February 19: Roger Sherman Baldwin: Governor, Senator, but Most of All, Abolitionist


Today in 1863, in the midst of a bloody Civil War that pitted Americans against each other over questions of slavery and freedom, scores of Connecticans mourned the passing of Roger Sherman Baldwin. One of Connecticut’s most accomplished politicians and perhaps its most ardent abolitionist lawyer, Baldwin had lived just long enough to witness the Emancipation Proclamation, ending the Southern slavery that he had fought so hard for so long go into effect – only one month before he died.

Baldwin was born in 1793 to a well-to-do Connecticut family, the grandson and namesake of Connecticut’s greatest Revolutionary-era statesman, Roger Sherman. After graduating from Yale with high honors in 1811, he attended the Litchfield Law School and entered the legal profession in 1814, setting up his own practice in New Haven. Admired for both his legal mind and oratorical skills, Baldwin succeeded at both law and politics.

Committed deeply to the abolition of slavery, Baldwin worked early in his career to defend and secure the freedom of an escaped slave. In 1831, he joined another abolitionist, Simeon Jocelyn, in facing an angry mob on the New Haven green who were opposed to the creation of an African American college there.

08-24 Amistad revolt engraving (1839)
A 1839 engraving depicting the mutiny aboard La Amistad.

Baldwin gained national recognition when he took on the defense of the wrongfully captured and enslaved Mendi people involved in the violent takeover of the Spanish slave ship Amistad off the coast of Cuba in July 1839. Brought to New London by an American naval vessel, they were taken to a New Haven jail and subsequently charged with piracy and murder. They and their defenders claimed, that because they had been illegally captured and transported against their will, they should be freed and returned to Africa. Their case took two full years to adjudicate, finally being decided before the United States Supreme Court in 1841. Baldwin and former President John Quincy Adams presented the case for the Mendi. Baldwin’s legal arguments, focused on the basic liberties of human beings and the free status of illegally enslaved people in the United States, and combined with a moving summation by Adams, won freedom for the Mendi and a measure of fame for Baldwin.

Having previously served in the state General Assembly as both a Representative and Senator, Baldwin was chosen Connecticut’s 32nd governor in a close election in 1844 and elected outright in 1845. As governor, Baldwin advanced election reform, much needed educational restructuring, and worked to remove restrictions on land ownership by immigrants. He also sought, but did not achieve, the passage of laws ending slavery and allowing free blacks to vote.

From 1847 to 1851, Baldwin served in the United States Senate, where, true to his principles, he actively opposed the expansion of slavery into new states. He also vigorously opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all citizens to aid slave-catchers’ efforts to capture escaped slaves. After his work in the Senate, Baldwin returned to New Haven, retiring from public office, but not political life. He helped form the state’s Republican Party and worked to secure the presidential nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In his final act of public service, Baldwin served, at Virginia’s request, as a delegate to the National Peace Conference in Washington in 1861, called by the Virginia General Assembly in a last ditch effort to avoid Civil war.

Baldwin died today in 1863, 50 days after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Though the outcome of the war between the North and South was still uncertain, he had witnessed the moment when that conflict had been transformed from a war to save the Union to a war to end the slavery he had been fighting his entire adult life.

Roger Sherman Baldwin was buried in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery.

Further Reading

Roger Sherman Baldwin,” Museum of Connecticut History

Roger Sherman Baldwin,” Connecticut State Library

AELarsen, “Amistad: All the Legal Bits,” An Historian Goes to the Movies