Opposition to Slavery
: There is considerable controversy surrounding the decision of Connecticut lawmakers in 1774 to halt the importation of slaves. Earlier in the year an article had appeared in the Norwich
which condemned slaveholders for their hypocrisy. In a time when there was increasing dissatisfaction with English control, how could Christians justify their own enslavement of Blacks? The Reverend Levi Hart of Preston condemned slavery from his pulpit for much the same reason in September of 1774.
Still, when the law to ban the importation of slaves was enacted, it included the phrase “whereas the increase of slaves in this Colony is injurious to the poor and inconvenient.” Free White workers could not compete with slave labor and were pressuring their representatives to limit slavery. The spirit of enlightenment was not behind this law. Connecticut Whites had long shown a tendency to limit and control the Black population. There was no economic reason to allow its increase. Craftsmen often trained slaves in a trade, saving the higher cost of hiring journeymen or the inconvenience of using apprentices.
A final argument in favor of the law was the political one that to halt the slave trade into Connecticut deprived England of a source of profit; it was thus a blow for freedom. Connecticut merchants were not heavily involved in the slave trade like some in Boston and Newport; the state could afford to halt it. Any humanitarian impulses such an action may have indulged were secondary.
The spirit behind the Gradual Emancipation Acts of 1784 and 1797 was more clearly humanitarian. The gradual nature of the emancipation was the result of Puritan political conservatism and respect for property rights, even those of slaveholders. The agitation for emancipation which began in the 1770’s grew during the Revolution and was strengthened by two factors. First, Blacks from Connecticut served loyally in the Continental Army. Second, as a direct result of this service many Blacks were freed.
The Act of 1784 provided that slaves born after 1784 would be free at the age of twenty-five. The Act of 1797 reduced that age to twenty-one, bringing slavery in line with apprenticeship. The comparison many contemporary writers made between this abbreviated slavery and apprenticeship has several flaws. Slavery was not voluntary it did not involve a contract; and slaves did not receive money, clothes and professional standing at the end of their servitude. The only basis for comparison is the similarity between a slave’s and an apprentice’s rights.
What strikes me as most important about Connecticut’s Gradual Emancipation Law and the earlier ban on slave trading is the balance they achieved between revolution and practicality. The lessons for this section are vastly different from those I devised for earlier sections. The first is simply a historical narrative. The second is a graphing exercise on the slave/free Black population balance in Connecticut. The third is a biography of James Mars, one of the unfortunate slaves who was born a little too early to qualify for emancipation.