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Her Southern Raiment Soiled – The Slave State of Delaware

Delaware has always been exceptional. This enigma of a state, tiny as she may be, has never found her place in history. During the Civil War, the slave states of Delaware did not secede. Instead it sent 12,000 of its citizens to the United States Army. And though it remained within the Union, 500 Delawareans made the trip across the Chesapeake Bay to join the Confederate forces. 1Carol E. Hoffecker Delaware: The First State (Middle Atlantic Press, 1988) 143.

She Is a Sister State

Delaware was not usually considered to be a Southern state. Unlike other border slave states, Delaware was rarely counted among their number. This, despite the fact that slavery was as legal there as it was anywhere south. For example, the Southern Commercial Convention, comprised of business and political leaders of every slave state but Delaware, had little need for the First State.

1757 map of Delaware and the states around it.
1757 map of Delaware and the states around it.

According to a 1857 article in DeBow’s Review (the Southern Commercial Convention’s mouthpiece), Delaware stopped sending delegates to the meetings because she had “been met by them with coldness and distrust.” She was not considered a Southern state because of “Southern rights.” Delaware “is almost surrounded by ‘free State’ ideas, it is really a wonder that her 3,000 slaves have not been carried off by force.”

“She is a sister state,” the article continued, “around whom has burned the flames of abolitionism for more than half a century; yet she stand there without a fold of her Southern raiment soiled.” 2“The Industrial Resources of Delaware” in DeBow’s Review, Volume 23, ed. J.D.B. De Bow (New Orleans and Washington City, 1857) 27-28.

Though the author’s grasp of geography was clearly lacking, he had a point. Through whatever history Delaware had with the abolitionists, the state was a Southern Slave State. Despite Delaware’s loyalty to the United States during the Civil War, slavery had a long history within its borders.

Slave Codes Under Sweden and Denmark

First called New Sweden, Delaware was settled by its namesake in 1637. The mother country granted this new colony a monopoly on tobacco. After which, Delaware’s slave population soared. Dutch traders soon brought in more native Africans. Additionally, English settlers moved from Maryland and Virginia, their slaves in tow. By 1664, Delaware had passed from Swedish to Dutch and finally into British hands. Yet, this transition was a slow one.

Between 1664 and 1678, England seemed to forget about the colony. Rather than default to anarchy, the people observed English common law, except when it came to slavery. By this law, any slaves who converted to Christianity were to be freed. Slavery, however, was fast becoming essential to the economy in certain areas of the colony. In this light, the promise of freedom was soon slashed. 3William H. Williams Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2001) 18-19.

So Go the Quakers

By the 1680s, the wayward Delaware had come under the legislative control of Pennsylvania. The colonists adopted the same Black codes, as well as laws governing slavery. These slave codes focused upon the many ways  to control the enslaved black population. The black codes, in contrast, concerned themselves with crimes and trials.


For instance, a slave would receive twenty-one lashes for carrying a weapon. For meeting in groups larger than four, they would receive up to thirty-nine lashes. Free blacks were subject to the death penalty for murder and rape – a fairly common punishment. For blacks, the laws called for castration if convicted of attempting to rape a white woman. Raping a black woman was not a crime. The court itself was overseen by two justices and six white citizens. 4Patience Essah A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638-1865 (University Press of Virginia, 1996) 33-35.

Delaware also barred slave marriages. In typical European families, the heretical path descended through the father’s bloodline. But with slavery’s complete lack of family structure, the law utilized the mother’s line instead. Any child conceived through the rape of an enslaved black mother by her master was automatically a slave. If the mother was white, the child was born free, even if the father was an enslaved black man. 5Williams, 19.

The lack of formal marriage among the slaves led the colony to enact in 1726 laws “for the preservation of virtue and chastity among the people of this government, and to prevent the heinous sins of adultery and fornication.” The punishment was a fine of fifty pounds – a portion of which went to the poor – and a public whipping “with twenty-one lashes on his or her back, well laid on, at the common whipping post, at the election of the party convicted.” 6Laws of the State of Delaware, Volume 1 (New Castle: Printed by Samuel and John Adams, 1798) 105.

Unequal Opportunity

Illustration depicting a whipping in Delaware from Out of the Hurly Burly by Charles Heber Clark
Illustration depicting a whipping in Delaware from Out of the Hurly Burly by Charles Heber Clark

These laws claimed to cover everybody – whites, blacks, servants and slaves. Regardless, the punishments were unfair. White males convicted of fornication or adultery could usually get off with just a fine. Black males, in contrast, often suffered the full brunt of the law. As the marriage between slaves was not recognized, there was no law against slaves committing adultery. But the mere act of sex might have been a different matter. 7Essah, 34-35.

