Yesterday, I wrote about the slavery apology passed by the Connecticut House of Representatives and, because it was a breaking story, had to settle for linking to the A.P. wire story on the site of the Hartford Courant.

This morning, the Courant has its own story about the vote, which begins:

More than 200 years after the fact, the state House of Representatives voted Thursday to formally apologize for slavery in Connecticut.

I think this opening line powerfully illustrates the importance of finally, and fully, acknowledging our society’s sordid history around slavery and race.

Just what does the reporter believe happened in Connecticut more than 200 years ago?

Surely he isn’t referring to the start of slavery in Connecticut, which had occurred by 1639, when the first slaves were mentioned in Hartford.

Surely he isn’t referring to the end of slavery in Connecticut. Slaves were listed openly in the state in each federal census until 1850, when the federal government simply stopped counting slaves in New England.

Perhaps he was referring specifically to the complicity of the state’s General Assembly in slavery. If so, however, he is mistaken.

The Connecticut General Assembly did eventually act to formally abolish slavery, declaring that “no person shall hereafter be held in slavery in this State.”

However, this was in 1848, a mere 161 years ago.

The exact number of years since slavery ended in Connecticut isn’t the real issue, of course, and the reporter may simply have made a meaningless slip which wasn’t caught by an editor or proofreader. However, this is a surprising mistake to make in the opening line of an article about the legislature’s role in slavery, and it does perfectly fit a common and pervasive pattern of historical amnesia about northern slavery.

It is common in Connecticut, and in the rest of the north, to assume that northern slavery was minor and economically unimportant, that the practice ended after the colonial period, and that long before the Civil War the north had become staunchly anti-slavery.

In fact, slavery was an essential part of Connecticut’s history and economy. At the time of the American Revolution, Connecticut had more slaves than any other New England state. Slavery in Connecticut was also a middle-class phenomenon, with one in four households owning at least one slave. In the antebellum period, while the economic benefits of owning slaves in Connecticut declined sharply, slavery in other regions became central to the state’s own growing economy and to its economic future, particularly through the process of industrialization.

Of course, apologies and acknowledgments are about the present as much as the past. Today, it is important that we cast aside myths about our history which seriously distort our understanding of our own past and its impact on the present day. It is also important that those who may feel that they remain second-class citizens do not continue to see evidence suggesting, fairly or not, that the majority of citizens deny that this history even occurred.

In fairness, I want to point out that this newspaper story, by Christopher Keating, is otherwise well researched and well written. Moreover, the Hartford Courant has been at the forefront of reporting on the North’s role in slavery. In fact, the newspaper’s ground-breaking reporting was turned into a book, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, which I highly recommend as a very readable introduction for the non-specialist. However, these facts only emphasize how strange it is that the mistake above would slip by, undetected, in such a prominent location.

6 Responses to “When did the North give up slavery?”

  1. Patricia says:

    Many mistakes slipped by in Keating's article. No one has ever apologized for or to the white slaves. Too many are in error on their idea of what slavery was. No truth has ever been told on slavery to date. This is an institution that has been around since the beginning of society. The black slave owners in the south were worse than the white ones. Don't tell a story until you get your facts right. Read your Bible. Yes, slavery is in it. In our time it was used by a President (Lincoln) to bully the South into shifting the wealth into the North. States Rights were all the South wanted. Lincoln used a way to get what he wanted. Make your enemy a monster and you will not only win the war you will change history, but only in the classrooms.

  2. James says:

    Patricia, I'm not quite sure what you mean when you say that no one has apologized for "the white slaves."

    In this country, we never practiced chattel slavery (or anything like it) with white people. There was indentured servitude, to be sure, but this institution didn't remotely resemble the enslavement of black or Native American peoples.

    I'm also not sure why you believe that "the truth" has never been told about slavery. For instance, the fact that slavery has existed in different times and placed throughout recorded history is commonly mentioned in history books and in discussions of slavery.

    You're right to point out that the U.S. Civil War was not a simple conflict about ending slavery. The South was fighting for more than the mere preservation of its slavery-based economy, and the North's stance on slavery was decidedly ambiguous.

