a law during the period of “the first emancipation” that followed the American Revolution, with Pennsylvania having been the first in 1780. New Jersey’s gradual emancipation statute was the result of a decades-long campaign by antislavery activists, many of whom were Quakers. I have been trying to learn how the eighteenth-century antislavery movement functioned: how it fashioned winning arguments and rebutted the opposition’s; mobilized supporters and built coalitions; went to court and won legislative victories; all with the ultimate goal of uprooting an entrenched institution and liberating people held in bondage.
The Quaker Collection holds a rich variety of primary source materials that illuminate various facets of the struggle against slavery. To cite a few examples, the correspondence of several key individuals along with the records of abolition societies reveal the inner workings of the movement. The minutes of various Quaker meetings also provide insight into the drive to eliminate slavery, both within the Society of Friends and in society at large. Manumission certificates and legal depositions open up fascinating stories about how particular men, women, and children escaped the snares of enslavement. Moreover, I discovered that the Quaker Collection also contains unexpected finds. For example, a wedding certificate or business receipt — documents that on the surface seemingly have nothing to do with the antislavery movement — can lay bare the personal ties that connected several of the major historical actors and bring their eighteenth-century world into focus.
My research will require me to visit a number of other archives in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The full tapestry of New Jersey’s antislavery campaign will only become visible as I reconnect the scattered strands of evidence. My time at the Quaker Collection has been enormously productive and provided me with an abundance of findings and leads for further investigation. I am grateful to have been awarded a Gest Fellowship and to the library’s expert staff for their manifold assistance.