It was certainly so when it came to any black person having sex with any white person. If a white women bore children of black or mulatto fathers – “such child shall be put out to servitude” to be an indentured servant until the age of thirty-one. The white mother was fined ten pounds and was “publicly whipt with thirty-nine stripes on her bare back, well laid on, at the common whipping-post, and stand in the pillory the space of two hours.” The black man fared a bit worse. He had to suffer the lash and the pillory. He might also be subject to having “one ear nailed thereunto [the pillory], and cropped off.” 8Laws, 108-109.

Delaware Encourages Emancipation

The slave and black codes observed by Delaware were fairly similar to those across all of the colonies. Slavery was on the decline during the Revolutionary War era, and Delaware itself was undergoing a sort of religious awakening. This, coupled with a diversifying economy, saw many enslavers manumit their slaves.

After the Revolution, however, they changed their tune, realizing that little could stem the tide of emancipation. In 1787, the state encouraged manumissions and even  criminalized the sale of unwanted slaves to out of state owners. Those who came from out of state to sell their slaves had their chattel immediately freed. Delaware wasn’t quite a free state, of course. The government allowed enslavers to move into the state with their slaves in tow. 9Essah, 40-41.

Across the two decades between 1790 and 1810, Delaware’s slave population dropped from nearly 9,000 to just over 4,000. Meanwhile, the free black population grew from just under 4,000 to over 13,000. In other words, in 1790, 72% of Delaware’s black people were slaves. In 1810, it had fallen to 35% with the free black population nearly quadrupling. 10Figures are from the census, as given in Slavery in the South by Clayton E. Jewett (Greenwood Press, 2004) 36.

This mass of manumissions came about as fervor for the Declaration of Independence rose. This is evidenced by the many emancipation days held on July 4th. Unlike in most Northern states, Delaware passed no law of general abolition. Enslavers who freed their slaves during this period likely did so due to a drastic change in their morality or because they could afford to do so.

Thinking Twice

Attempting to counter this trend, the legislature placed a bond of sixty pounds upon any slave owner who freed his slaves. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the government understood the trend. Finally relenting, manumission became a permanent and binding contract between the former slaves and their former masters.11Essah, 41.

1820 drawing by John Lewis Krimmel depicting a dance in a country tavern.
1820 drawing by John Lewis Krimmel depicting a dance in a country tavern.

The drop in percentage of enslaved blacks is somewhat deceiving, however. While there certainly was a great drive toward emancipation, there was also a great exodus of enslavers leaving the state with their human property. Delaware shared this trend with Maryland and parts of Virginia. It shifted slavery first south and then west with its expansion. By all counts, Delaware exported upwards of 8,000 slaves between 1790 and 1810. 12Michael Tadman “Antebellum Debates About the Trade” in The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas edited by Walter Johnson (Yale University Press, 2004) 118-121.

Not slaves in the legal sense, free blacks kidnapped by out of state enslavers went uncounted among these exports. Against the law and their will, the kidnappers sold them into slavery in southern Virginia and North Carolina. This distance away from anyone who might know them made it impossible for white friends or allies to vouch for their free status. Now registered as a slave, they remained in bondage until their death. This status would follow with their children and grandchildren. Such machinations went on for decades, but flourished along side the drive for emancipation and exportation. 13Jewett, 43.

Distrusting the First State – Fifty Years Before the War

It was despite this exportation and religious epiphany that DeBow’s Review  claimed the state had opposed the abolitionists for fifty some years “without a fold of her Southern raiment soiled.” 14DeBow’s Review, Volume 23, 28. At first blush, that might seem at odds with reality. After all, Delaware’s slave population continued to drop, from 4,000 in 1810 to under 2,000 by 1860. It’s free black population rose in kind, growing to nearly 20,000 by the Civil War. Yet, as we’ve seen, population figures give us only a small picture of reality. 15Again, figures are from the census records, as given in Jewett, p36.

Whipping post and Pillory from Harper's Weekly November 1876.
Whipping post and Pillory from Harper’s Weekly November 1876.

Many in the South distrusted Delaware as it seemed to be on its way to becoming a de facto free state. Unlike in other slave states, the institution was not an integral part of Delaware’s diversified economy.  It was this diversification that led the author of “The Industrial Resources of Delaware” to his conclusion. Despite her declining slave population, he believed that the rest of the South must see her as a sister state. 16DeBow’s Review, Volume 23, 28-30.

As some Southern businessmen tried to pitch Delaware as a Southern state, the black population focused upon aligning her more with the North. The early 1800s saw a relaxing of the state’s strict black codes.  Free blacks could own guns and even gather together if they pleased. They could not, of course, vote, run for office or serve on juries against white men, but some freedom did seem to be taking hold.

