The story of Cesar and Lowis Peters and their children illustrates,
in all its complexity, late eighteenth-century
enslavement in Connecticut. This trusted
and hardworking Hebron couple, for
many years the property of an Anglican
minister named Samuel Peters, continued
to work the Hebron farm of their Tory
master after he fled to England during
the American Revolution.
Cesar and Lowis, though enslaved, independently worked the Peters' property from 1776 until 1787,
when a relative of the minister arrived to claim the black family and sell them. Community regard for
the couple was so high, however, that the townspeople of Hebron staged an elaborate subterfuge and
spirited them away from their captors.
The black couple illuminates both the industry of Connecticut's
enslaved, and their profound vulnerability.
Lowis and Cesar had a town rally around
them, but many of the enslaved and
newly freed did not. Venture Smith,
an African-born prince who was a slave
in the colonies and Connecticut for
nearly 30 years, managed to buy his
freedom in the 1760s and wrote a bitter
memoir about his life as a slave and
free man. Things that would have been
judged a crime in Africa, he wrote,
were good enough for
"the black dog."
Well before the war for emancipation, Connecticut began drawing to a close its on-site relationship
with slavery. Black men and women were taking their place in a free society, and the state's policy of
gradual manumission, instituted in 1784, was moving toward its desired goal.
And yet, as always, the story is more complex than
we might like to assume. To understand
America's tug-o-war over enslavement,
you need only look at Connecticut during
the last 25 years of the eighteenth
century. A thriving colony became a
thriving state and even as its economic
dependence on slavery deepened—fortunes
made in the Triangle Trade were underwriting
every kind of new enterprise—the
numbers of enslaved began to decline.
Shortly before the Revolution, Samuel Johnson asked: "How is it that
we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" The
great English writer had a point and it was not lost on Americans about
to wage war for national and economic independence. The incongruity of "liberty
and justice for all" and a population held in chattel bondage was, at
least to some, inescapable. next >>