June 19, 2022
If you google “First colony to abolish slavery,” you will learn — if you did not already know — that distinction would belong to Vermont which, on July 2, 1777, ratified its constitution, which specifically outlawed slavery.
The actual language of that provision in the constitution reads: “That all persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety; therefore no person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”
If you read that closely, it would appear that the framers of the constitution made an exception for people under the age of 21, for those who choose to be enslaved, and for people who were indebted to others. Some legal scholars, like Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout (from whom I took constitutional law many, many years ago) believe that that is a misreading of the provision; in his mind, “It’s absolutely clear, and the Vermont Supreme Court at that time made clear, that the Vermont Constitution banned slavery. It didn’t matter if it was adult slavery or child slavery.”
To the extent that this provision may have left the door open for slavery in the Green Mountains, that may be about to change. This fall, voters in Vermont will be asked whether to approve an amendment to the state constitution. If approved, the entire passage would be replaced by the single sentence “Slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”
I can’t imagine there will be a whole lot of opposition to the referendum, which doesn’t have any real-world impact other than advancing the not-unimportant proposition that there should be no exceptions to the constitution’s anti-slavery provision. Nevertheless, Rev. Mark Hughes, executive director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and Justice for All and one of the leaders behind the initiative to amend the constitution, reports that he is regularly receiving hate mail, which has increased as the effort has gained steam.
I’m not sure why anyone would object to this.