William Sabine House
9 Academy Green
Syracuse, New York
The Sabines represent a European American family who made the transition from the first generation, who owned people in slavery, to the second generation, who held anti-slavery views.
According to censuses taken by the United States and the State of New York, eleven people lived in slavery in Onondaga County in 1800, fifty in 1810, forty-nine in 1814, and fifty-nine in 1820. (Census of the State of New York for 1855, xx). Most of them lived singly or small groups in European American households. The Sabines represent one such household. In 1810, one African American lived in slavery with this family and one (perhaps the same one) in 1820, a young man between the ages of fourteen and twenty-six. Since the census listed names only of heads of households, we will probably never know the name of this African American.
Unlike most of these early slave-owning families, however, the Sabines also represent a transition toward anti-slavery views. Twin sons, William and Joseph, were born in 1814, and both showed evidences of anti-slavery sentiments.
In 1843, William, who lived in this house, invited William L. Chaplin, abolitionist lecturer, to speak in the front yard, possibly Academy Green. William was also candidate for coroner in Onondaga County on the Friends of Abolition ticket, and he was a founder of the local Republican Party. One obituary noted that he was “early enlisted in the cause of human rights, and acted with the anti-slavery men who engrafted their principles upon the Republican party at its organization.” (Journal, February 19, 1877)
Joseph Sabine became a lawyer in Syracuse and married Margaret Lawrence, the daughter of his law partner. During the rescue of William “Jerry” Henry in October 1851, Joseph Sabine was the U.S. Commissioner in charge of hearing the case. His obituary noted that “although the rescue of the populace was in advance of the Commissioner’s decision of the case, yet we have reason to believe that Mr. Sabine would not have sent “Jerry” back into bondage.” (Journal, June 6, 1874). This judgment echoed contemporary views. Gerrit Smith, for example, noted in the planning meeting in the office of Dr. Hiram Hoyt, that Jerry would very likely be released in any case, but that a public rescue would do much good for the cause.
In 1897, Margaret Lawrence Sabine remembered that she and her husband were both “staunch Abolitionists, rather of what was called the rabid order, but he was also a firm believer in obedience to the laws of his country.”
When he found the captured runaway negro [sic] slave Jerry, was to be tried before him (he being a United States Commissioner) and that the law was plain that he was to be returned to his master, no matter how vile the law was, it was the law, he was greatly disturbed. I can see now the distressed look on his face as he told me (confidentially, for it was a secret) about the matter, ending by saying, “It is cowardly to resign before my first case comes to trial; but what else can I do?” I seemed to have an inspiration, and I said: “Hold on to your commission, let no other man have your place. The trial is a week off, let things stand. Shylock never got his pound of flesh, though the law plainly gave it to him.”
Mr. Sabine never mentioned the subject to me again, and you may be sure I never did to him, but you know women never could keep secrets, and somehow this one leaked out, and the Rev. Mr. May found out the secret, and another Abolitionist whose name I do not remember . . . who was a singer of the anti-slavery songs [probably Charles A. Wheaton]. . . well, he also got hold of that secret. (Sperry)
According to Margaret Sabine, her husband resigned his commission shortly after the rescue of William “Jerry” Henry.
The Sabine house is a brick stepped-gable Federal house with elliptical arches and fanlight on the south end of Academy Green, in the middle of Onondaga Hollow. Built about 1814 or earlier, it remained in the family until 1944. None of the outbuildings survive. A newspaper photograph of a building built by Joshua Forman to house people in slavery, supposedly similar to one on the Sabine farm, exists. Given that only one person lived in slavery with the Sabines, however, it is doubtful that such a building would actually have been used as a dwelling for that African American. (Hardin, 274-5; OHA clipping, n.d.)
Census of the State of New-York for 1855. Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen, 1857.
Gramza, Janet. “House with a Dual History.” Post-Standard, February 16, 2002.
Hardin, Eva Marie. Syracuse Landmarks. Syracuse: Onondaga Historical Association, 1993.
Sperry, Earl. The Jerry Rescue. Syracuse: Onondaga Historical Association, 1924.
Sweet, Atlas of Onondaga County, 1874.
Newspaper articles from files of OHA.
Research in anti-slavery newspapers of the 1840s and 1850s would probably reveal more of William Sabine’s activism, and perhaps more about Joseph and Margaret Sabine, as well. The Liberty Press is on microfilm at the OHA for 1843. The OHA also has copies of the Madison & Onondaga County Abolitionist for the 1840s.
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