SLAVERY in CONNECTICUT
Slaves were mentioned in Hartford from 1639 and in New Haven from 1644. As in the rest of New England, they were few until about 1700. Connecticut citizens did not participate directly in the slave trade in the late 17th century (at least that's what the colonial governor assured the British Committee for Trade and Foreign Plantations). But the governor's report in 1680 implied that Massachusetts merchants were bringing in three or four black slaves a year from Barbados. Since the average price of a black slave in Connecticut was £22 that year and the rate in Massachusetts was £10 to £20, this was a worthwhile venture for a Boston slaver.
Even in the early 1700s, however, direct slave imports to Connecticut were considered too few to be worth the trouble of taxing. The governor reported only 110 white and black servants in Connecticut in 1709. In 1730, the colony had a black population of 700, out of a total enumeration of 38,000.
Yet on the eve of the Revolution, Connecticut had the largest number of slaves (6,464) in New England. Jackson Turner Main, surveying Connecticut estate inventories, found that in 1700 one in 10 inventories included slaves, rising to one in 4 on the eve of the Revolution. Between 1756 and 1774, the proportion of slave to free in Connecticut increased by 40 percent. All the principal families of Norwich, Hartford, and New Haven were said to have one or two slaves. By 1774, half of all the ministers, lawyers, and public officials owned slaves, and a third of all the doctors. But Connecticut's large slave population apparently was based in the middle class. More people had the opportunity to own slaves than in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, so more did so. "The greater prosperity of Connecticut's inhabitants and their frugal and industrious habits were responsible for this situation. The wealth of the colony was also more equally distributed, with few extremes of riches or poverty."
The largest increase came in the period 1749-1774. By the latter year, New London County had become the greatest slaveholding section of New England, with almost twice as many slaves as the most populous slave county in Massachusetts. New London was both an industrial center and the site of large slave-worked farms; with 2,036 slaves, it accounted for almost one-third of all the blacks in Connecticut. New London town itself, with 522 blacks and a white population of 5,366, led the state in number of slaves and percentage of black inhabitants.
Discrimination against free blacks was more severe in Connecticut than in other New England colonies. Their lives were strongly proscribed even before they became numerous. In 1690, the colony forbade blacks and Indians to be on the streets after 9 p.m. It also forbid black "servants" to wander beyond the limits of the towns or places where they belonged without a ticket or pass from their masters or the authorities. A law of 1708, citing frequent fights between slaves and whites, imposed a minimum penalty of 30 lashes on any black who disturbed the peace or who attempted to strike a white person. Even speech was subject to control. By a 1730 law, any black, Indian, or mulatto slave "who uttered or published, about any white person, words which would be actionable if uttered by a free white was, upon conviction before any one assistant or justice of the peace, to be whipped with forty lashes."
As early as 1717, citizens of New London in a town meeting voted their objection to free blacks living in the town or owning land anywhere in the colony. That year, the colonial assembly passed a law in accordance with this sentiment, prohibiting free blacks or mulattoes from residing in any town in the colony. It also forbid them to buy land or go into business without the consent of the town. The provisions were retroactive, so that if any black person had managed to buy land, the deed was rendered void, and a black resident of a town, however long he had been there, was now subject to prosecution at the discretion of the selectmen.
Like the black codes of the South and Midwest in the 19th century, enforcement was uneven, and the real value of the law seemed to be in harassment, discouragement of further settlement, and its service as a constant reminder to free blacks in Connecticut that their existence was precarious and dependent on white toleration.
Connecticut slavery lacked the "paternalism" that characterized Southern slavery, so that even from the early days, the colony had a problem with masters who simply turned out their slaves when the blacks got too old or worn-out to work. Their descendants later would treat factory hands that way, but masters who cast off old slaves made for a burden on the towns, so that by 1702 Connecticut passed a law making masters or their executors or heirs liable for freed blacks, should the ex-slaves become indigent. This evidently was not enough, and in 1711 the law was revised to make it incumbent on masters to support their former slaves.
As in other Northern communities that would later object to the Fugitive Slave Act, authorities in Connecticut had been diligent in prosecuting runaways when slavery was part of their state's economy. Ferrymen were forbidden to take runaways across rivers under pain of a fine of 5 shillings. The authorities would make an arrest on the slightest pretext, and keep the black person in jail while advertisements were run in the newspapers, seeking an owner. They had the power to arrest suspects without warrants in such cases, and even if the seized blacks could prove they were free, but traveling without a pass, they still had to pay court costs.
"Connecticut's lawmakers were extremely cautious about moving against slavery. Negroes were more numerous in the state than in the rest of New England combined, and racial anxieties were correspondingly more acute." This pattern was well-observed from the South: the more blacks lived in a Northern state, the more reluctantly that state approached the topic of emancipation.
Emancipation bills were rejected by the Connecticut Legislature in 1777, 1779, and 1780. Connecticut lawmakers did, however, in 1774 pass a law to halt the importation of slaves ("whereas the increase of slaves in this Colony is injurious to the poor and inconvenient ....").
In 1784, the abolition forces in the state tried a new tactic and presented a bill for gradual emancipation as part of a general statute codifying, in great detail, race relations. Almost as an afterthought, it provided that black and mulatto children born after March 1 would become free at age 25. The strategy worked, and the bill passed without opposition. An act of 1797 reduced that age to 21, bringing slavery in line with apprenticeship, though obviously slavery was not voluntary and slaves did not receive money, clothes and professional standing at the end of their servitude.
As in other Northern states, gradual emancipation freed no slaves at once. It simply set up slavery for a long-term natural death. Connecticut finally abolished slavery entirely in 1848. The 1800 census counted 951 Connecticut slaves; the number diminished thereafter to 25 in 1830, but then inexplicably rose to 54 in the 1840 census. After that, slaves were no longer counted in censuses for the northern states.
Connecticut disenfranchised blacks in 1818, but that was a mere formality. As in many other places in the North, there is no evidence that blacks ever dared attempt to vote in Connecticut, in colonial times or after the Revolution.
1. Jackson Turner Main, Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut, Princeton University Press, 1983, p.177.