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Trumbull College

Trumbull College doorwayTrumbull was the governor of Connecticut before, during, and after the American Revolution. He graduated from Harvard in 1727. Through trade with the West Indies, Jonathan Trumbull turned the small business he inherited from his father into one of the most prosperous in Connecticut.

In 1736, the year before he married, Jonathan Trumbull purchased "Flora--a slave for life" with the aid of his father. (27) A few years later, Trumbull began a long career in the Colony's General Assembly. Among his duties were to enfore the Colony's Black Codes--laws applying only to people of color that circumscribed their freedom of movement and assembly.

Trumbull adjudicated a case of "nightwalking" in 1758:

Jonathan Trumbull, His Majesty's Assistant for the Colony of Connecticut, rules that Negroes Cato, Newport and Adam are to be publicly whipped on the naked body for nightwalking after nine in the evening without an order from their masters. Their owners are each fined 7s and costs. (28)

Twenty stripes were typically inflicted on those circulating in the streets after nine p.m. with no pass from their masters.

Trumbull became the governor of the Connecticut colony in 1769. He was the only colonial governor to support American independence. Trumbull presided over Connecticut while slavery reached its peak, but also as it began to decline. As governor, he served ex officio on the Yale Corporation.

As the spirit of independence began to sweep the country, Governor Trumbull was increasingly confronted by the contradictions between the institution of slavery and the principles of democracy (29).

Governor Trumbull's own son, John Trumbull, published a scathing satirical attack on slavery in The Connecticut Journal and The New Haven Post-Boy on July 6, 1770.

An eloquent attack on slavery during Trumbull's governorship was aired by the "Hartford Negro Men" who wrote two long letters. The second letter arrived in Trumbull's hands in 1780, as the state legislature debated a bill on gradual emancipation for the first time:

We are all of us of the same mind as we [were] when we asked this advantage of your honor last May[,] that our masters have no more [right] to make us serve than we have to make our masters to serve us. And we have [...] to wonder that our case has not been taking in consideration so far as to grant us our liberties.

Their petition for freedom addressed the Governor as an equal, and used Christian doctrine to guarantee their claim to equality:

Leave not a stumbling block before ye at the day of judgment ... pray, which had you rather: choose to let the Negroes go free or lose your soul at the day of judgment? Now gentlemen, there is no lawyer, no temporal judge, but a spiritual lawyer and judge. ... Gentlemen, you'll think of our humble petition when you come to ... your deathbed. Your conscience then will smite you to think how you have wronged us, poor natives of our dear country Africa. You think you keep us alive but it is the Almighty that keeps us alive and provides us sustenance.

Historian Ira Berlin describes this sort of activism on the part of black people:

Echoing the themes sounded by black petitioners prior to the revolution, slaves denounced the double standard that allowed white Americans to fight for freedom while denying that right to blacks. Indeed, slaves and free blacks not only employed the ideas of the Revolution but also its very language ... Success bred success. Black people who gained their freedom by legislative enactment, individual manumission and successful flight pressed all the harder for universal emancipation, demanding first the release of their families and friends, and then all black people still in bondage. (30)

In 1779, Yale gave Trumbull an honorary degree. In 1784, Trumbull announced his retirement as governor a few months before the Connecticut legislature finally passed the "gradual emancipation" law, after discussing it actively for four years.

Trumbull was a hero of the American Revolution. During his tenure as governor he presided over Connecticut while slavery was most prevalent, but he also cleared the way for gradual emancipation within the newly freed state.



Numbers in parentheses refer to notes. See the notes page.