Abigail (slave)

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Died 1783
Nationality American
Other names Abbe
Occupation servant
Known for tried to use French law to win her freedom

Abigail was an African-American woman, held in bondage by founding father John Jay.[1] Jay brought Abigail with him while on a diplomatic mission, in France, and Abigail tried to use French law to be freed.

In an a article about her in The New York Times historian Martha S. Jones said we know practically nothing about the milestones of her life.[1] We don't know her age, her place of birth, whether she had ever given birth. Comments about her, in letters from Jay's wife Sarah Jay, imply Abigail was married, and had to leave her husband behind. It is known that Abigail had been owned by Sarah, prior to her marriage to Jay, in 1774.[2]

Abigail was the only slave the Jay's brought to France, in 1782.[1] She may have been the only English speaking slave in Paris, as Thomas Jefferson's slave James Hemming didn't arrive until 1784.

in 1783 an English speaking servant of the Jays, who had befriended Abigail, encouraged her to run away.[1] She encouraged Abigail that she could find employment, and support herself. Abigail took this advice, moved in with her friend, and found employment as a washerwoman.

The Jays, with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin's nephew William Temple Franklin, had Abigail seized.[1] William Temple Franklin helped the Jays file a "lettre de cachet". According to Jones this was a kind of administrative tool "sometimes used to discipline household members deemed out of step." The Jays were able to have Abigail confined in prison, without filing charges, and without a trial.

Abigail's friend had been correct.[3] Although French colonies employed slavery, slavery was not legal in Metropolitan France, and the Jays had no legal justification to call for her arrest.

Jones wrote that Benjamin Franklin encouraged the Jays to continue her confinement for up to a month.[1] At first Abigail remained unwilling to return to the Jay household. But she then changed her mind after she fell ill.

Jones asserted that Abigail never recovered from this illness, but that it is unknown what, if any, medical treatment the Jays sought on her behalf, or even what her symptoms were.[1] It is known she died in 1783.

Jeff Hawkes, writing in Lancaster online, described how historian and playwright Amanda Kemp had been concerned that a Paris museum that profiled Benjamin Franklin left out his slave ownership, and his role in seizing and imprisoning Abigail.[3] Kemp produced a documentary film where she interviewed individuals attending the museum, and informed them of Abigail's history.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Martha S. Jones (2021-11-23). "Enslaved to a Founding Father, She Sought Freedom in France". The New York Times: p. A11. Archived from the original on 2021-11-23. https://web.archive.org/web/20211123101037/https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/23/travel/john-jay-paris-abigail-slavery.html. Retrieved 2021-11-27. 
  2. Ned Benton; Judy Lynne Peters. "Slavery and the Extended Family of John Jay". New York Slavery Records Index. Archived from the original on 2021-11-24. https://web.archive.org/web/20211124230037/https://nyslavery.commons.gc.cuny.edu/slavery-and-the-extended-family-of-john-jay/. Retrieved 2021-11-27. "Abigail was enslaved to Sarah Livingston when she married John Jay in 1774. She traveled to France in 1783 with the couple when John Jay negotiated the Treaty of Paris. There she escaped, was jailed and later died of disease acquired while in jail." 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jeff Hawkes (2008-04-15). [https://lancasteronline.com/opinion/a-life-hidden-in-shadows-of-slavery-revealed/article_2de50804-aae9-55c0-9749-e7f6143c5b67.html "A life hidden in shadows of slavery, revealed JEFF HAWKES Staff Apr 15, 2008"]. Lancaster online. https://lancasteronline.com/opinion/a-life-hidden-in-shadows-of-slavery-revealed/article_2de50804-aae9-55c0-9749-e7f6143c5b67.html. Retrieved 2021-11-27. "The situation for Sarah was delicate, because France did not recognize slavery, Kemp said. French authorities had no reason to arrest and imprison a runaway slave."