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Silliman College

Silliman College doorwayBenjamin Silliman's mother, Mary, was the largest slave owner in Fairfield county (85). When it came time for Benjamin and his brother to attend Yale College, she sold off two of their slaves to help finance their education, in 1795 (86).

After graduation, Silliman returned to become the "overseer" of Holland Hill, the family farm, which included a "negro house" and six adult slaves-Tego, Sue, Rose, Lowes, Peter, and old Job-together with their children (87).

In 1799, Silliman began teaching at Yale, while still living with his mother on the farm. Even though financial troubles were forcing the family to liquidate its slave-holdings, "they were all faced with the problem of the 'Negro children', those who were born at Holland Hill after the sale of slaves had been proscribed by legislation" (88). This generation had been born as "statutory slaves."

A few years later, Benjamin's brother moved to Rhode Island, sparking a crisis: Cloe, one of their statutory slaves, objected to being taken out of state, and claimed that she belonged properly to Benjamin: "Iago, presumably Cloe's husband [was] determined to prevent it if possible, and hopes to on the ground of its being contrary to the law to carry a black out of the State" (90). Iago and Cloe appear to have won the day, for they stayed with Benjamin in Connecticut.

During this time, Benjamin Silliman and his family began leasing their statutory slaves to their neighbors, receiving regular payments. For example, in 1803, Annise, born in 1786, had four years of slavery left until she was legally emancipated at age 21; the Silliman brothers leased Annise's final four years of labor for $100. They were pleased to find someone to lease Annise, for she had apparently caused some trouble with her earlier masters (91).

That same year, 1803, the Sillimans secured an even better deal regarding another one of their statutory slaves, Ely. Ely was 19, two years older than Annise. The Sillimans signed a contract leasing Ely to Hubbel for 7 more years. The contract stated: "We bound the boy till he should be 26." At the time, statutory slaves were legally freed at the age of 21, but apparently Silliman managed to get a few extra years of slavery out of Ely. As Silliman's biographer, Brown, puts it:

Legally, the boy should be freed upon reaching twenty-one, but in practice the law was apparently elastic on this point. Silliman was ready to free Ely at the age of 25, but brother William settled with Hubbel that he should own the service of the boy an extra year. [Benjamin] Silliman agreed without much hesitation. (92)

That same year, 1803, the Sillimans were also earning money off of a third statutory slave, Job, who was 16 years old. It is unknown when he was freed, but we do know that in 1818, he remained "indigent and dependent upon the charity of the family" (93).

Benjamin Silliman was not, however, a simple person. At his commencement, in 1798, Silliman "closed his commencement verse with a call for the universal emancipation of slaves" (94). He then penned a long poem, entitled The Negroe, which chronicled the many abuses of slavery and the many evils of the slave trade. As Brown describes:

This put Benjamin in the awkward position of advocating the abolition of slavery while he continued to profit from a share of the wages that his own slaves earned under their indenture. (95)

Eventually, Silliman's statutory slaves grew up and received their legal freedom. At the same time, Silliman's own opposition to slavery grew.

By the 1830s, Silliman had become an officer of the American Colonization Society, a group committed to sending black people to Africa. His view was notable in that he insisted that such colonization must remain voluntary, and that black people who wished to stay in America should be allowed to do so.

In 1832 in Center Church on the Green, New Haven, Benjamin Silliman preached an impassioned sermon about slavery. Silliman seemed disconcerted by the Nat Turner slave insurrection, in which slaves had sustained a rebellion. His sermon began with an intense, almost paranoid harangue about the dangers of an impending slave insurrection, saying that we must send black people to Africa, lest "virgins in their beauty and young men in their strength are involved in promiscuous butchery." (96)

Silliman argued in the same sermon that sending black people to Africa "tends to allay fears of insurrection, by promoting the removal of those who, with or without reason, excite apprehension" (p.186). He is also clear that it is pointless to "discuss the project of the entire and immediate abolition of slavery" (p.176), simply because this goal is impracticable.

Silliman also says, "Visionary attempts to elevate, suddenly, the free colored population ... should be anxiously avoided" (p.175). In fact, Silliman's entire sermon was responding to an event that had occurred the previous year: In 1831, efforts to establish a "Negro college" in New Haven had been squelched. Silliman describes the reaction thus:

If a measure [the well-known attempt to found an African College in New Haven] attempted, in this place, during the last year, was premature, or not happily named or ill-timed; it might perhaps had been better met, with a spirit of kindness and conciliation, although coupled with refusal. (97)

In short, the proposed college might have been refused more nicely, had the effort been differently named or timed. Nevertheless, refused it rightly was, he asserted. Silliman supported the rejection of the "Negro college."

Just prior to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, Silliman stood up publicly and supported efforts to prevent Kansas from being admitted as a slave state.




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