New York Life and Slave Insurance

So… I was lunching with a friend the other other day when he asked me — knowing I had spent some 25 of my life working at New York Life Insurance Company — what I thought of the recent front page Times article about the company having established itself as a slave insurance company. Well, I was certainly disturbed by his bizarre question, with its not-so-subtle hint of schadenfreude. I’m a pretty religious reader of The New York Times and I hadn’t seen any such article, front page no less; couldn’t imagine why the Times would be digging up this old history (not the history itself, which is clear enough, but presenting it as “news” today); nor how you make the leap from the sale of some 500 slave life insurance contracts by the Nautilus Mutual Insurance Company, New York Life’s forbear, to New York Life as a company established through slave insurance. (Not to mention how the guy once in charge of what we called the News Prevention Department could not have managed to quash such a piece.)

Well, my friend was right about one thing: The Times had indeed published, on its front page, an article about New York Life and slave insurance. Here it is: Insurance Policies on Slaves: New York Life’s Complicated Past. How I missed that on December 18, 2016 is beyond me. What is also quite beyond me is why this should have been published as “news,” let alone front page news. I’m usually pretty good at figuring out any agenda behind Times articles but I remain, to this moment, stumped on this one. The “news” about New York Life slave policies was broken to the wider public in 2002 when the then-CEO formed a partnership with Rainbow/PUSH Coalition One Thousand Churches Connected to provide student scholarships, financial services education at local churches, and an educational Web site supporting both. (I was the businessperson in charge of Internet endeavors at that time, so my guys created the site. I was also intimately involved with the finserv curriculum, which we created in partnership with what we’ll call “a major New York City-based bank.”)

The slave policies were indeed news in 2002, though it had always been known within the company and would have been discoverable by anyone outside it who did a modicum of research. (Google “history of new york life.”) In fact, the reason why this became news in 2002 was that in 2001 New York Life donated to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture its archive of slave policies issued by Nautilus, along with a substantial donation — I no longer remember exactly how much but, yeah, it was “substantial” — to set up a scholarship program dedicated to studying the history of slave owners buying insurance policies on slaves. (Uh, it’s not like it was only Nautilus that did this; see also Harvard, Georgetown University, JPMorgan Chase, Well Fargo, Aetna, US Life — all dutifully mentioned in the Times article. “More than 40 other firms, mostly based in the South, sold such policies, too.”)

This was, in other words, news that was quite deliberately revealed by New York Life. Did the general public or the great majority of New York Life policyowners in 2002 know anything about what the Times in 2016 chose to call its “complicated past”? No, certainly not, or at least we must honestly presume they did not. But nothing about that past had been hidden or denied and the company itself chose in 2001 to make it an issue. After this, New York Life funded two PBS series, one on Jim Crow and another on Slavery and the Making of America, along with supporting Web sites (both of which still exist on Are we talking about “transparency” here? If so, I don’t know how the company could have been more transparent. New York Life effectively created the transparency about its slave policies. Or are we talking about reparations? Well, I don’t presume to be the expert on that, but I think everything mentioned above (and much more accomplished by the company in subsequent years) would count toward reparation, although I must leave it to others to determine what adequate reparation would be).

Consequently, in 2016, there were no secrets here, no “news,” really, at all, unless your definition of news is news recycled from 2002. Time to shine a fresh light on old news? Apparently the Times thought so. So let’s see if we can puzzle out why. (Hint: I think it’s that it’s become so obvious lately that we are not living in a post-racial society.)

[I]n the span of about three years [1845 to 1847], it [Nautilus] sold 508 policies, more than Aetna and US Life combined, according to available records.

Its foray into the slave insurance business did not prove to be lucrative: The company ended up paying out nearly as much in death claims — about $232,000 in today’s dollars — as it received in annual payments.

So while Nautilus did indeed sell these policies, it’s obvious that it quickly recognized both the business and moral hazards of doing so. The Times author specifically notes that James De Peyster Ogden, New York Life’s first president, described the American system of slavery as “evil.” Writes Lawrence F. Abbot in a history of New York Life commissioned by the company and published in 1930:

During 1845 the Company wrote on an average of forty policies a month. The number written in February, 1846, suddenly jumped to one hundred nineteen. This was due to the discovery by some over-shrewd agents in the Southern states that policies might be profitably written on the lives of slaves — profitably, that is, to the agents….

The Company soon discovered that the acceptance of slave risks was indeed a risky business and in April 1848, after an unsatisfactory experience of only three years, the issue of policies on the lives of slaves was discontinued by the specific order of the Board of Trustees….

The abandonment of slave policies by the New York Life was partly a measure of self-protection but also partly a rudimentary recognition that life insurance is essentially altruistic and is to be conducted under a code of ethics as exacting as the Hippocratic oath of the medical profession.

Despite this, the Times author proceeds to try to build a case — or rather to insinuate a case, since she also provides much mitigating evidence (see below) — that these money-losing policies were crucial to the establishment of New York Life as a successful insurer:

The company had two years to invest or spend much of the revenues from the slave policies before death claims exceeded annual premium payments…. The policies helped New York Life establish an early foothold in the South.

