On this dayFeb 15, 1804

New Jersey Passes Law Delaying End of Slavery for Decades

Rob Culpepper, EJI

New Jersey passed a law providing for the "gradual emancipation of slaves" on February 15, 1804, and in doing so became the last Northern state to begin the process of ending enslavement within its borders. Using the language of bondage, the 1804 act provided that children of enslaved people born after July 4, 1804, would be freed when they reached the age of 21 for women and the age of 15 for men.

To address the protests of enslavers who claimed to be concerned that they would have to support children of enslaved people who eventually would become free, the statute authorized enslavers to break apart families and abandon children of enslaved people to the state once they were more than 12 months old. These children were then bound out to work as "apprentices"—often to the same enslaver who abandoned them—while the state paid for the maintenance of the child.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held as late as 1827 that New Jersey's law continued to permit the sale of Black children as so-called "apprentices." In Ogden v. Price, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the sale of a 13-year-old Black girl despite language in the 1804 law providing that an apprentice was subject to assignment but not sale.

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