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In early nineteenth-century Connecticut, voting rights were limited to men who owned property, and because black men were so often shut out of meaningful, lucrative employment, property ownership among them was rare. In a society of landholders, this was interpreted as a sign of instability.

Until 1814, a black landowner could vote, but the state legislature ruled that year that the term “freeman” meant free white man, thus excluding free black men from voting. Four years later, this exclusion was made part of the state’s constitution.

The result of this change in the Connecticut voting laws was that a white roustabout working on the New London docks and too poor to own even a sea chest could vote; while New Haven’s William Lanson, a black businessman, property holder and community leader, could not. Lanson petitioned the state, objecting to the new law that had added “white” to the voting requirements. His petition (housed in the Connecticut State Library), as well as those from other newly disenfranchised Connecticut African Americans, was ignored.

In 1828, the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew Wainright spoke at Hartford’s Christ Church in favor of the colonization movement, yet he acknowledged at the same time that the North was as complicit in slavery as the South, then a fairly revolutionary idea. He said that if the banks of the Connecticut River had been rice meadows, and cotton could have been grown in the state, there would still be slaves.

“And do we not at this very moment, manufacture and wear the cotton of their planting and gathering, and do we not eat of the rice and sugar which the toil of slaves has produced? Let us not then boast of our exemption from responsibility,” the minister said, “and from whatever may be the criminality of possessing a slave population.” 

Additional Resources:

Find out more about voting rights in the early 19th century

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