In 1777, nearly 250 years ago, in a white clapboard tavern in Windsor, 50 soon-to-be Vermonters debated while a storm raged outside. These delegates, from more than 30 towns, finally agreed on a constitution for the Republic of Vermont. In so doing, they did something never done before: Vermont became the first sovereign state in the world to abolish slavery.

Paul Gillies, Historian and Attorney

Paul Gillies is a local constitutional historian and attorney. Gillies explains that there are two parts to Article 1, the article in the Vermont Constitution which abolished slavery. The first part, the Windsor delegates copied directly from the Pennsylvania Constitution:

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; 

The second part, the Windsor delegates, including Thomas Chittenden and Ira Allen, drafted themselves:

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.

Gillies says that where the delegates got their ideas to write this into law is unknown as no detailed record of the debate about it exists. He theorizes that since there was a strong anti-slavery movement when the Windsor delegates met, Ira Allen, in particular, may have read something that influenced him to advocate for this language. 

Allen’s ideas echoed those of abolitionists across the colonies at the time but these ideas took a long time to become the common view. Some slavery practices continued into the 19th century in Vermont even though the Vermont Constitution prohibited them. As time went on, Vermont strengthened its anti-slavery position by adopting the Freedom Act in 1858, making it so that any slave entering Vermont was automatically free. However, according to Calais: a History, even in the 1860 state elections, one quarter of the state’s voters supported candidates favorable to slavery.

 Now, 250 years after Windsor, under the golden dome of the capitol building in Montpelier, the debate has started up again. In this building that is so different from the white clapboard tavern of 1777, some legislators are working to erase the original language in the Vermont Constitution that abolished slavery. They want to replace the second part with more politically correct language. Others want to keep the original language because they believe that it is a testament to the progressive nature of early Vermonters. These contrasting views expose division among Vermonters.

Some see the original language as politically incorrect because they believe that it permits slavery of those under age 21, even if, in reality, today Article 13 of the United States Constitution prohibits slavery for all ages. According to the Burlington Free Press, the language in the second part of Article 1 is proposed to be replaced with, “slavery and indentured servitude in any forms are prohibited.”  

NAACP Vermont Branch Director Tabitha Pohl-Moore

 

The Windsor delegates included the under 21 language to make sure that the practice of apprenticeship could continue. This allowed for parents to make arrangements for their children to train with someone of a certain trade, agreeing that their child would work for the tradesperson until the child was no longer a minor. The tradesperson got a laborer; the parents had their child housed, fed, and trained; and the child learned a trade. 

The NAACP, along with most Vermont state senators and others, advocates for the language’s removal. NAACP Vermont Branch Director, Tabitha Pohl-Moore, as quoted in The Atlantic, states, “We want it out completely,” she said “White folks think that they know better what we need than we do.” She says the only option is to get rid of the clause entirely, explaining that “[i]t’s degrading and it’s exclusionary” and that “[w]e need to make sure that this is righted.” 

Every one of Vermont’s 29 senators but one voted to remove the clause and replace it. 

Senator Dick McCormack

 

Senator Dick McCormack, a Democrat of Windsor County, was the only senator who opposed the removal of the clause in this past spring’s legislative session. Senator McCormack said to CNN that the Constitution is a “historic artifact that should be left untouched” and that the clause should be preserved as a relic of 1777 Vermont. “Given when you look at the horrible, evil thing slavery is, that fact that Vermont was the first to outlaw it is a source of great pride,” he said. Summing up the Senate’s vote to remove the clause, he concluded: “What we’ve done basically is we’ve put a smiley face on our history.”

House Representatives have yet to weigh in formally. Representative Kimberly Jessup of Washington County foresees that she will most likely be in favor of the change, though she acknowledges that this is based upon what she knows about the topic now. Jessup views the Constitution as “more than a historical document” as, to her, it is a “living document.” She notes that it contains a section devoted to the amending process and so thinks that it was intended to be amended.

Representative Kimberley Jessup

 

The Senate’s vote this past spring was the first step in the time-consuming process of amending the Constitution. For amendment to take place, the proposal must survive a majority vote from the House. Then, the next legislative election must happen, in November 2020, before both chambers will again need to have a majority vote on the proposal. If that happens, citizens will vote on it during the 2022 election and if it prevails, the amendment would immediately go into effect. Some argue that legislators should not waste valuable time on something that will not have any actual impact on Vermonters’ day-to-day lives.

Senate Committee Meeting

 

Constitutional historian Gillies holds a more neutral position. He says that the language is “innocuous.” Gillies reflects that people who don’t want the Constitution to change “treasure” the words from 1777 because they feel that “the old words somehow have some kind of almost quasi-religious meaning.”