New England, Election Day

New England, Election Day


In New England, Election Day was not just a special day to white citizens, but to the slave population as well. Depending on the location within New England, slaves in the mid-18th century elected black governors and kings.

African American Elections

    While the position of governor or king did not entitle the elected slave to official power, it gave the winner status among slaves.

    The first elections of black kings and governors began in the early 18th century in New England capital cities and charter colonies. Elections were held in Newport, Rhode Island in 1756, in Hartford, Connecticut in 1766, and by the 1770s, in Norwich, Connecticut and Salem, Massachusetts. By the end of the 18th century, similar elections took place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Danvers, Lynn, and North Bridgewater, Massachusetts Black elections took place over the course of a week, and occurred at the same time as white elections.

    The title of king or governor depended upon whether a slave lived in a colony or royal colony. In colonies where whites chose their own governors, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, elected black officials were called governors. In royal colonies, such as New Hampshire, where white governors were appointed, black elected officials were called kings.

    Food, activities, socializing, lobbying, and clothing were important to the celebration. Most slaves borrowed clothing from their masters and mistresses. The most popular attire was uniforms since it was considered dignified. A slave master was also aware of the importance of his slave's attire. Slaves had the same status as their master, so a poorly dressed slave was a reflection on the master. Therefore, masters did not hesitate to provide appropriate attire.

    Election Day activities were also central to the celebration. Activities were a combination of African American and Euro-American traditions. For instance, from white traditions came pitching pennies and quoits and from black traditions came wrestling, stick fighting, and dancing. Other activities common to both cultures were running races and jumping activities.

    Like in white elections, only men were allowed to vote, but women lobbied for the candidate they supported. Candidates also lobbied on their own behalf. Voting differed depending on the location. Some used voice vote, while in other places voters stood in line behind the candidate they supported.

    After the results were tallied, candidates were honored in an inaugural parade. Gunfire and music accompanied participants as they marched to the post-election party. The parade ended at the home of the master of the slave governor or king. Slaves then enjoyed the post-election celebration given by the winner's master. The master of the elected official provided the food, alcohol, and decorations for the celebration. The festivities included dancing, drinking, and socializing.

    While the black governor or king did not have official power, whites supported black elections. Whites thought that the elections were amusing and not a threat. It was also beneficial to them because they wanted to use black governors and kings as enforcers of social propriety. However, for slaves it was a time to freely socialize and take part in the festivities. For the newly elected official, he was able to enjoy the status of his position as king or governor.


    Piersen, William D., Black Yankees, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

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