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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Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Slavery and the Vermont Constitution, Then and Now

In The Atlantic, Parker Richards reports on a push in Vermont to amend the state constitution to remove the clause referring to slavery even though that clause forbids the practice.

The first clause of the independent state’s 1777 constitution’s declaration of rights said:
THAT all men 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 male 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 he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law, for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.
That paragraph was later changed to treat men and women equally, setting the age of majority for both at twenty-one. (That meant taking three years of majority away from women. I’m not sure when that change was made, and it’s quite possible that twenty-year-old women still had far fewer legal freedoms than twenty-year-old boys.)

The original Vermont constitution thus preserved some forms of unpaid labor common in the eighteenth century: apprenticeship of minors, indentured servitude for adults agreeing to such a contract, and work that courts required of people paying off debts and fines.

In practice, as I discussed back in 2014, some elite Vermonters still kept people enslaved in their households in the late 1700s. And the case of “Judge Jacobs’s Diana” shows a well-connected jurist exploiting Vermont’s anti-slavery constitution to avoid having to pay to support his former slave when she became ill.

Nonetheless, the language of Vermont’s 1777 constitution was revolutionary. It made quite clear that the new government would not enforce chattel slavery as practiced in the U.S. of A. and Britain’s remaining North American colonies. It rooted that stance in a belief in equality and natural rights. It made no distinction between locals and people “brought from over sea.”

Some present-day Vermonters don’t want the state constitution to include the word “slave,” or to reflect that there might ever be a legal way to compel someone else to work. This stance doesn’t appear to be based in a practical worry, such as that courts might force people into labor for unpayable debts. Rather, it’s bound up in concerns about current discrimination in the state.

The first proposed amendment would have removed the clause entirely. One chamber of the state legislature has instead passed language that preserves the original natural-rights statements and then spells out a prohibition on forced labor:
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 slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.
Of course, that approach still acknowledges slavery. (It also doesn’t bar apprenticeships, which were sort of like unpaid internships except the food was better.) The process of amending the constitution in Vermont is long and involved, so it seems possible there will be further developments, or this particular initiative could falter.

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