Chauncey Judd: Negro Patriotism

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Negro Patriotism

Tobiah was a patriot. With the political principles of his master, and so many others of the residents of that tory neighborhood, he had no sympathy. He had, indeed, no very precise idea of the issues involved in the war. Books and papers afforded him but scant information, for he had little ability or leisure for reading. But he was skillful in learning from others. He listened attentively to the conversation of persons who came to the inn, to the stories of soldiers that had been in the army, and even what was said by the tories themselves in their denunciations of the war and of all who were engaged in it. It was enough that it was a struggle for freedom. Liberty was to Tobiah a word of transcendent import, and he could not hesitate, when this was the question in dispute, on which side to bestow his sympathy.

The same thing was true, as a general rule, with the colored people throughout the colonies. Though slavery existed under the colonial laws, yet it was of a far milder type than that which was maintained in the West Indies. The slave trade was carried on in English ships, and under the authority and patronage of the British crown. When the colonies had attempted to abolish the infamous traffic, their enactments were overruled and annulled by the acts of Parliament. It was one of the most stinging charges hurled against King George III., in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, that he had thus protected the slave trade; and though the paragraph was finally stricken out of that immortal document before it was adopted, yet everybody knew it was true. Said Jefferson, its author,-

For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty had rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. The abolition of domestic slavery is the great subject of desire in those colonies, where it was, unhappily, introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all importations from Africa. Yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty's negative; thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice.[1]

Not only, therefore, on general grounds of political right, but also as specially connected with the condition of their own race, were the colored people of that day friends to the cause of Independence. The very leader of the mob that assailed the British troops at the time of the famous Boston Massacre, and the first that was shot down by them, was Crispus Attucks, who, twenty years before, had been advertised in the Boston Gazette as a runaway slave, with a reward of ten pounds offered for his return to his master. At the battle of Bunker Hill, one of the most memorable events was the shooting of Major Pitcairn, of the British army, by the colored soldier, Peter Salem, a fact appropriately commemorated by Colonel Trumbull in his celebrated painting of that battle.

The major, said an eye-witness of the affair, had passed the storm of our fire without, and had mounted the redoubt, when, waving his sword, he commanded, in a loud voice, the rebels to surrender. His sudden appearance and his commanding air at first startled the men immediately before him. They neither answered nor fired, probably not being exactly certain what was next to be done. At this critical moment, a negro soldier stepped forward, and aiming his musket directly at the major's bosom, blew him through.[2]

Another event in which a negro bore a conspicuous part was the capture of the British General Prescott, at Newport, in 1777. The exploit, says Livermore, was much commended at the time, as its results were highly important, and Colonel Barton very properly received from Congress the compliment of a sword for ingenuity and bravery. It seems, however, that it took more than one head to execute the undertaking.

They landed about five miles from Newport, and three-quarters of a mile from the house, which they approached cautiously, avoiding the main guard, which was at some distance. The colonel went foremost, with a stout, active negro close behind him, and another at a small distance; the rest followed so as to be near, but not seen.

A single sentinel at the door saw and hailed the colonel; he answered by exclaiming against, and inquiring for, rebel prisoners, but kept slowly advancing. The sentinel again challenged him, and required the countersign. He said he had not the countersign, but amused the sentry by talking about rebel prisoners, and still advancing till he came within reach of the bayonet, which, he presenting, the colonel suddenly struck aside, and seized him. He was immediately secured, and ordered to be silent on pain of death. Meanwhile, the rest of the men surrounding the house, the negro, with his head, at the second stroke, forced a passage into it, and then into the landlord's apartment. The landlord at first refused to give the necessary intelligence, but on the prospect of present death, he pointed to the general's chamber, which being instantly opened by the negro's head, the colonel, calling the general by name, told him he was a prisoner. - Moore's Diary.[3]

These events, and many others in which colored men showed their bravery and fidelity to the cause of the colonies, were much talked of, at the time, throughout the country, and Tobiah was very proud of them. The battle of Bunker Hill particularly excited his most intense enthusiasm. Though it was apparently a defeat for the patriot troops, yet in its effects - inspiring courage and hope - it was equivalent to a victory. That the raw Yankee troops should dare to meet the veteran soldiers of Britain, - the veritable red-coats; - should stand their fire and return it with such deadly effect, and, but for the failure of their ammunition, should have had the certainty of victory, was too much almost for belief. Tobiah loved to repeat the story, with such embellishments as his own fervid imagination suggested. Especially did he never omit to mention the brave deed of Peter Salem.

Up be come, said he, dat Major Pitcairn, struttin' like Peacock, wid his red coat and top-boots, and sword a wavin' over his head. 'Peared as if he tought dey'd all cut an' run when dey seed him. But dey didn't, by no means. Oh, no! Peter, he jess loaded his gun, an' he up wid it, and says he, Ho, massa major! git down dar; yer no wanted inside ob dis. Den he let fly - bang! an' he tumble right off de fort, and never speak. Golly! don't I wish I'd been dere to see it!

