MONTPELIER, Vermont — Vermont has a proud history of being the first state to abolish adult slavery, in 1777. Now lawmakers want to make sure any reference to slavery is removed from the state constitution.
Colorado voters last year approved a similar constitutional amendment, and Utah lawmakers have taken up a comparable measure this year.
“I think we should remove slavery in the Vermont constitution because slavery is a morally reprehensible and antiquated institution, and it reflects badly on the state and it sends the wrong message, especially to people of color,” said Democratic Sen. Debbie Ingram, a lead sponsor of the amendment, which is co-sponsored by much of the Vermont Senate.
The Vermont Constitution says no person 21 or older should serve as a slave unless bound by their own consent or “by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.” Nearly 90 years later, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery in the U.S., “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Sen. Richard McCormack, a Democrat, has said that the language in the Vermont Constitution is flawed, but he is opposed to removing it, saying that it was superseded by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Being the first North American polity to outlaw slavery is a point of pride for all Vermonters. Whatever flaws may be in the language, it is best understood in the context of 1777, at which time it was a major step forward,” he wrote in a recent newspaper editorial. “The prohibition of slavery was a good thing, deserving of preservation.”
Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout, who has expertise in U.S. constitutional law and Vermont constitutional law and history, is not opposed to amending Article 1 of the Vermont Constitution but has reservations about removing the wording.
“I am opposed to amending it on grounds that the framers of the first Vermont constitution only wanted to prohibit adult slavery and not child slavery. That is not historically accurate,” he wrote in an email. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1802 that the Vermont Constitution prohibits slavery, and any document purporting to be the bill of sale of a slave — adult of child — “ceased to operate” once it entered Vermont, he wrote.
A Senate committee is now considering the amendment and is changing some of the language.
Article 1 of Vermont’s constitution “was a major step forward in human freedom,” said Civil War historian Howard Coffin, who said he has no objection to changing the constitution. But he advises having some mention of slavery being banned in Vermont to preserve Vermont’s history and protect people now and in the future.
“There’s slavery in the world today, he said. “And you never know where the future’s going to leave us.”