An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

“There are but two places where all go after death, white and black, rich and poor; those places are Heaven and Hell. Heaven is a place made for those, who are born again, and who love God, and it is a place where they will be happy for ever. Hell is a place made for those who hate God, and are his enemies, and where they will be miserable to all eternity . . . .”

Summary Overview

Jupiter Hammon, born a slave owned by the Lloyd family of Long Island, New York, enjoyed an unusually close relationship with his master’s family. As a result, he had many advantages over ordinary slaves in eighteenth-century New York. Hammon was given a quality education alongside his master’s children, became a published poet, and preached the Christian gospel to fellow slaves.

During the Revolutionary War, the Lloyd family fled to Hartford, Connecticut, to escape the invading British forces. While there, Hammon gave sermons to fellow slaves about the importance of remaining loyal to their masters in a time of upheaval. The sermons were well received by slaves and free people. When the family moved back to Long Island, Hammon was given the opportunity to preach his message to New York slaves. On September 24, 1786, Hammon delivered “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York to the New York African Society.” It was later reprinted by a number of abolitionist groups, including the Quakers, and became a staple of early antislavery literature.

On its surface, the address is an admonishment to slaves to obey their masters, learn to read the Bible, and avoid sin. Given the historical context of the time, though, it is a remarkably clever argument against slavery. It argues that owners should teach their slaves to read, reminds them that slavery is a sin that God will eventually stop, and that all people will eventually face judgment for their transgresses against God.

Defining Moment

As early as 1625, slaves cleared the forests of Manhattan and were instrumental in the building of New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony administered by the private Dutch West India Company. These first slaves from Africa and the new colonies in the Caribbean and South America were owned by the Dutch West India Company. In 1630, as New Amsterdam began to thrive, slaves accounted for approximately 20 percent of the colony’s population.

The legal status of slaves in New Amsterdam was never clearly defined, as the institution of slavery was not covered by the Dutch West India Company government’s laws. In 1635, a handful of slaves petitioned the Dutch government to decide the matter of their legal status. Officials in the Netherlands determined that slaves in New Amsterdam should have some legal rights, including access to local and high courts. As a result, the status of slaves in the New Amsterdam colony improved. Many slaves were educated, allowed to participate in church functions, and even permitted to purchase their freedom. Some freed slaves served in the colony’s military and owned land on the outskirts of New Amsterdam.

In 1648, the Dutch government agreed with the colony’s governor general Peter Stuyvesant that slave trading should be allowed within the New Amsterdam colony. After this decision, many of the prominent Dutch families in Manhattan invested in the slave trade, and New Amsterdam became an important port of entry for slaves shipped directly from Africa. By the middle of the century, slaves and free blacks accounted for 25 percent of the population of New Amsterdam, and a unique Afro-Dutch culture was beginning to emerge.

After the English took over New Amsterdam in 1664, conditions became more restrictive for people of African and Caribbean descent living in the colony, now called New York. The British colonial government curtailed property rights and educational opportunities for slaves and free blacks, functionally eliminating their chances for social mobility. Additionally, individual slave owners, who now made up the owner class since the withdrawal of the Dutch West India Company, could no longer grant manumission, or official release from slavery, to their slaves. After a slave uprising in 1712, further restrictions on movement and association were imposed on slaves.

In the period leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and during the Revolutionary War that followed, colonists supporting the Patriot cause used rhetoric about inalienable natural rights to argue for independence from England. Additionally, the English and Loyalist colonists supporting royal rule offered manumission to slaves who turned against their Patriot masters. This talk of rights and promises of freedom caused all residents of the colonies to rethink the role of slavery in New York society.

After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, New York resumed its role as a major port of entry for slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. It also became a haven for black people displaced by the war and had the largest black population of any northern city. At the same time, the organized abolitionist movement began to gain significant popular support in New York. Throughout the new nation, abolition was championed by fringe Christian groups, such as Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. This pattern repeated in New York, and many who argued for an end to slavery within the new state did so from a religious and scriptural basis.

