Objects in the Dark, 1638-1775
The Black Codes

[Black code]
Act of General Count and Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut.
May 13, 1708. Vol. IV, p. 35. Colonial Records, Connecticut State Library.

This Black Code states that no slave could be acquired without the owner's knowlege (presumably in reference to run-away slaves) and that if a negro or mulatto servant disburb the peace or strike a white person, he shall be whipped. It seems that at the beginning of the eighteenth century Black slaves knew limits to the abuse they would endure and acted accordingly. It would be wrong to assume that slaves were either docile or passive, and in making the slave an object of legislation, he could thereby also become its subject.

An "Act of the General Assumbly of the Colony of Connecticut, May Session of 1730, for the Punishment of Negroes, Indian and Molatto Slaves, for Speaking Defamatory Words," indicates the same:

Be it enacted by the Governor, Council and Representatives, in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That if any Negro, Indian, or Molatto slave shall utter, publish and speak such words of any person that would by law be actionable if the same were uttered, published or spoken by any free person of any other, such Negro, Indian or Molatto slave, being thereof convicted before any one justice of the peace, (who are hereby empowered to hear and determine the same,) shall be punished by whipping, at the discretion of the assistant or justice before whom the tryal is, (respect being had to the circumstances of the case,) not exceeeding forty stripes. And the said slave, so convict, shall be sold to defray all charges arising thereby, unless the same be by his or their master or mistress paid and answered.

Provided nevertheless, That such Negro, Indian or Molatto slave be not debarred from making such pleas, and offering such evidences in his or their defense or justification on such tryal; as any other person might make use of, being sued in an action of defamation, so far as relates to the tryal before the justice; anything above to the contrary notwithstanding.

Physical punishment, such as whipping, was traditionally considered only appropriate for non-free, and such distinctions sactioned by law were basic to feudal society. However, we also see here the sense of a uniformity of law that applies to everyone, regardless of rank or privilege. This ambivalence reflects that a revolution was in process that would eventually make slavery incongruent.

[Black code bis] In fact, the Black Codes failed to reconcile feudal traditions with the notion of equality before the law, and this Black Code was the result. It is "An Act Prohibiting the Importation of Indian or Negro or Mulatto Slaves," passed by the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut, October, 1774. Vol. IX, p.g 373, Colonial Records (Connecticut State Library). This code ended the slave trade in Connecticut, although not, of course, slavery itself, and it marked the beginning of a century of legislation that would establish the freedoms and rights of Blacks in the State. Here in Connecticut, emancipation was indeed a long complex process that began long before the Civil War.

If slaves were gaining legal "personality," they could in principle act as the agents of law. As examples, at the time of the American Revolution, there were in Connecticut petitions from associations of slaves that sought their collective emancipation. Here is an example:

Petition of 1780 by slaves for the abolition of slavery in Connecticut

Unto your Honner the govener and all the wise men of the State of Connecticut which it hath Plesed god to Permit to gather at Hartford unto you we the the Poor and opresed Negro Sarvents of this Town By and with the advice of Each other and By the Desier of all the Negro Sarvents in this State Do in a most humble maner Criy unto you for Liberty alltho we have Desiered this faver from your honners Time after Time yet we are Not Discuriged But Do Still intend to Beag this faver from Time to Time tho you Should not grant us our Desiers this Time -

