Author: Christopher Menapace
In 1777, Selah Hart was sitting in prison, captured by British forces in battle, while at the same time his slave Pharaoh was attacking General Howe’s British forces in Germantown, Pennsylvania. These two men were fighting for America’s freedom, yet only one of them was free. Born in Farmington, Connecticut in 1732 to Nathaniel Hart and Abigail Hooker, Selah Hart was raised in a wealthy and prominent family. The Harts were influential members of their community, so much so that early maps of Farmington show the southwestern end of town being labeled as the “Hart Quarter.” Their family was one of the first settlers in 1635 purchasing land from the Tunxis Indians, and Steven Hart, who was the grandfather of Selah, was selected as the town’s first deacon. In his own time, Selah became a leader of Farmington and was commonly referred to in later texts as a “Patron Saint of Connecticut.” Selah even has a monument to him located in Farmington describing him as an officer of the Revolution. That is what most information about Selah Hart will say, that he was a godly man who fought for freedom and liberty in the Revolution, and while his deeds in that fight cannot be denied, that is not all Selah Hart should be known for. Despite fighting for the freedom of the colonies, Selah Hart kept freedom from others through slavery, and did not free his slaves until provided with economic compensation.
At the time of the Revolution, Selah Hart owned at least two slaves, they were named Jack and Pharoah Hart. Yet the information on these two slave men is almost non-existent, especially when it comes to their early lives. It is unclear how Selah Hart obtained these two slaves, although it is possible that he purchased them, because his father’s Will has no mention of “slaves” or “servants” in the inventory. Slave ownership was more common in Farmington than most people would think, and the Hart family was no different. Members of Selah’s family like his Uncle John, Thomas, or on his mother’s side, Samuel Hooker, owned slaves. Many elites in Farmington owned slaves at some point even during the time of the Revolution when these same people fought for freedom and liberty, just like Selah Hart.
Not only was Selah an elite citizen of Farmington, during his life, Selah was a magistrate, a constable, a deacon, a brigadier-general, a treasurer, and many other useful positions in town. He owned a large farm that was quite profitable, using the labor of his two slaves to yield plentiful crops. Selah continued to contribute to the wealth his family had created over the generations in Farmington, but it was the Revolution that propelled Selah into sainthood within the town. Selah’s military career began before the Revolution, entering as ensign in 1762, he quickly shot up the ranks to lieutenant in 1763, and captain in 1764. It was then in 1776 when Selah joined the Revolution’s cause, being appointed to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and shortly after to the rank of Colonel of the Fifteenth Regiment Militia of Connecticut. His forces were sent to defend New York, and it was during a skirmish that Selah was cut off and captured by British forces on August 27th, 1776. Selah was later freed in an officer’s exchange and in 1779 was appointed Brigadier-General of the Sixth Brigade of Militia for Connecticut. After the war, Selah was sent as a delegate to the State Convention for the adoption of the Constitution in 1788, and continued to be an influential citizen in Connecticut.
During this time, Selah’s slave Pharoah was also fighting in the Revolution and was involved in the battles of Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1777, and Monmouth, New Jersey in 1778. Selah was to grant Pharoah his freedom for three years’ service in the Continental Army, while Selah received a portion of Pharoah’s wages as compensation for the economic hardship that freeing Pharoah would cause Selah. When Pharoah’s term was up, Selah demanded not just a portion of his wages, but the entirety of them. Even though it put Pharoah in considerable economic hardship to do this, having put his life on the line for the freedom of others; a freedom he had never experiences, Pharoah had no choice but to give up all his wages to Selah. The source of Selah’s insistence on obtaining the entirety of Pharoah’s wages most likely was because Selah’s imprisonment had put him into debt, for he did not receive his army wages while imprisoned by the British, on top of that, his slave Pharoah was no longer working the fields and making him money.
For a man claiming that he held these truths to be self-evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” why then did he keep these freedoms from Jack and Pharoah? Both eventually became free, and it is said that Jack did not have to pay for his freedom, but this was not the case for Pharoah. Selah Hart believed in freedom and liberty for all men, and risked his life in pursuit of that goal, but that goal took a back seat to his own economic benefit. Selah was one of many slave-owners in Farmington during the Revolution, and not all of these people freed their slaves, some fought tooth and nail to keep them. It was not the purpose of this writing to decry Selah Hart as a monster, but merely to put him into context of the era he lived in, to provide a second side to Selah, for he was both a hero of the Revolution, and a slave-owner.
Recommended for further reading:
Bickford, Christopher. Farmington in Connecticut. Farmington: Phoenix Pub, 1982.
Camp, David N. History of New Britain with Sketches of Farmington and Berlin, Connecticut. New Britain, CT: Thomas & Company, 1889.
Gay, Julius. Farmington Papers. Hartford: The Case, Lockwood & Brainard co, 1929.