Distrusting Black Citizens

However, as slavery steadily grew in the South, and as England abolished slavery in their remaining colonies, the fear of slave revolt come even to Delaware. An 1826 law required free blacks to carry passes as they went about their day. Soon the state barred black citizens from owning guns unless they could find no less than five white men to vouch for them. While black churches could still meet on Sunday mornings, no more than a dozen black men could meet after dark, unless there were three white men present to observe them. Black preachers, ruled the state, must register before gathering their flock. 17Jewett, 44.

This era also saw the reinforcement of unfair sentencing. Delaware law permitted convicted whites to serve their time as an indenture. In practice, however, this was rare. More often than not, the white convict’s friends paid their indenture, asking no service from them in return. Black citizens, in contrast, were almost always given such punishments. Often times, their sentence of indentured servitude quickly turned into actual slavery with the master owning the person rather than the person’s labor. By 1839, whites could no longer be handed sentences of indentured servitude. The law remained unchanged for blacks.

The state legislature slowly whittled away the rights of blacks in ways few outside the black community might notice. In 1845, it became illegal for black people to buy or sell alcohol. In 1851, a law barring free blacks from owning land was narrowly defeated. While this was a good thing, it did nothing to reassure the community that they couldn’t lose everything with the election of a few more conservative legislatures (an election over which they had no voice). 18Williams, 193-196.

Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad

While the decrease in Delaware’s slave population had much to do with emancipation, the Underground Railroad, as well as self-emancipation, also played a role. As we’ve seen in a previous post, abolitionists such as Warner Mifflin did much to kickstart the movement. As the politics tilted toward the progressive, whites did not just emancipate their slaves, but some helped self-emancipated blacks find their way farther north to freedom.

Some, like Mifflin, were Quakers, while others of Presbyterian, Methodist and even Baptist faith were among them. And when Delawareans needed assistance, they turned to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which ended up basically running the Underground Railroad in the areas along the Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania border. 19William J. Switala Underground Railroad In Delaware, Maryland & Virginia (Stackpole Books, 2004).

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

The routes were, of course, not just used by Delaware’s slaves. Almost any slave escaping from the eastern states found their way to freedom through Delaware. This included Harriet Tubman, who fled her Maryland enslavers in 1849. With the help of the Underground Railroad conductors, she made her way into Pennsylvania, before returning to Delaware and Maryland a year or so later in order to aid other escaped slaves. 20Catherine Clinton Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little Brown and Company, 2004).

The Delawarean who helped the most slaves escape was probably Thomas Garrett, who was instrumental in Tubman’s actions. From 1825 to 1863, by his own figures, Garrett helped 2,322 slaves toward their freedom. Unlike Tubman, he did not lead the slaves out of the South, but gave them a place to stay and knew the safe houses, ship captains, and other conductors who would also help aid the refugees. 21Kathryn Grover The Fugitive’s Gibraltar (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001) 259.

Politics and War

There were efforts put forward to abolish slavery in 1845, 1847, and 1849. Like the country, Delaware was regionally divided on the issue, with the southern county of Sussex steadfast against abolition. This is telling since only 1.6% of the state’s total population were slaves (as opposed to, for example, 57% of South Carolina’s). However, nearly 75% of all slaves and enslavers lived in Sussex County in 1861. Because of this, the southern county voted for John Breckinridge in the 1860 election, giving him 49% of the vote against Lincoln’s dreary 15%. Breckinridge carried the entire state with 46% of the vote to Lincoln’s 24%. It was his northern-most victory.

Despite the victory of Breckinridge, Delaware decided to remain true to the United States. In the weeks leading up to South Carolina’s secession, the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana inquired of Delaware’s governor how his state might side. AA month later, in January of 1861, Maryland’s governor asked about Delaware’s interest in forming a confederacy separate from the one then forming in the Deep South. Though Delaware declined the offer,  her governor called for a secession convention. He hoped that a a Mississippi secession commissioner could convince his congress to leave the Union. Delaware’s politicians ultimately rebuffed their governor’s advances. They expressed their “unqualified disapproval of the remedy for existing difficulties, suggested by the resolutions of Mississippi.” 22Richard F. Miller, ed., States at War, Volume 4: A Reference Guide (University Press of New England, 2015) 67, 78, 104.


This did not mean that Delaware was suddenly a free state. It didn’t even mean that the abolitionists had won. All it meant was that, despite the bluster of the Presidential election, despite their long history as a slave state, and even despite the pleadings of some for the other Southern states to accept her as a sister state, Delaware was not willing to send her sons to preserve an institution that was clearly on its way to extinction within the state.

That said, Delaware wasn’t exactly ready and willing to give up on slavery. Even during the war, there still existed a small but powerful contingent who clung to and were benefited by the institution of chattel slavery. Those few and Lincoln’s attempts to convince Delaware to rid itself of the “National Sin” will eventually be the focus of an upcoming article.

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Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.