Abolition without Deliverance: The Law of Connecticut Slavery 1784-1848. (Note)

By Menschel, David | The Yale Law Journal, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Abolition without Deliverance: The Law of Connecticut Slavery 1784-1848. (Note)


Menschel, David, The Yale Law Journal


According to American public memory, slavery in the United States was peculiar to the South. Unless explicitly reminded of the North's history of slavery, most Americans associate the North with abolitionists rather than slaveholders. Alongside this public memory is the work of professional historians that recognizes that slavery existed in the North during the colonial era but asserts that it was abolished during the late eighteenth century. According to such scholarship, as the Revolutionary War brought ideas of natural rights to the forefront of the American consciousness and as economic realities made Northern slavery increasingly unprofitable, states north of Maryland eliminated slavery through a series of legal measures. Some scholars who advance this narrative portray the abolition measures adopted by most Northern states as immediate and comprehensive, as though these measures effectuated the near-instantaneous eradication of slavery in each state that adopted them. (1)

In fact, though the number of slaves in the North declined after the Revolutionary War, slavery continued to exist there well into the nineteenth century. (2) Between 1777 and 1804, all of the states north of Maryland did take steps that would eventually doom slavery within their borders. But only in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire were slaves emancipated relatively swiftly, and even in these states abolition measures were ambiguous and their implementation inconsistent. (3) In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, state legislatures adopted gradual abolition legislation, which dismantled slavery over a period of half a century. (4)

Even histories of the North that distinguish gradual from immediate abolition tend to depict the former as an event rather than as a process. Some accounts elide the decades between the enactment of gradual abolition laws and slavery's actual extinction, as though slavery during this period were unworthy of remark because it was in decline. (5) Other works minimize or foreshorten the history of Northern slavery after the adoption of gradual abolition through imprecise language and sweeping generalities. (6) Still other works ignore the mechanics of gradual abolition laws and their effect on slaves entirely. (7) Historians' cursory treatment of this transitional era insinuates that gradual abolition laws produced slavery's straightforward and timely demise and promotes the image of Northern slavery as fleeting and anomalous.

Using Connecticut as a case study, this Note begins where the traditional narrative concludes. Unlike the standard histories of African Americans and of slavery in Connecticut, this Note probes the law of slavery between 1784, when the state adopted gradual abolition, and 1848, when the state's last slaves became free. (8) In particular, this Note challenges the standard account of Connecticut abolition in three respects. First, it presents evidence that Connecticut's 1784 Gradual Abolition Act did not remove slavery from the state in a prompt and orderly fashion. In Connecticut--as in all of those states north of Maryland and south of Massachusetts that enacted gradual abolition laws--slavery's termination was protracted and idiosyncratic. Second, the Note demonstrates that Connecticut's Gradual Abolition Act, while central to the decline of slavery in the state, was only one of several legal and extralegal developments that together caused slavery to disintegrate. Third, this Note considers the experience of Connecticut slaves and their children in the wake of gradual abolition; it examines slavery's stubborn hold on people even as it slowly decayed. (9)

Part I examines Connecticut's Gradual Abolition Act of 1784 and reveals that the law freed no slaves. It did promise eventual freedom to the future-born children of slaves, but, under the law, even these beneficiaries remained in servitude until the age of twenty-five. The law reflected the legislature's intent to end the institution of slavery in the state in a way that respected property rights and preserved social order. …

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