Law and Order in Colonial New York: The Evolution and Development of Blackness in the Courtroom and Law from 1679 to 1742

26 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2020

See all articles by Chloe-Lynn Chartouni

Chloe-Lynn Chartouni

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct

Date Written: May 1, 2020


On Monday August 9, 1742, The New-York Weekly Journal reported on the Court of General and Quarter Sessions of the Peaces’ proceedings from August 3, 1742. The court’s proceedings called for white New Yorkers to report any instances of fellow whites entertaining blacks, calling them “the scum and dregs of the white people.” The New-York Weekly Journal’s report on the proceedings further expressed white colonists’ fears of the mixing of whites and blacks and the potential of a slave uprising in the wake of the 1741 Conspiracy trials headed under Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the province of New York, Daniel Horsmanden. According to the recorder of the Court of General and Quarter Sessions of the Peace, “the enemy is still at work within our bowels,” the enemy being unruly black slaves. The racialized trepidation and inquiry in this record was hardly unprecedented. Instead, it was the result of a slow and gradual development of a conception of race among white New Yorkers.

Colonists’ construction of themselves as whites and of their slaves as blacks is nowhere more apparent than within the colony’s legislative acts, codes, and laws. New York lawmakers passed numerous legal mandates, starting as early as 1682, that explicitly targeted the colony’s enslaved black population. These laws neither protected black slaves nor provided them with any rights, liberties, protections – in essence, the law in colonial New York provided no advantages to its black population, enslaved or otherwise. Instead, however, the legislative council passed these legal mandates to exclusively benefit slave owners and the white population. These laws demonstrated an increasing intolerance of whites towards blacks and whites’ desire to establish their superiority. Therefore, an examination of slave codes and laws demonstrates, as Douglas Greenberg argues, “the society’s world view.” With the passing of legal mandates regulating and subjugating black slaves, legislators codified New York society’s transition to using race as the primary social distinction.

Hence, with the understanding that the law is a reflection of, and a tool for asserting the belief systems held by those individuals in positions of power, it is imperative to the integrity of the centuries-long narrative of race in New York, and its broader sister – the history of race of the United States, to examine the construction of race through the law and the courtroom. This paper’s objective is twofold: (i) to bring further justice to the history of the development of race and blackness through unstudied yet unforgotten court cases and laws; and (ii) to answer – how the law and the courtroom, through denying black people, enslaved or otherwise, of their inalienable rights, liberties, and freedoms in colonial New York, participate in the development of race? Through its analysis of individual laws, full slave codes and court cases, from small instances of theft to the hysteria of 1741, this paper concludes that while New York colonists established legal codes to facilitate their exploitation of African slaves, the legal regime was not, at first, entirely race-based. But, in the wake of an increasing slave population and insurrections, the laws of the colony became explicitly race-based, and with it, simultaneously, developed the law and language of race. Most importantly, however, this examination demonstrates that irrespective of the time period, ambiguities and contradictions in the development of race always existed. That is, the fight for a society free of using race as any kind of social distinction, whatsoever, began simultaneous to, and, at the very same moment of the development of race, and its subsequent legal codification.

The way that law impacted the development of race in early America has not gone unnoticed by historians. While New York’s urban landscape and urban slavery differed from slavery on plantations in the South by allowing slaves more mobility, colonists’ development of race occurred throughout the British Atlantic. Scholars have connected the law with the social construction of race. For example, Anthony Parent connects race codes and laws with the development of Virginia’s racial regime. Parent argues, “…If the great planters were to maintain their slave society, they would have to construct a racial system of justice and enforce sanctions against transgressors.” According to Parent, a racial system of justice allowed whites to maintain their social positions and to maintain control over their slave populations. Other scholars have written of slavery in colonial New York and they, too, have noted slave codes and laws. However, most have only paid a passing attention to the direct development of colonists’ racial thinking strictly through laws and subsequent court cases. Most prominently Jill Lepore and Peter Charles Hoffer, have spilled gallons of ink detailing the 1741 Slave Conspiracy Trials in New York City. Hoffer argues that the “law treated all slaves as though there were no individual differences among them” ; he continues, “slave law was not justice or fairness but rather the absolute dominion of the master over his property.”

This paper, though in agreement with Lepore and Hoffer, is distinct as it places a greater emphasis on the construction of race through individual laws and court cases. This examination is based strictly on findings from a set number of important sources which encompass the current availability of records in existence as a result of the 1911 fire at the New York State Library in Albany that destroyed a significant amount of crucial historical records of the State’s and Colony’s history. While the laws and cases within these records are not entirely comprehensive, as a result of the 1911 fire, there is, however, every reason to believe that they are representative. This examination is divided into three sections: (I) The Early Period: 1679-1705; (II) The Middle Period: 1706-1740; and (III) The Late Period: Post-1740. The division of sections based on consecutive periods is not designed to execute a survey. Rather, each period represents a distinct era in the development of racial ideology in Colonial New York, markedly different from one another when examining the structures of law that emerged and their specific societal frameworks. Hence, this selection begets the understanding that the cementation of racial ideologies of difference based on skin color developed over time. The development of legal definitions of race that would separate Black and white populations was never erected in its salient form out of a vacuum – it took hundreds of actions from both sides of the aisle, legal and otherwise, against the backdrop of time. Otherwise put, and as this examination concludes, the history of the development of race and its subsequent legal codification, through the lens of the law and the courtroom demonstrates that this history is not void of those who fought, those who reacted to injustices. This papers shows that the Black population in colonial New York were on the frontlines fighting for their inalienable rights – through court records, legislation meetings, revolts, and every day actions – the fight for a society free of racial inequalities, began simultaneous to, and, at the very same moment of the development of race, and its subsequent legal codification.

Suggested Citation

Chartouni, Chloe-Lynn, Law and Order in Colonial New York: The Evolution and Development of Blackness in the Courtroom and Law from 1679 to 1742 (May 1, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Chloe-Lynn Chartouni (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct ( email )

Philadelphia, PA
United States

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