We are all of us the Same mind as we was when we asked this advantige of your honners Last may that our marsters have no more Rite to make us Searve them then we have to make our Marsters Searve us and we have Resen to wonder that our Case has not Ben taken into Consideration So fare as to Grant us our Libertys But we must consider what the Book of Eceleisastes says at 8 Chapter & at the 11 varce Because Sentence aganst an Evel work is not Executed Speedily theirfore the hart of the Sons of men is fully Set in them to do Evel - and for this Reson we Think our Cause is Not Regarded and we Still must Say as Jeremiah Says in his Lamentations at the 5 Chapter & at the 5 varce Our necks are under Persecution we Labour and have no rest - But we are in good hopes that your honners will Take Notis of our Case and Do unto us as you would be Glad that we Should Do unto you if we was in your Condishon and you in ours But it hath Plesed god to Place us in the Sitawaytion we are now in But we Pray to god that he would Send forth his Good Spirit into your harts and Remind you of your Duty and make you the Instermints of Binding up the Brokenharted and of Proclaiming Liberty to the Captives and the opening of the Prison to them that are Bound We ask your good Will to Look upon us and we Criy unto you in the words of Job at the 19 Chapter & at the 21 varce Have Pity upon me have Pity upon me o ye my frindes - But we Still Look unto god Who Pursarves Both the Servent and the marster for we Know that in the 140 Psalm at the 12 varces That we have a Sartin Promos viz. I Know that the Lord will maintain the Cause of the afflicted and the Right of the Poor and we think that it is time for us to Criy aloud for our Liberty for No Son of man will give his Sarvent his Time unless he Thinks that he Dos Roung in Keeping off him and So Considers that their is a wa Ppurnounced aganst those that Take a way their Neighbours Servise with wages and giveth him Not for his work Jeremiah at the 22 Chapter & at the 13 varce wo unto him that Buildeth his house By Unriteousness and without wages and giveth him Not for his work and when their is a man that will give his Searvent his Liberty we must think that he Considers what the word of God Says in the 34 Chapter and the 10 varces of the Book of Jeremiah viz. Now when all the Princes and all the people which had Entered into the Covenent heard that Every one Should Let his maid Searvent and Every one his man Servent go free that None Should Serve themselves of them any more then they obeyed and Let them go and We wish that all our marsters would consider the word of God as Job Did and Consider the Cause of his man Servent and of his maid Servent when we Contend with our marsters But we Cant find Such men as will other give or Sell ous Liberty & we all Both young and old Do ask your Kind and good will toasist us in geting our freedom for we have indured the galling yok of Bondige Ever Sence we have Ben Brought from our own Country and I those of us that Was Born in this Cuntry have Ben under Bondage our hol lives untill now and their is a grat nomber of us which have been Brotup By Such I men as have Not Larnt us to Read the woord of God Neather have have They Lamt us the mening of the word of I God But have Keept us from the Knoledge of that Salvation which we have a Right to By Jesus Christ But we Think that if we have our Liberty we Shall have an opportunity to Larn the word of God and to Recive good to our Sols as well as our Bodyes and if we Could But injoy our Liberty we think that we Should Be in as Fare a way to make our Calling and Electtion Suer and By Gods Goodness have our Sols Saved from Eerlasting Damnation But we are keep from all favers Both Bodys and Sols But we Look unto that god which is as able to Save us as he is to Save our Marsters But we Depend upon the Blesings of god in making the gurenel asimbly the insterments of Seating us at Liberty from these men that I Now hold us as Servents - But if your honners Refuse to asist us in Releving us from our Marsters we Shall I have Reson to say that you [.?.] Do Not your duty as the word of God says in the Book of Isaiah at the 58 Chapter and 6 varse I To undo the hevy Burdens and to Leat the oppressed Go free and that I ye Brak Every yoke - and this is the Duty of all that have an oppertunity to Releve them that are in Disstrass I and if your honners forgit your Duty all men may say that our Roulars Bare the Sword in vain But if we Kant have our Desier dont think hard of us if By our marsters we say as David Did By his enemies Psalms the 109 and the 6 varce Set thou a wicked man over him and I Let Satan Stand at his Right hand the 7 varc when he Shall Be I Judged Let him Be Condemned and Let his Prayer Become Sin I the 8 varce Let his Days Be few and Let another take his offsice I the 9 varce Let his Children Be fatherliss and his wife a widow the 10 varce Let his Children Be Continually vagabonds and Beg Let them Seek their Bread also out of their Desolate Places the 11 varce Let the Extortioner Catch all that he hath and Let the Stranger Spoil all his Labour the 12 varce Let thair Be none to Extend mercy unto him Neither Let their Be any to favour his fatherless Children I the 13 verce Let his Posterity Be Cut off and in the generation I folowing Let their Name Be Blotted out the 14 varce Let The iniquity of his fathers Be Remembered with the Lord and Let Not the Sin of his mother Be Blotted the 15 varce Let them Be Before the Lord Continually that he may Cut off the memory of them from the Earth the 16 varce Because that he Remembered not to Shew marcy But Perscuted the Poor and nedy I man. And Surr we hope that you will Remember the Poor and oppresed negro men in the State which you are Chosen to Do Justice in So we are abliged to Lement Our Case as in Lamentations at the 5 chapter and 5 varce Our Necks are under Persecution we Labour and have no Rest

This petition of 1880 is found among the Trumbull Papers M.H.S., volume 13, part 2, document 251. It was first published by Vincent J. Rosivach in "Three Petitions by Connecticut Negroes for the Abolition of Slavery in Connecticut," Connecticut Review, Volume XVII, no. 2, 79-92.

The editor points out that this petition is written in a reasonably good hand by a slave who consulted a King James version of the Bible, perhaps by having the quoted passages read to him. On the petition's exterior are written the words, "Hartford Negro Mem Oct 1780." While the year 1780 is probably correct for the year of the petition, there is some doubt its authors were actually from Hartford, and this petition could well be another attempt by the slaves of Fairfield county after the failure of their petition of 1779. We know neither the number nor identity of the petitioners. The fact that this petition is found among Governor Trumbull's papers leads Rosivach to suspect that the Governer never bothered to forward it to the Assembly.

Nevertheless, it is significant that here slaves are gaining "legal personality," which is to say that they can represent their interests in terms of law, whether or not that effort proved successful. Ths document is also significant as an early example of the collective struggle that alone could compensate for the weakness of the ordinary individual in the emerging bourgeois society.

[Exhibit contents] [back] [Forward]