The abolition movement caught on relatively slowly in New York, beginning with proposed legislation in 1777, and finally resulting in full abolition in 1827. One important reason that abolition in New York progressed more slowly than in neighboring states was, simply, that the region’s major slave-trading port was in Manhattan, and that slavery was a huge source of revenue for the city. Ultimately, the argument from scripture proved important to the abolition movement in New York; the religious appeal eventually enabled citizens to outlaw a corrupt but profitable institution.

Author Biography

Hammon was born on October 17, 1711. His father, Obadiah, was owned by Henry Lloyd of Lloyd Neck, Long Island, so Jupiter was born as the property of the Lloyd family as well. The Lloyd family adored Hammon, and he grew up in their mansion, along with the Lloyd’s own children.

This unusually close relationship between the young slave and his master’s family gave Hammon access to a good education, something that had been almost completely denied to slaves since the Dutch New Amsterdam government collapsed in 1664. Hammon was taught alongside the younger of the Lloyd children, by the Harvard-educated clergyman Nehemiah Bull. Young Hammon showed a keen interest in poetry and religious studies.

Hammon also gained professional experience at an early age, helping his master, Henry Lloyd, with the family’s import/export business. Hammon was functionally literate and good at calculating sums, so was often chosen to accompany Lloyd on business trips to New York City. As he grew to adulthood, Hammon became known among both white and black associates for acting with integrity and good judgment.

Hammon was deeply religious throughout his life. As a result of his quality education from Bull and his ongoing interest in scripture, Hammon gained a reputation among fellow slaves as an accomplished religious scholar. The Lloyds allowed him to put his knowledge of the Bible and leadership abilities to use as a preacher. Hammon quickly established himself as a religious leader and role model in the local black community.

Hammon also pursued his interest in poetry. On December 25, 1760, he wrote his first famous poem, called “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.” It was published in broadsheet form in early 1761. He is now recognized as the first published black poet in North America. This honor was once thought to be held by the female slave Phillis Wheatley, to whom Hammon later dedicated a poem, but he was actually publishing before she came to North America.

In 1763, Henry Lloyd died, and his son Joseph Lloyd became Hammon’s master. Although they were master and slave, the young Lloyd and Hammon had grown up as brothers and had a very close relationship as adults. When the Revolutionary War came, Lloyd supported the Patriot side and had to temporarily evacuate his household to Connecticut when the British moved through New York. The British were using the offer of manumission as a means of enlisting New York slaves to turn on their masters. Nonetheless, Hammon loyally followed his master to Connecticut rather than turn to the British side.

After the war, Hammon continued preaching to local slaves. The atmosphere in the slave community was far more politically charged, as the British offer of manumission for turning on masters during the war had raised the issue of abolition. Hammon used his oratory to comment on the situation, always from a strongly scriptural perspective. On September 24, 1786, he addressed the New York African Society, and delivered the now-famous “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York.” This speech was published in printed form in 1787 and was used by the Quakers and then other religiously affiliated abolitionist groups in the growing abolition movement.

Although the specific date of his death is unknown, it is believed that Hammon died in 1806 and was buried on Lloyd family land on Long Island. At the time of his death, he was a nationally known poet and had been the first black author published in North America. His commentary on slavery was adopted by major segments of the abolitionist movement and is among the first surviving black commentaries on the institution of slavery in America. However, he remained a slave until death.

Document Analysis

In his speech, “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York,” delivered at the New York African Society on September 24, 1786, Hammon condemns the institution of slavery and those who uphold it, which may be difficult for present-day readers to extrapolate from his speech. Despite his subtle condemnation, he cautions slaves in their behavior toward their masters and encourages them to become good Christians. He presents himself as an elder statesman of the black community who has had many educational advantages and is concerned about the bad behavior he sees around him. He urges his audience to read the Bible, to obey God’s law, and to act meekly toward their masters. It is not this world that matters, he asserts, but the eternity of God’s judgment, which all people will face. Freedom or slavery in life, Hammon declares, is a secondary concern compared to freedom from sin and the promise of paradise.

