The Push to Remove Any Mention of Slavery From Vermont’s Constitution

The state prides itself on its abolitionist history. But its identity has been shaken by recent racist incidents.

Library of Congress

Vermont’s constitution is the hardest in the nation to amend. But in the coming years, state lawmakers want to alter it for a highly unusual purpose: to get rid of the language that abolished slavery.

The effort is part of a broader push on the part of legislators to solidify Vermont’s self-image as a bastion of liberal values and personal freedoms, which has been tested by recent racist incidents in the state. Advocates for the clause’s removal say it’s simply not necessary anymore, and that its inclusion in the founding document is insulting to African Americans in Vermont. The current raft of proposed amendments—the slavery provision, an expansive equal-protection measure, a constitutional guarantee for abortion rights, and a guarantee of privacy—could hit the ballot as soon as the 2022 midterm elections.

While the abortion-related measures are high profile, the slavery and equal-protection measures go to the core of the state’s identity. Vermont, which was 95 percent white at the time of the last census, has been known for its racial liberalism since becoming the first place in the Western Hemisphere, in 1777, to outlaw slavery. But the state remains monochromatic and, sometimes, racially fraught. “Vermont has long been accused, especially in other parts of the country, of being tolerant without a lot of diversity … to bump up against that tolerance,” says Kesha Ram, a former state representative and former candidate for lieutenant governor, who is one of only a few people of color ever elected to the state’s legislature.

As for the slavery passage, “we want it out completely,” says Tabitha Pohl-Moore, the acting director of the NAACP’s Vermont branch and the president of the Rutland-area chapter, arguing that opponents of removal are propagating the belief that “white folks think that they know better what we need than we do.”

The racial-equity measures function as a signal to Vermonters, advocates say, that bigotry is anathema to the state’s values. Cementing equal protection in the state constitution in particular gained a renewed urgency among lawmakers this past summer, when Kiah Morris, a two-term state representative from Bennington and the only black woman in the legislature, resigned following a torrent of racist harassment and threats from white supremacists, most notably another Bennington resident. (Morris could not be reached for comment.) The targeting of Morris was one of several incidents in the recent past that have shaken the state’s self-image. A year prior, the mayor of Rutland, the state’s third-largest city, lost reelection after his plan to resettle 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the community drew public ire. Last summer, a diverse group of campers was targeted in at least three incidents of racist harassment in the resort town of Stowe.

“It’s time to recognize that there are groups that are discriminated against, whether implicitly or explicitly,” says state Senator Virginia Lyons, the lead sponsor of the equal-protection amendment. “Our society as a democracy will only last as long as these groups are supported.”

Taken together, the amendments pose complex questions for the state’s lawmakers: not only about what sort of place Vermont is, but also about which issues should be addressed in a state’s most important legal document.

The slavery provision is the least practically consequential of the amendments—removing the language would have no effect whatsoever on day-to-day legal proceedings in the state. Yet the issue is the most historically and ideologically fraught of all the amendments working their way toward the ballot. The amendment’s backers see Vermont as a place on the cutting edge of social equity, where the constitution changes with the times and yesterday’s radicalism is today’s foregone conclusion. The other faction sees the work of the past—the state’s abolition movement and groundbreaking legal codes that allowed men who did not hold property to vote—as the essential building block of today’s Green Mountain State. Vermonters in this camp believe that the abolition language needs to stay in the constitution—that when the history of Vermont’s radical past is not visible in the state’s law, something of its spirit may be lost.

When the earliest version of the state’s constitution was written, in July 1777, Vermont was an independent republic tenuously allied with the year-old United States. In the document, Vermont’s founders were attempting to portray themselves as learned, reasonable, and radical, says Gary Shattuck, a former assistant U.S. attorney and a historian who studies the state’s formation. Part of that radicalism was an action against slavery: Since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, no country had banned the practice—and Vermont became the first to do so.

