J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Long Did Slavery Linger in Vermont?

Last month the Seven Days alternative newsweekly in Burlington reported on Harvey Amani Whitfield’s research on remnants of slavery in Vermont, which we New Englanders usually consider to be the foundation of our anti-slavery tradition:
Whitfield’s research explodes the myth that the abolitionist provision in the Republic of Vermont’s 1777 constitution ended slavery in the territory. The ban on holding black adults as slaves was indeed the first of its kind in the New World and launched Vermont’s progressive tradition, Whitfield acknowledges. But, he adds, an unknown but significant number of black Vermonters remained in bondage several years after slavery was supposedly prohibited.

“In fact, the state is home not only to a rich abolitionist history, but also to the more troublesome story of slavery,” Whitfield writes in The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

Limiting the ban to African males older than 21 and females over the age of 18 meant children could lawfully remain enslaved in Vermont for as long as 20 years after the constitution was promulgated. But plenty of adult Vermonters of African descent also did not gain freedom because the 1777 decree went unenforced, Whitfield points out.

Many residents of what would become the State of Vermont in 1791 apparently had no problem with neighbors who continued to hold slaves, Whitfield suggests. Those defying the emancipation initiative included some of “the most respectable inhabitants of the state,” the historian observes in his book.

Among this slave-holding and lawless elite were Vermont Supreme Court Judge Stephen Jacob and Levi Allen, described by Whitfield as “Ethan’s troublesome brother.” And nearly 60 years after the supposed abolition of slavery in Vermont, Ethan Allen’s daughter, Lucy Caroline Hitchcock [1768-1842], returned to Burlington from Alabama in possession of two slaves—a mother and child. Hitchcock continued to enslave this pair for six years in the Queen City.

Ethan Allen himself may also have been a slave owner, Whitfield suggested in an interview. “I can’t say this will be proven, but he does refer to having servants, and in the English Atlantic world references to ‘servants’ often means ‘slaves,’” Whitfield said.
Whitfield is a professor at the University of Vermont, and his book is published by the Vermont Historical Society. Whitfield is speaking at Phoenix Books in Burlington on 13 March.

TOMORROW: Stephen Jacobs and “a certain Negro woman by name of Dinah.”

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