Hammon begins his address by comparing the slaves in New York to the biblical Jews. This reflects an early instance of a metaphor that became centrally important to the black community in its struggle for equality in the United States. In the metaphor, he compares himself to the Apostle Paul, come to speak harsh truths to bring enlightenment to his community. He describes being pained by reflecting upon his fellow slaves, finding them to be mostly poor, ignorant, and wicked. He then states that he has often hesitated to speak out because he has a sense of his own ignorance and struggles to consider himself a fit teacher.

Next, Hammon mentions that when he was living in Hartford, Connecticut, where he fled the British with his master during the Revolutionary War, he wrote several pieces on the state of the black community. He says that these pieces were considered insightful by fellow slaves as well as white slave owners, who thought that “they might do some good among their servants.” These statements give Hammon credibility not only with the slaves he is addressing, but with slave owners. By pointing out these successes in Connecticut, as well as his advanced age and wealth of life experience, he has given himself the authority to speak out honestly to slaves in New York.

In his full address, Hammon stresses that it is necessary to obey masters, even if slavery itself is wrong in the eyes of God. He points to a passage in the biblical book of Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 5, in which Paul commands that servants earnestly obey masters because true obedience is the will of Christ. Hammon underscores that this passage is a command from God to obey masters, even though many future abolitionists would explain that this passage should be interpreted as a call to obey God, not earthly masters. However, Hammon says that slaves should do what they are told cheerfully because good service is doing the will of God. This was a popular sentiment among slave owners at the time.

Hammon points out that obeying slave masters is necessary to preserve the safety and comfort of fellow slaves. He advises that even if a master does act unfairly, slaves should respond meekly. If they do, Hammon suggests, the master or others will recognize the good conduct and befriend them. If that doesn’t work, Hammon states, slaves should then “cry to him, who has the hearts of all men in his hands,” meaning God.

The second major point he makes in the full speech is that stealing from masters, in particular, is sinful. Even if they will never be found out, he states, slaves who steal from their masters are doing wrong and provoking God. Hammon says that all slaves know that stealing from masters is wrong, even though they try to excuse their bad behavior. He further states that being unfaithful to their masters in business is the same as stealing, and is, therefore, wrong. He specifically points to wasting time, which he describes as wicked. Even though slaves find excuses for being unfaithful, it is wrong, and they will have to answer to God for this wickedness. Even if masters are wicked in keeping slaves, Hammon implores slaves to “be faithful to God, to your masters, and to your own souls.”

Hammon then says he wishes to discuss the issue of profane language, or taking the Lord’s name in vain. He points to scriptural admonishments not to swear or use the name of the Lord in vain, and that God has forbidden such language. He asks his audience how common it is to hear such language, even though it is against God’s will. If those who commit the sin of profanity do not repent, he says, God may punish by sending them to hell. Hammon says that he has heard that the heathens never used the names of their false gods in vain, and asks why the followers of the true God should be so bold. He says that the use of profanity is due to temptation by Satan, who “wishes to have men think lightly of the true God.” He warns his audience that anyone using profane language is actually serving the devil.

Hammon points out that one reason that so many slaves use profane language is that they hear their masters or other white people using it. This, he admonishes, does not absolve the sin. He asks if the slaves present saw their master kill someone, would they themselves then be sinless if they committed murder. He then says that of course nobody would consider it ethical to follow a murderous master’s example, and that it is equally immoral to use the name of God in vain.

No matter how rich or powerful, Hammon states, nobody is greater than God. All people, white and black, will be judged by God some day. Those who acted according to his commandments, including not using his name in vain, will sit in heaven. This is when slavery will come to an end for his compatriots, when they reach the kingdom of God after death.

Hammon then says that he may just as well have mentioned other sins than profane language. He explains that swearing and using the Lord’s name in vain just happen to be sins to which slaves are often tempted because of bad influences. He tells his audience to become religious and to make religion the focus of their lives. And so, by instructing his audience in the ways of God, Hammon is preparing them for liberty in the afterlife. However, he is also very subtly commanding them to follow God first and their masters second. For even though the behavior he encourages benefits the master, Hammon knows that it will eventually set free the slave.