    The North deserves to shoulder its share of blame for slavery, as the North practiced slavery and profited heavily by it. Any attempt to describe American slavery as being primarily about the South is misguided at best.

    What, however, does this tell us here? How, for instance, do you believe that Keating got his story wrong about any of this?

  3. BarleySinger says:

    In the original North American colonies, a very large number of the slaves were white western Europeans. The idea that slaves were all black is just wrong. There were black slaves, white slaves, slaves of mixed race, native American slaves, Mexican slaves. In North America, slavery was an "equal opportunity" horror.

    Many of the white slaves imported to the colonies were prisoners for political or religious reasons, or people just plain thrown off of their land (or out of their country). These people were far less expensive to buy that black slaves, so it was a popular trade. One of the groups most commonly enslaved were the Irish.

    The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World (the colonies). He did this as part of his "Proclamation of 1625" which said that Irish political prisoners were to be sent to the colonies….sold off to English settlers in the West Indies. The Irish were sold as slaves all over the New World. By the mid 1600s, the MOST of the slaves sold in Antigua and Montserrat were IRISH (70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves at the time). From 1641 to 1652 half a million Irish people were killed by the English and over 300,000 were sold as slaves (in the new world – the North American colonies and the Caribbean cane industry).

    In fact so many Irish people were sold off as slaves (and outright killed by the English) that the population of Ireland dropped from 1.5 million to about 600 thousand in less than 10 years.

    ———— Have a few direct quotations ————–

    During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were forcibly taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. Another 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia while 30,000 Irish men were sold to the highest bidder.

    In 1656, Oliver Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

    African slaves were very expensive (50 Sterling), had to be transported long distances and paid for not only in Africa or in the Arab slave markets, but paid for again in the New World. Irish slaves were far less expensive. They were no more than 5 Sterling, instead of 50 Sterling. A large number of them were either kidnapped from Ireland, prisoners or were simply forcibly removed form Ireland.

    The importation of Irish slaves continued well into the eighteenth century, long after the importation of African slaves became the norm. Records state that after the 1798 Irish Rebellion, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia.

    Irish slavery didn't end until Britain decided to end slavery in 1839.

  4. James DeWolf Perry says:

    I'm afraid you've fallen victim to an historical myth–one that, for some reason, is especially prevalent these days.

    It's true that there were a modest number of Native Americans enslaved in the early American colonies, before the colonists realized that they would be better able to control enslaved people imported from Africa.

    However, the idea of Irish or other "white slaves" on these shores is simply untrue. There were white indentured servants in the thirteen colonies, but they were British as well as Irish and others, and that condition was not remotely like chattel slavery. This myth also seems to arise in part because a small percentage of those who came to the Americas as indentured servants were in that condition involuntarily; these are what you refer to correctly as Irish political prisoners, who actually came only during a brief window in the 17th century and went to the Caribbean. They were there involuntarily, but again, as indentured servants and not as chattel slaves. The difference is quite significant.

    This issue is well addressed by Liam Hogan. See, for instance, his paper, "The Myth of 'Irish Slaves' in the Colonies," at….

    It's possible, of course, to try arguing that we should consider anyone who is bound to work for another as a "slave" — even if indentured servants were generally in that condition voluntarily, and had vastly more rights, and better lives, than chattel slaves did.

    But this isn't a useful definition of "slave," and is wildly inaccurate when used to explicitly compare such people to enslaved Africans and people of African descent. Indentured servants were, for instance, bound to work for only a limited number of years, had many legal rights not enjoyed under chattel slavery, and were not forced to watch their descendants remain in the same condition. Chattel slavery was brutal almost beyond our imagining today, with violence, rape, and death essential components of the institution, and chattel slaves routinely stripped of their language, culture, and religion, as well as their spouses and children.

  5. BarleySinger says:

    So… you actually refute this idea. OK.

    The peasants/serfs of the European feudal era (which extended into the 19th and 20th centuries depending where you lived) were chattel. They were property.Their children were also chattel. The peasantry were OWNED by the same person who owned the piece of land they lived on. They had to ask permission to do much of anything. They worked that land for a tiny slice of what they harvested (generation after generation), and they were the legal property of the "lord" of the land.