Tobiah's patriotism at last won for him the boon which, more than all things else, he craved - his freedom. I have before spoken of the law which authorized the towns to permit the emancipation of slaves on condition of their enlistment into the army. In pursuance of this law, we find, in the records of Derby, that at a town meeting, held January 8, 1781, it was voted that the authority and selectmen be impowered and directed to give certificates to Captain Daniel Holbrook and Captain John Wooster to free and emancipate their servants, - negro men, - on the condition that the said negro men enlist into the state regiment, to be raised for the defense of this state, for the term of one year. It is not known whether Tobiah continued in the service longer than the term specified, but as the war was now drawing to a close, the presumption is, that he did not. Still he had served long enough to win his own liberty, and enroll his humble name in the list of those brave men, who, by their heroic endurance as well as active efforts, achieved, with the divine blessing, the liberty of their country.

From a considerable period before the Revolution there has prevailed among the negroes a singular custom, which may not improperly be mentioned here. It is that of choosing annually, from among themselves, a governor of Connecticut. Election Day, so called, not because the governor and other officials are then voted for by the people, but because the result of their choice is then declared, and the persons chosen inducted into office, thus making the election complete, has always been a political holiday in this state. Formerly it was celebrated with more eclat than at present. The military paraded, gentlemen of distinction - magistrates, lawyers, clergymen and others - marched in procession to attend divine service, and hear the election sermon, after which a sumptuous dinner was partaken of, and other festivities continued through the day and evening. All over the state similar rejoicings were indulged in, and that family must be very poor in purse and patriotism who had not a least their election cake.

Such a day, of course would be one of high account among the colored people. Those who lived within any moderate distance of the capital were sure to be there, arrayed in their very best. Not a few, from the more distant parts, came also as servants in attendance upon their masters. It followed, therefore, that the colored people of the state were well represented on these occasions, and in imitation of their superiors, they, too, elected a governor, who was uniformly treated with great attention, and always addressed by that title.

At the election in May, 1776, Governor Cuff, who had held his office ten years, resigned, and a successor was appointed. This event was formally announced to the public in the following proclamation:-

Hartford, May 11, 1776.

I Governor Cuff of the Niegro's in the province of Connecticut do resign my Govermentship to John Anderson Niegor man to Governor Skene.

And I hope that you will obeye him as you have Done me for this ten year's past when Colonel Willis' Niegor Dayed I was the next. But being weak and unfit for that office do Resine the said Governmentshipe to John Anderson.

I: John Anderson having the Honour to be appointed Governor over you I will do my utmost endevere to serve you in Every Respect and I hope you will obey me accordingly.

John Anderson, Governor over the Niegors in Connecticut.

Witnesses present,

  • The late Governor Cuff, Hartford.
  • Quackow,
  • Peter Wadsworth,
  • Titows,
  • Pomp Willis,
  • John Jones,
  • Fraday.

It will hardly be believed that this farcical affair awakened great alarm among the white authorities. The Governor Skene whose servant succeeded to the sable gubernatorial dignity was a tory who had been in command of the forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point at the time of their capture by Colonel Ethan Allen, and was now a prisoner on parole at Hartford.

It was feared that this choice of his servant had been instigated by him with the design of bringing the negroes of the colony under the influence of the tory party. It was a critical time in public affairs, and the people were jealous and alarmed at the rustling of every leaf. Skene denied having had anything to do with the appointment, and after a rigid examination of both him and the blacks, it was concluded that there was no cause for alarm. Still, there was so much apprehension of possible evil that neither the new governor nor any of the suspected tory negroes were permitted to pay anything for the expenses of the election. A dance and entertainment were held at the tavern at a cost of fifty shillings, which was paid by Majors French and Dermet.[4]

In consequence, doubtless, of the impossibility of assembling from all parts of the state at the capital, the practice or choosing a governor for the whole commonwealth gradually ceased, and different localities chose each such a dignitary for itself. In Derby and the vicinity, this has continued to the present time. Tobiah was early elevated to this high office, and bore its honors and responsibilities with all becoming dignity. Of late years, we are informed, the election has generally been bestowed by rotation. The occasion is celebrated by a military parade, a procession, horseback and on foot, and music, ending with a supper and dancing. And though those engaged in it have been often laughed at by their more fortunate fellow-citizens of a lighter hue, it may at least be truly said that the day has rarely been disgraced by fighting or drunkenness. While never a St. Patrick's Day nor a Fourth of July passes without broken heads and bloody noses, the blacks, who have been despised as inferior to Saxon and Celt, have enjoyed their harmless fun without disturbing the peace, or sending new recruits to the almshouse or penitentiary.


Jefferson's Works, vol. i. p. 135.


Livermore's Historical Researches, p. 119.


Hist. Res p 143.


Hinman's Historical Collections, pp. 31-33.

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