Where the above excerpt picks up again, Hammon is addressing the issue of liberty. He says that it is a fine thing if “we can get it honestly,” meaning earning it through obedience to God and to their masters. If they obey, he says, the masters may set them free. He hastens to add that he himself does not wish to be free, and that he, like many older slaves, would be lost without the masters they have always had to “take care of” them. Younger slaves, however, might have a brighter future if freed.

Hammon points to the sacrifices made in the recent Revolutionary War as proof of how important liberty is. He states that he had hoped that all the rhetoric about liberty would lead to emancipation of the slaves. Still, he maintains, it is up to God to move white people to take pity on blacks.

He says that all people are slaves to Satan unless they become good Christians, and that true liberty comes from God. Hammon reminds his audience that all people, white or black, go to heaven or hell, depending on their conduct in this world. Heaven is for those who love God, and hell is for those who hate him. Those who are not true Christians, he explains, are enemies of God and will be judged accordingly.

Hammon encourages those members of the audience who know how to read to spend as much time as possible reading the Bible, even if they need to take time away from sleeping at night. He also says that it weighs on his mind how many slaves cannot read, and that they should endeavor to learn so that they can read the Bible for themselves. This will allow them to learn about the word of God and what is necessary to please God. He also adds that reading other books will do them no good, and that if there were no Bible it would not matter if they could read, for it is in the Bible that God teaches everything a person needs to know. In this way, Hammon encourages another small rebellion, as slave owners as a whole opposed the education of slaves. They feared that if slaves were educated, they would rebel.

Hammon then recounts how God first created mankind in his image, as perfect beings, but that they fell from Grace, and afterward all people were born sinners. Only through becoming devout Christians, he says, will people earn God’s love and salvation from hell. This world, in his view, is nothing more than a trial by God to determine who will and will not be accepted into heaven. There are no people so innocent that they will not be judged, and ignorance of God’s will, no matter how good a person is, will keep an individual from heaven.

Hammon tells his audience that although we do not know when or how, a day of judgment will come. At this time, all of a person’s sins will be known, even if they were done in secret. All the people who have ever been, and all the angels, will be witnesses to a person’s deeds, however good or bad.

He then reiterates that it is important for slaves to learn how to read. The Bible, being the word of God, states that it is not the rich and powerful of the world that are chosen, but the weak. The slave community suffers more than any other people in the world. Therefore, they have the most to gain from salvation. As slaves, they will not be tempted by riches in this world and should use their efforts to get to heaven instead of worrying about material wealth.

Hammon declares that life is very short and amounts to nothing, compared to the duration of eternity. It makes more sense to seek happiness in eternal life rather than temporary comfort in their earthly lives. He says that those slaves lucky enough to have religious masters, and therefore to have been taught about Christianity, will meet them in heaven to praise God together. Slaves who do not have religious masters, but who become Christians, will be far better off in the afterlife than their former masters. Here, again, Hammon is emphasizing that all are equal in the eyes of God. He is insinuating that slave masters will be judged in the afterlife and that slaves will be set free.

Next, he admonishes his fellow blacks not to worry overly much about freedom in this life. When they get to heaven, he explains, nobody will fault them for having been a slave or look down on them for being black. When and how they achieve freedom in this life is entirely up to God. The most important thing for slaves to think about is whether or not they are slaves to Satan, as being free in this life means nothing for people beholden to the devil.

The last section of the piece is specifically directed to former slaves living as free people in the New York area. Hammon says that the advice he has outlined applies to them as well, but says that if anything, it is more important for them to heed his words. Free blacks, according to Hammon, should have the advantage of more free time in which to study the Bible. He says that if they do not use their freedoms to become better Christians, then they are no better off as free men than as slaves.