True enough, but is this sufficient to prove that New York Life could not have survived or prospered without them? Well, we have an answer above: Early in 1848, Nautilus repudiated any future sale of such policies — not the policies already sold, claims from which of course had to be paid out in good faith, although doing so could only damage the company’s finances. Virtually concurrent with this repudiation came the “re-branding” of the company from Nautilus to New York Life.

Now, it would be terribly disingenuous to claim that while Nautilus sold slave insurance, New York Life did not — and to my knowledge no one at New York Life has ever made such a (nonetheless technically accurate) claim. I think, however, that it is equally if not even more egregiously disingenuous to ignore the historical facts that the company known as Nautilus, which had sold slave insurance, both repudiated that practice and concurrently re-branded itself under a new name, New York Life.

The best that our Times author could do here is, as I said, insinuate the most damning case: Two years of premiums and an early foothold in the South. She herself, however, conscientiously notes, per company execs, that “slave policies generated only about 5 percent of total revenues during the three fiscal years in which the policies were sold… and did not drive the company’s growth.” Actually, it’s difficult to see how 5 percent of total revenues could ever drive almost any company’s growth: That would be kind of like saying, for example, that the five to maybe 10 percent of Alphabet that is not Google search advertising revenue, has somehow driven the company’s growth. I think if you add this to the historical facts that Nautilus repudiated selling slave insurance and simultaneously re-branded itself as a new company, you pretty much close the books, so to speak, on the damning case.

This said, I do not, could not, would not wish to make light of the company’s history. It is what it is, and it’s nothing to be proud of and nothing deniable. Consider that first president, De Peyster Ogden. Himself “a cotton merchant who grew up in a home tended by slaves, [he] would become a prominent defender of slavery, describing it as an unfortunate, but inextricable part of the nation’s economy.” And yet he also called slavery “evil” and reversed his new company’s practice of selling policies to slave owners. Is that a “complicated past”? You bet it is; it is America’s complicated past. It’s also, unfortunately, America’s complicated non-post-racial present.

I’m not proud of New York Life’s “complicated past,” but I am proud of how decisively the young company dealt with it at the time and how it has continued to deal with it in the ensuing years. (New York Life will celebrate its 172-year anniversary in April 2017.) Not by denial, but by its opposite, transparency. Not by obfuscation, or trying to sweep it under the rug, but by what can only be described as its good works: Indeed, by all means read the Times piece, not simply for its sorrowing personalization of New York Life and its slave insurance history, but also and not least for its brief summary of New York Life’s “efforts to provide philanthropic support to the black community.” And I’ll give the last word here to the company’s PR spokesman, in spite of the fact that he’s a PR spokesman:

While we cannot change our history, our longstanding recognition of it has helped shape our commitment to the African-American community.


Note: The quotes from Abbott are from his The Story of New York Life, published by the company in 1930. As Abbott notes, his account is deeply indebted to that of an earlier company historian, James M. Hudnut, who published his Semi-Centennial History of the New York  Life Insurance Company 1845-1895, in 1895. I am sad to say that The Company You Keep: 150 Years with New York Life, a volume produced for the company’s 150th Anniversary and of which I was one of several proofreaders (but for typos, not historical accuracy), completely avoids the subject of New York Life’s slave insurance policies.

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5 Responses to New York Life and Slave Insurance

  1. Interesting thoughts, Ken. I think it’s healthy to remember our history–it reminds us that we are likely making the same mistake of being products of our own times, just as New York Life perhaps did. That said, I agree with you–rather than use this piece of history to talk about what it means today, the tenor of the article does seem a little accusatory, and strangely so. Especially since some newspapers have apologized for carrying slave ads (although the New York Times, launched after slavery was illegal, did not.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • khittel says:

      Thanks much, Augie — always good to hear from you. If there is an accusatory tone to the piece I suppose it lies in my questioning: Why pick NYLIC & why pick it now? And why insinuate the Company became successful b/c it sold slave policies? I hope I answered that.


  2. bridgetthexton says:

    The motivation behind the article remains a mystery…

    Liked by 1 person

    • khittel says:

      Yeah — it seems a gratuitous piece. Maybe no more complicated than that nytimes had just finished slamming Georgetown & felt compelled to show neutrality by picking on a NYC company. Who knows?


  3. khittel says:

    Posted by me but as sent to my email from Larry Garland, for which much thanks:

    The story of slavery in American history was (and still is) complicated, as is any evil from which we attempt to extricate ourselves. Add commerce and profits to the mix and the potential for pitfalls and nefarious entanglements multiplies. I believe New York Life acted honorably early in its history (as Nautilus Insurance Company) to rectify its error of writing life insurance policies on the lives of slaves for benefit of the slaves’ masters. Whether reparations are ever sufficient is always an open question, but New York Life has been both more generous and more transparent than most companies. Bravo New York Life and my compliments to the author of this thoughtful and well written piece. (Note: I was associated with New York Life for more than 20 years as an Insurance Agent and Investment Representative.)


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