In 1784, a bill was passed outlining a policy of gradual emancipation, and although it did not free black people then held in bondage, it provided that children born of the enslaved be freed upon reaching age 25. Later legislation lowered the freedom age to 21.
The gradual eradication of slavery did not abolish racial prejudice. In this last part of the 18th century, free black men, many of whom were highly skilled at the various trades and jobs that made New England prosperous, were seen, in John Adams' words, as "sable rivals."
Though Connecticut's Venture Smith became a prosperous landowner with
ships, houses and more than 100 acres of waterfront property, he
encountered ferocious prejudice from fellow businessmen. For every ultimately
successful experience like his, or the Peterses' in Hebron, one can find,
in local records, evidence of black families who could not rise above poverty
despite their labors.
And a new version of history, one in which Connecticut slavery was
being recast as a form of mild, paternalistic
indenture, was already taking root
at the end of the century, even before
slavery was abolished.
In 1794, the year before he was named president of Yale, Theodore Dwight argued passionately before an anti-slavery group that most people agreed slavery was wrong, but "political expediency" kept the institution in place.
"...When the question of total abolition has been seriously put, it has met with steady opposition, and has hitherto miscarried, on the ground of political expediency--That is, it is confessed to be morally wrong, to subject any class of our fellow-creatures to the evils of slavery; but asserted to be politically right, to keep them in such subjection." Dwight then remarked that slaves in Connecticut were "flourishing and happy," though he admitted, "even here they are slaves."
go to documents & activities >>