He also scolds some free blacks for being idle and engaging in immoral activities. Doing so, Hammon claims, is very harmful to those blacks who remain slaves because it supports the justification for slavery as a means of taking care of those who could not take care of themselves if they were free. White people claimed that they would resort to drinking excessively, steal from others, and refuse to work. Hammon warns that those free blacks who do not work hard to earn an honest living bolster the claims that keep most blacks enslaved. Hammon ends the piece by begging free blacks, for the sake of their own long-term happiness and the future rights of their enslaved brethren, to lead peaceful and quiet lives. He adds that he hopes God will bless and save the free blacks, allowing them into his kingdom.

Essential Themes

To present-day readers, “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York” may seem a disappointingly timid indictment of slavery. In it, Hammon states that slaves are generally prone to wickedness, drunkenness, and laziness. He asserts that slaves should remain meek, obey their masters, not steal or be idle, and wait for God to determine when they will be freed from slavery. Hammon states that he had previously given addresses in Connecticut that white masters had found helpful in maintaining good behavior among their slaves.

On one level, “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York” is a very restrained and almost apologetic critique of slavery. However, it is also brilliantly constructed to overcome the very real social constraints on black public speech in late eighteenth-century New York. Understanding the historical context that influenced it reveals “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York” to be a clever and targeted attack against the institution of slavery hidden behind a sermon on obedience.

After New Amsterdam was handed over to the English in 1664, slaves and free black people lost most of their legal rights, including freedom of speech and access to the courts, which had formerly protected them from abusive masters. There were very few opportunities for black people in New York to address their own community, let alone the white master class. By ostensibly using “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York” to inspire good behavior among slaves, Hammon gained a public voice to address white people. It was first printed in 1787 and used by the abolitionist community to argue against slavery to literate whites.

Hammon rejects the concept of ethical relativism, one of the most prevalent arguments for slavery in his day, which held that because Africans were supposedly not as advanced as whites, the same codes of ethical treatment did not apply to them. Hammon says that all people, black and white, will be judged by God and sent to heaven or hell depending on their actions in this life. He says that even though the white masters are offending God by keeping them enslaved and subjecting them to harsh treatment, slaves have the obligation to do God’s will and to live virtuous lives. In doing so, Hammon is subtly reminding his white audience that they, too, will be judged by God. In the era of the Great Awakening movements, this message would have resounded with white New Yorkers, many of whom strongly feared hell.

Additionally, “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York” lays out an argument for the literacy of freed blacks and slaves. At the time, most owners did not allow their slaves to learn to read. Many people thought that black slaves could not learn to read and did not need to be literate, or even that literacy would lead to widespread slave rebellions. Hammon says that all men are born into sin and can only be saved by obeying God, and that the first step is to learn to read the Bible. By denying them the ability to read, slave owners were in effect condemning their slaves to hell by denying them access to the truth of scripture.

Ultimately, Hammon posits that everyone in the world is either beholden to God or to the devil. God will eventually free the slaves, but in the meantime black people should focus on their own moral lives and not the transgressions of the white owners who sin by keeping them in bondage. These whites are doing the work of the devil, but that is not an excuse to disobey God. By reminding blacks to remain meek and peaceful, he is subtly suggesting that it is not slave rebellions that whites have to fear, but the vengeance of God.

Bibliography
  • Davis, David. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770–1823. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
  • Hammon, Jupiter. America’s First Negro Poet. Ed. Stanley R. Ransom, Jr. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1970. Print.
  • Shields, David S. American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. New York: Library of America, 2007. Print.
  • Wegelin, Oscar. Jupiter Hammon, American Negro Poet: Selections from His Writings and a Bibliography. 1915. Miami: Mnemosyne, 1969. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Berlin, Ira, and Leslie Harris. Slavery in New York. New York: New, 2005. Print.
  • Boyd, Herb. Autobiography of a People. New York: Doubleday, 2000. Print.
  • Johnston, Percy Edward. Afro American Philosophies. Upper Montclair, NJ: Montclair State College P, 1970. Print.
  • Nelson, Emmanuel S. African American Authors, 1745–1945. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Print.
  • Torr, James D. Slavery. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2003. Print.

Categories: History Content