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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 & Company, 1864.


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 his master's attempts to kidnap and smuggle him across state lines. In his later life, he 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. Mars was a principal in the 1837 landmark case Jackson v. Bulloch, in which the Connecticut Supreme Court granted slave Nancy Jackson her freedom after two years of residency in the state with her Georgia master, James Bulloch. Around 1845, Mars moved his wife and eight children to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he stayed for twenty years before returning to Norfolk and publishing Life of James Mars (1864). Life went through at least six editions, and the 1868 edition provides a more detailed summary of his later life. Even in his old age, Mars prided himself on being self-sufficient. At "seventy-four years of age" he boasted that in "the hay season that is just passed I took my scythe and went into the hay field and took my turn with the hands, day after day, with the same pay" (p. 35). Mars moved to Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, where he died in 1880.

The Life of James Mars centers around a struggle between northern and southern ideas of slavery, a struggle embodied by the marriage of Mars's master, the Reverend Thompson of Canaan, Connecticut, to a Virginia woman. Thompson's marriage leads to the marriage of Mars's own parents (his father is the New York-born property of Thompson, and his mother is the Virginia-born property of Thompson's wife) and his birth, but it also leads Thompson and his wife to disagree over where they should live. Describing Thompson and his wife as embodiments of their respective regions and figures of the subsequent Civil War, Mars explains that "the South and the North could not agree; the South seceded and left the North; the minister's wife would not live North, and she and her husband picked up and went South, and left my father and mother in Canaan to work the farm" until 1798 (p. 6). Because Connecticut law prohibited the removal of slaves from the state, Thompson originally leaves the couple behind in the hope that their continued labor would be more valuable to him than their sale.

Eventually, Thompson wants to divest himself of his Connecticut interests and demands that Mars and his family come to Virginia. The Mars family escapes to neighboring Norfolk in the night instead, because "at that time an unpleasant feeling existing between the two towns or the inhabitants of Canaan and Norfolk" convinces Mars's father that "the people of Norfolk would take sides against Canaan and their pastor" (pp. 8-9). The people of Norfolk harbor Mars and his brother, who hide apart from their parents and sister because Thompson's primary interest is in the boys, who are more profitable to him.

Eventually, Thompson tracks down Mars's parents in Norfolk and tries to persuade them to relocate. He succeeds in persuading Mars's mother by speaking so kindly and making such promises to her that "he beguiled her, I suppose, somewhat as our first mother was beguiled in the garden," and she agrees to help him pack for the move to Virginia (p. 12). After packing Thompson's belongings, Mars's father is able to dissuade his wife from moving south, and the two again escape to Norfolk in the night. Thompson next tries to bargain with the parents, offering to give "my father and mother and sister their freedom if they would let him have the boys to take with him" but "this they would not do" (p. 18).

Unable to discover where Mars is hidden or convince his parents to move to Virginia, Thompson eventually sells his rights to Mars to a local farmer named Munger for a hundred pounds on September 12, 1798. Mars enjoys his life with the Mungers, regretting only that "I did not have an opportunity to go to school as much as I should, for all the books I ever had in school were a spelling-book, a primer, a Testament, a reading-book called Third Part, and after that a Columbian Orator." He also discloses that Munger is "fond of using the lash" (pp. 23-24).

Mars compares his life with the Mungers until age twenty-one with that of contemporary white boys, who were often bound to local farmers or artisans by their parents and subject to the whims of their masters. When Mars is sixteen, he engages in a friendly contest of strength with Munger and "did as Samson did in the temple. I bowed with all my might, and he came to me very suddenly. The first thought that was in my mind was my back is safe now" because Munger is no longer able to whip Mars without his consent (p. 26). When Mars turns twenty-one, he wishes to be treated in the same manner as an indentured white boy who typically received "one hundred dollars, a Bible, and two suits of clothes" when his term of service ended on his twenty-first birthday (p. 24). But Connecticut law stipulated that the children of slaves remained the property of their masters until turning twenty-five, and Munger refuses to release Mars, despite earlier promises.

Munger eventually agrees to settle the question of Mars's freedom through arbitration, and a panel rules that Mars must pay Munger ninety dollars to be released from the remainder of his service. Mars earns the necessary sum by working for another farmer in Norfolk until he turns twenty-five, when he returns to the Munger household of his own free will. Mars frequently visits "the West," but he returns to Munger's side when his last owner's "health rather declined, and he finally sank down and was sick" (p. 35). Mars cares for Munger and his sick daughter until they both die, and the positive emotion this experience promotes "makes me almost forget that I ever was a slave" in the Munger household (p. 34).

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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