Slavery, Liberty, and Revolutionary Connecticut

Author: Ryan Paolino

An enslaved man refused to work further and upon his master’s inspection lashed out with a knife. The slave killed his former master and wounded the master’s son in the cheek. Both the son and mistress escaped without further harm. The Connecticut Journal, as well as the New-Haven Post-Boy, reported that the captive stole the knife and an ax as he escaped into the woods. In 1767 the colony was eight years away from the beginning of the Revolutionary War. During the war, some slaves were offered a chance to fight for their freedom. Others seized the opportunity to runaway and join the British. What this article from 1767 provides is confirmation that the idea of freedom did not begin with the Revolution. The Revolution simply offered  a venue that did not make obtaining freedom a crime. Moreover, runaway slaves were not restricted to the southern colonies; many in the North attempted their escape as well.

The American Revolution became the fight for liberty and independence yet served as an ambiguous symbol for who received such benefits. Slaves in the revolution generally fought for the side of the their owners. While approximately 12,000 slaves defended the British Parliament with their loyalist masters in return for freedom, a large number resisted such “tyranny” fighting for the Patriot cause in the place of their owners. Connecticut struggled to meet its supply of soldiers for the quota of the Continental Army and filled the gap with black soldiers. Masters, on both sides, commonly promised their servants freedom after the revolution’s victory, yet such a promise never saw fulfillment.  Slaves challenged British rule for the hope that the liberty they fought for might include them, yet many others resisted their masters despite the possible reward, or for some, lack of an offer.

Slaves who fought in the revolution were betrayed by both sides. The patriots gained their liberty that was applied to only white males while the British and loyalists lost with little opportunity to compromise at the Treaty of Paris. Those captives who fought and survived for self-betterment received nothing. Often those who fought in place of their master’s went back to work and continued their lives as they did prior to the American Revolution.  Even men like Sharp Liberty, who was formerly enslaved in Wallingford and manumitted after the war, had trouble collecting wages that allowed them to live securely after the war. Connecticut struggled with the ways that slaves were handled as many white citizens disagreed about to whom liberty applied. Connecticut was far from abolishing slavery and the betrayed black soldiers and servants did not have another opportunity such as the revolution and the discussions about liberty. Many attempted an escape either stealthily or with violence although success was unlikely.

Simeon Olcott was a graduate of Yale law school and judge of Hartford County Court. Col. Sam A. Joley asked for his opinion about the law’s relationship to a runaway slave in the State of New Hampshire in 1788. Olcott looked to a similar case in New York where another slave deserted his master’s service. Upon capture he was prevented return by citizens who believed he was free. It was ruled the slave was freed based on the Constitution and a unanimous decision by the court. Yet, Olcott believed, according to State law and the Constitution, slaves were not liberated by the Constitution and disagreed with such results. His response was reflective of the divisions that existed in Connecticut even in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Independence and liberty were achieved, yet several people disagreed about who was eligible to receive such liberties. Olcott’s letter currently remains in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.

The betrayal of allied slaves from the Revolutionary War was not absolute. Many freed slaves enlisted in the war, such as Liverpool Wadsworth, from Farmington, Connecticut, who took the name of his former owner, Thomas Wadsworth, after Liverpool was freed in his owner’s will. A Connecticut slave named Jack was owned by a patriot clergyman and asked his master about the hypocrisy of the language of liberty while he was a slave. His owner agreed that Jack also deserved liberty and after an additional year of service granted his freedom.

Connecticut was not in agreement about slaves and the concept of liberty. Some owners accepted that liberty was not for white men alone and granted their slaves freedom after the American Revolution. Freed slaves were uncommon due to the fact that the law did not state slaves had such liberties. While few were lucky to escape the lives of servitude an overwhelming majority were betrayed by the patriots and loyalists alike.

For Further Information:

Cooper, William Neil. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1885.

Orcott, Samuel. Opinion on Freedom of African Americans in New Hampshire, 1788. Connecticut Historical Society. Hartford, Connecticut.

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