Campaign Countdown: Inside Prop 2, Vermont’s slavery prohibition clarification

Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 6:07 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Although slavery has been outlawed in Vermont for decades, a ballot question this November proposes to abolish it for good. But the legal necessity of the constitutional amendment is still up for debate.

The Green Mountain State is known as the first in the nation to abolish slavery, but leaders in the Black community emphatically believe that narrative is false and categorically reject the argument that Proposal 2 is purely symbolic.

Proponents say it abolishes slavery in Vermont once and for all. “Three exceptions that permit slavery in the state of Vermont that has existed for over 244 years,” said Reverend Mark Hughes with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance. He argues there’s no mistaking Vermont did not abolish slavery in its state constitution established in 1777. He says it’s spelled out in the document’s first article. “‘Therefore no 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,’” Hughes said. “And then it goes on to say ‘after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.’”

“It’s there. The language is there. It’s always been there. And now we’re just at a simple juncture where with the Legislature having made its decision of, do we support that or not?” Hughes said.

If adopted, Proposal 2 would slash that clause, replacing the text with the words “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

Peter Teachout, a professor of constitutional law at the Vermont Law and Graduate School, wrote Proposal 2′s language and says he thinks the update is unnecessary. “In terms of substantive rights, it makes absolutely no change, " he said. That’s because Teachout disagrees with Hughes’ interpretation of Article 1. “To claim that slaves could be legally bought and sold in the state -- minor slaves, adult slaves -- just not true.”

Teachout argues that you need look no further than the constitution’s first few words -- “All persons are born equally free and independent.” That all-encompassing line alone, he says, supersedes the clause in question, proving slaves were treated as persons and not property from the very date of our state’s conception. “No exceptions. No exceptions for adults, no exceptions for minor slaves,” he said.

And Teachout says the 1802 Vermont Supreme Court case of Stephen Jacob bolsters his conclusion. In their opinion, the justices decided Jacobs, a white settler, could not claim as his property a slave named Dinah that he transported to Vermont from New Hampshire. That decision set the precedent that as soon as any slave crossed into Vermont, the contract by which they were bound immediately became legally null and void.

“Our state constitution is express -- no inhabitant of the state can hold a slave. And though the bill of sale may be valid in some other state, yet when the master becomes an inhabitant of Vermont, his bill of sale ceases to operate here. Crystal clear,” Teachout said. He says that’s why you won’t find a single Vermont court decision enforcing or upholding slave ownership.

But Hughes is adamant that the language in Article 1 perpetuates the institution of slavery, in which modern racial disparities are rooted, and that Proposal 2 is the sledgehammer that will break the foundation of systemic racism. “We will not have a constitution that permits slavery in any way, and that will be because of the abolitionist that sits here, and the abolitionists that go to the ballots,” he said.

Teachout sees no harm in the effects of changing the constitution, but he says he and some historians are disappointed that the historical document would be altered.

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