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1777 - Historian finds imprecise end to slavery in Vermont

Vermonters have long prided themselves on their state’s enlightened stance on race relations. The fact that the first state constitution in 1777 prohibited slavery is often cited as evidence that Vermont led the nation in establishing universal human rights.

But a new book by a University of Vermont history professor makes it clear that Vermont should stop patting itself on the back.

“The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810” by professor Harvey Amani Whitfield challenges one of Vermont’s most firmly held myths: that slavery was ended here in 1777. The book, published by the Vermont Historical Society this month, documents the inescapable truth that racism and even slavery were much a part of this state’s formative years, and lasted well after 1777.

Vermonters in the late 1700s and early 1800s owned slaves, sold and bought slaves, and pursued escaped slaves. Whitfield’s book shows that in some cases, blacks were sold by their owners out of state, where the slaves risked being sold into permanent bondage in the South or being shipped to the Caribbean, where they would likely be worked to death.

“The Constitution of 1777 did not end slavery in Vermont,” Whitfield said at a recent publication party and book signing. “The facts demonstrate a much more nuanced historical landscape.”

In an interview, Whitfield said his aim was not to create “a journalistic ‘gotcha’ moment,” deflating Vermont’s view of itself as a bastion of human liberties. Rather, he said, he was simply pursuing an interesting theme in Vermont’s history: the question of race relations in a northern, primarily British-settled, state

His research unveils a complex picture – one where abolitionist sentiment, anti-slavery legislation, pro-slavery feelings, and actual slavery existed alongside one another.

“History’s not all one way or the other,” he said. “I never intended to have the last word on slavery in Vermont.”

Nevertheless, the book and its author have created a stir among historians.

“This is a bombshell in Vermont history,” declared Vermont Historical Society Trustee Grant Reynolds of Tinmouth, as he introduced Whitfield at the recent publication party.

UVM history professor Frank Bryan, chair of the VHS Publications Committee, which oversaw publication of “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont,” called it “one of the most important books about Vermont published in our lifetime.”

And professor Joanne Pope Melish of the University of Kentucky, who has also written about race and slavery in early New England, said that Whitfield’s book “explodes the myth that Vermont’s Constitution categorically abolished slavery.”

Whitfield notes that slavery was actually eased out of existence gradually, over some 30 years, between the 1770s and 1810. But during that period, he found evidence of slaveholding statewide, and among some of the leading citizens of the day.

His book consists of a lengthy and detailed introductory essay, and more than 60 pages of original documents that include bills of sale for slaves, advertisements in Vermont newspapers for runaway slaves, the story of a slaveholding Bennington minister, and other proofs of slavery.

The primary source items also show that strong anti-slavery sentiment existed in Vermont. Along with the abolition provision in the 1777 Constitution, Whitfield includes the 1786 law, enacted “to Prevent the Sale and Transportation of Negroes and Molattoes Out of This State,” other legislative attempts to outlaw or oppose slavery, and a letter from Ebenezer Allen freeing the slave Dinah Mattis and her child because “it is not right in the sight of God to keep slaves . …”

Whitfield, 39, is a slight, soft-spoken man with impressive academic credentials. The Michigan native who was raised in Maryland received a B.A. in history from Colorado State University, graduating magna cum laude, and earned his master’s and doctorate degrees at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He came to teach at the University of Vermont in 2004, and was promoted to associate professor in 2008.

He has extensively researched black history in both Nova Scotia and Vermont, and his earlier book, “On the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America,” was published in 2006. He is the author of more than 40 academic papers and a dozen peer-reviewed articles.

Although his research confirms the existence of slavery in early Vermont, he noted in a recent interview, “Vermont was different. There were opportunities for black people here that didn’t exist in other parts of British North America. But there were significant challenges for them here, too.”

Even the well-known provision in the Constitution of 1777 that abolished slavery in Vermont is fraught with contradictions, Whitfield said. It is one of the earliest examples of abolition in America. But its wording contains some significant exceptions and areas of vagueness.

“That provision has several obvious loopholes that allowed slavery to continue,” Whitfield said.

For example, the constitutional provision declares that no adult person – defined as a man over 21 years old or a woman over 18 – “ought to be holden by law,” as a slave.

Thus, the UVM professor pointed out, black children could be slaves. One document included in “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont,” a bill of sale for “the Negro boy slave, Anthony,” proves that practice existed. In 1790, the boy was sold by Jotham White of Springfield to Oliver Hastings of Charlestown, N.H. Anthony was 8 years old at the time. Hastings subsequently sold the boy to a slaveholder in Quebec.

In practice, black children and adults alike were held as slaves in Vermont, and were bought and sold as property. A major reason for that, Whitfield believes, is that there was no enforcement provision in the anti-slavery section. Also, the word “ought” is considerably weaker than simply saying that no blacks “shall” be held in slavery.

It is impossible to know precisely why the 1777 provision abolishing slavery was passed, or why it was so ambiguously worded, Whitfield said, because the 1777 Constitution was passed hurriedly, as British troops were invading Vermont. Very few notes were taken or kept on the constitutional proceedings.

What is clear is that the abolition provision did not end slavery and that blacks had a mixed experience in Vermont for the next 30 years or so. Records show that black people could take white people to court and win – but that blacks could also be kidnapped and sold out of state.

“It’s contentious, it’s complicated, it’s messy,” Whitfield said. “There were slaveholders like Jonathan White and Judge Stephen Jacob, but there were also people like Ebenezer Allen who wanted to end slavery.”


#1700s #laws

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