    As times changed with the industrial revolution, the land changed hands, because the NEW rich wanted to have noble titles. You only real avenue for getting a title was to BUY a big hunk of land. The titles came with the ownership of LAND, but the serfs ALSO came with the land too (liking buying a house with its furniture).

    In the Georgian era in England buying titles by buying land was extremely common. However the new wealthy land holders (now Lords and Barons) often did not WANT a bunch of farms. They considered the villagers to be very unsightly & dirty. The wealthy land owners wanted pretty rolling hills with manicured gardens, not dirty people working the land. So (because they had absolute power over them) they just threw the peasants off of the land into starvation and burned down their villages. The only advantage to the displaced people is that they were "no longer property" of anyone but the Royalty, so at least they could flee and try to find food.

    Oddly enough England THEN had problems with food shortages and had to buy food. The farm in the New World became more and more important, as did TRADE. Odd…who would have though it. You take bug hunks of your most fertile land and don't grow anything on them (now owned by wealthy factory owners who don't want any crops gown there) and it somehow results in less food.

    They also extreme poverty. However it worked out great for the factory owners because it gave them a whole lot of poor people to work in their factories at terrible pay in dangerous conditions…and when they dies of those conditions (or were worked to death) there were LOTS more poor people to take their place.

    Got that idea? The extreme majority of people in England were CHATTEL in the 1700s. They had no place to go when they were tossed off of the land and this resulted in massive poverty, starvation, people sent off to "the work houses", lots of child labor, etc.

    And yes, religious wars .(especially under Cromwell) figured in to a great deal of persecution of those "not of the right religion". Cromwell had also made promises to his military supporters, that he would pay them with "freehold land" in Ireland. The Irish had no place to go, so they did not move north to county Claire…and were then taken from the land and sold.

    You might want to look into folk music. It records what was far too common. People were arrested on shoddy charges (usually done by the English) and sentenced to "transportation" (slavery in another nation). This included the "New World" colonies (places like Virginia – see "Gone to America" and also places like Australia – see "Black Velvet Band").

    Note that a similar form slavery (fake changes used to arrest people) was used in the US on black Americans LONG after the official end of slavery (until after Johnson integrated the troops)..

    And some links for you ;

  6. James DeWolf Perry says:

    The notion that medieval peasants were chattel slaves would certainly come as a major surprise to scholars of slavery … and to medieval historians. First, serfs were generally "bound to the land," which is not at all the same thing as being treated as property. Nor does it meet the definition of slavery, which is, roughly speaking, being forced to work as a master directs, for no pay. Second, chattel slavery entails far more than merely being "owned" as property. It is a condition of total subservience in all aspects of life. Those peasants often had little choice but to make their living raising crops on a plot of land, and were forced to turn over part of their production to their lord, but their earnings, and their lives, were largely their own.

    Likewise, while being a worker in the industrial era was no picnic, it wasn't slavery, either, much less chattel slavery. The existence of wages, alone, demonstrates that, much less the right to a personal life. The plight of factory workers, coal miners, and the like could be absolutely brutal, but the concept is different, and I suspect few would have wanted to trade their lives for that of American-style chattel slavery, with the ever-present threat of violence and sexual assault, not to mention the lack of such personal freedoms as the right to a spouse or to keep one's children.

    The "transportation" you're hearing about in folk music and on family web sites wasn't transportation into chattel slavery. In most cases, it was involuntary transportation into indentured servitude … which, again, is a very different condition from chattel slavery. Naturally, many people over the years have been seduced into using the language of slavery to describe their people's history … and perhaps innocently so, if they weren't themselves historians. This isn't to deny, either, that there have been a great many examples of actual slavery throughout human history (and in today's world, as well).

    I do appreciate your final point, about the persistence of conditions approximating slavery for black Americans in the U.S. long after slavery officially ended. While historians may not describe the widespread use of such techniques as routinely incarcerating black men on trumped-up charges as "slavery," the condition often wasn't very different, and was clearly a continuation of the practice of forced labor in as similar a way as was possible.

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