FERRISBURGH, Vt. — Vermont has racked many firsts in the nation, including the abolition of slavery, but a University of Vermont history professor deconstructs that claim in a new book.
Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield’s “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont 1777-1810” uncovers 30 years of slavery in the Green Mountain State. That is the subject of his talk, “Did Vermont’s 1777 Constitution actually prohibit slavery?” Sunday afternoon at the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vt.
“I had published a fair amount about slavery in the free-black population of New England, the Maritimes and Canada,” said Whitfield, the author of “Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815-1860.”
“I also wrote a lot about the Revolutionary War and how there was sort of a chance to start gradual emancipation in Vermont. I knew Vermont ended slavery in 1777. I wanted to see if slavery truly ended in 1777 and what happened.”
Despite Texas’s posturing, Vermont was the oldest and longest Republic when it abolished adult slavery.
“It only frees men over age 21 and women over age 18,” Whitfield said. “There’s a loophole for children to be enslaved.”
Whitfield searched the historical record at his institution, the Vermont State Archives, UVM, county courthouses, town-historian offices and 18th- and 19th-century newspapers.
“What I figured out, slavery doesn’t end in 1777. It’s a much longer, contracted process over a space of 30 years,” he said. “People are consistently subverting or ignoring the law. The best examples of this in 1786 the legislature passed the Sale and Transportation Act. They pass a law outlawing people form re-enslaving and kidnapping black people and selling them outside of the state. They do it in every Northern state. It’s not just a Vermont problem. It’s going on everywhere.”
Whitfield was surprised to discover black people were still subject to slavery.
In 1806, an Anti-kidnapping Act was legislated to stem the re-enslavement of black minors.
“The reason it doesn’t abolish even adult slavery there is no real enforcement mechanism. It allows slavery to continue.”
Many of Vermont’s elite and leading figures of the day participated in the enterprise as evidenced in bills of sale and probate records.
Stephen Jacobs, a Vermont State Supreme Court judge, was a participant. He owned a slave named Dinah until at least 1800.
“Vermont’s history is more nuanced than being all one thing or the other,” Whitfield said. “It has vestiges of slavery and freedom.”
Black people could own property and exercise the right to take white people to court. At the same time, black people were kidnapped and sold into chattel slavery out of state.
“You can have many different things going on in Vermont at once, and that is what makes the study of slavery interesting in Vermont,” Whitfield said.
Email Robin Caudell:firstname.lastname@example.orgIF YOU GO WHAT: "Did Vermont's 1777 Constitution actually prohibit slavery?" a talk by Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield. WHEN: 2 pm. Sunday. WHERE: Rokeby Museum, 4334 Route 7, Ferrisburgh, Vt. PHONE: (802) 877-3406. ADMISSION: Free.