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James Mars, b. 1790
Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut. Written by Himself
Hartford: Case, Lockwood, 1868.


James Mars (1790-1880) was a Connecticut slave who, with his family, refused to follow his master, a minister named Thompson, to Virginia, where he would have been denied the emancipation guaranteed him at age twenty-five under Connecticut law. With the help of the white citizens of Norfolk, Connecticut, Mars successfully evaded Thompson's attempts to kidnap and smuggle him across state lines. Thompson eventually sold the rights to Mars's labor to a Norfolk farmer named Munger. When he turned twenty-one, Mars demanded his freedom, even though the law obligated him to work for Munger until he turned twenty-five. Munger refused. Three local men were selected to arbitrate the dispute between Mars and Munger, and Mars was allowed to buy his freedom for ninety dollars. In his later life, Mars enjoyed a prominent place in New England's African American community. During the 1830s, Mars worked in a dry goods store in Hartford, Connecticut, and served as a deacon in the local Congregational church. He also played an important part in the African American enfranchisement and temperance movements. After twenty years in Massachusetts, Mars returned to Norfolk in 1864 to publish and sell his Life and to educate the many "people now on the stage of life, [who] do not know that slavery ever lived in Connecticut" (p. 3). In addition to the original account of Mars's early struggles, the 1868 edition summarized here contains an appendix that provides a brief summary of Mars's life after he obtained his freedom.

In the Appendix, Mars explains that after Munger's death, he "married a wife and lived in Norfolk a few years" before moving to Hartford, Connecticut (p. 33). In Hartford, Mars's wife washes the laundry of the Bulloch family and their slave-governess, Nancy Jackson. When Bulloch decides to transport Jackson across state lines in order to sell her, Mars signs a petition to provide Jackson with a writ of habeas corpus. The court grants Mars's petition and schedules a trial for Jackson, but when the Bullochs learn that the court will rule on the legality of Jackson's extradition, they plan to remove her from the state at night.

Jackson overhears the Bullochs' plan, sneaks "out of the house, and went to the house of a colored man and stopped for the night" (p. 34). The trial begins the next morning, and Mars is persecuted for his part in protecting Jackson. He writes that he "was told that I had done wrong; the house where I lived would be pulled down; I should be mobbed; and all kinds of scarecrows were talked about, and this by men of wealth and standing" (p. 35). Notwithstanding this surge of criticism, Mars "kept on about my work, not much alarmed," and when Jackson is awarded her freedom by the Connecticut Supreme Court, Mars is again able to "pass along the streets in quiet" (p. 35).

Mars and his wife are the parents of eight children, and his descriptions of his progeny's various occupations provide an overview of the career options available to free African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. Two of Mars's sons become sailors; three serve in the military during the Civil War; one daughter emigrates to Africa as a teacher; and a second daughter is a mother. Though all of Mars's children work hard, they are not able to support him in his old age, when Mars possesses "nothing but what I have saved within the last three years" (p. 36).

When James publishes his Life for the first time in 1864, he is a hard-working field hand who keeps up with younger workers—even at the age of seventy-four. By the time his 1868 edition is published, however, Mars "cannot labor but little" and depends increasingly on the sales of his autobiography to support himself (p. 37). Mars finds that the men and women of Connecticut "have a desire to know something of what slavery was in the State of Connecticut, in its time" but freely expresses his disappointment in the state's failure to enfranchise African Americans and endow them with the civil rights that white citizens enjoy (p. 37). Rejoicing that "it has been my privilege to vote at five Presidential elections" and that "it was my privilege and pleasure to help elect the lamented and murdered Lincoln," he nevertheless mourns that he "must remove to the old Bay State for the right to be a man" (p. 38). Mars closes his account of slavery in Connecticut with an impassioned appeal: "Connecticut, I love thy name, but not thy restrictions. I think the time is not far distant when the colored man will have his rights in Connecticut" (p. 38). Mars's hope was not in vain. Connecticut passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution one year later on May 19, 1869.

Works Consulted: Hinks, Peter, "James Mars,"  Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, Ed. Paul Finkelman, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006; Menschel, David, "Abolition Without Deliverance: The Law of Connecticut Slavery 1784-1848," The Yale Law Journal 111.1 (October 2001): 183-222; White, David, "The Real Life of James Mars," Connecticut History 43 (Spring 2004): 28–46.

Zachary Hutchins

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