But the reality of abolition was murkier. In early Vermont, the ban—along with most of the new constitution—was unevenly enforced. And the language is ambiguous: Designed to allow apprenticeships and indentured servitude, both relatively common 18th-century practices, the document explicitly banned only slavery for adults. The pertinent section in the current document—essentially identical in the 1777 version—reads:

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 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, 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.

Under the amendment as first proposed, which was co-sponsored by 25 state senators, that entire passage would be cut. The current language “allow[s] slavery under certain conditions, and that’s quite simply wrong,” says Democratic Senator Debbie Ingram, who proposed the measure. “I think we, as white people who are privileged, we ought to go the extra mile and understand what it would be like to have this provision as the very first sentence in our constitution. It’s degrading and it’s exclusionary. And we need to make sure that this is righted.” Getting rid of the entire passage is the only option, Pohl-Moore says.

But the idea that slavery is countenanced in any way by the current language is disputed by some scholars. The proposed amendment, says the Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout, is the product of a misreading of 18th-century language. “It’s absolutely clear, and the Vermont Supreme Court at that time made clear, that the Vermont Constitution banned slavery,” he says. “It didn’t matter if it was adult slavery or child slavery.”

State pride is also on the line. Vermont’s early abolition of slavery is much-vaunted within the state. “It’s something of which all Vermonters are proud, given our leadership on racial equality back when other places didn’t recognize that,” says Jim Douglas, the Republican former governor who left office in 2011. The constitution of 1777 was an aspirational and visionary document when first adopted, according to Rob Williams, a lecturer at the University of Vermont and the publisher of the secessionist site Vermont Independent. Removing the slavery section, he says, would redact one of the state’s proudest achievements.

But there’s a simple reason to cut the existing language, according to Tim Ashe, the state Senate’s president pro tempore and a leading co-sponsor of three of the four proposed amendments. Doing so would underscore to people of color that they are equal and valued within the state’s society—a message “that should triumph over preserving the legacy of state leaders from a couple of hundred years ago,” Ashe says.

Still, both Ashe and Joe Benning, the Senate minority leader, believe in the possibility of a compromise solution in which the ambiguous language is removed while the prohibition of slavery is maintained—new language that would likely emerge as the measure is debated in the legislature. Indeed, Teachout and his allies were able to persuade the state Senate to move forward with an amendment to the amendment that removes wording that could have allowed indentured servitude or unpaid apprenticeships. That version has advanced to the legislature’s lower house.

But any solution that leaves a part of the clause intact is unacceptable, Pohl-Moore says. “If it’s about historical preservation, then put the original constitution in a museum somewhere and go look at it. Nobody is going to forget slavery except the people who benefited from it,” she told me. “White nostalgia is not my problem and it should not be the burden of people of color to have to deal with this parsing out and this weird playing with language.”

Whatever the outcome, rewriting a sentence that has been essentially unmodified for 242 years is a challenge, and some see the Senate leadership’s efforts as a sort of lawmaking Beeldenstorm. “It just seems like they’re trying to rewrite the Gospel,” says Paul Gillies, an attorney and a constitutional historian based in Montpelier. “That’s one of the things that Vermont is most famous for: being the first government to abolish slavery.”

The attempt to amend Vermont’s constitution is itself notable, whatever the amendments’ contents. The document, at 8,295 words, is the shortest in the nation (Alabama’s, the longest, is about 42 times lengthier). It’s one of the oldest, materially unchanged longer than any other. And it’s “the most difficult state constitution in the country to amend,” says Eric Davis, a political-science professor emeritus at Middlebury College. That’s due in part to a law that stipulates amendments may only be introduced every three to four years, and requires a cooling-off period between two votes on the amendments in each chamber of the legislature. Only after that process is complete do voters get to weigh in. The new amendments are at various stages of their life span, though most are expected to be approved by lawmakers.*

Perhaps because of this onerous process, Vermont’s constitution is svelte. Amendments are judged by voters and legislators alike on whether they fulfill basic needs and structural concerns, rather than whether they legislate any specific issue, says Richard Cassidy, an attorney who studies the state’s constitution. That has meant the document is much more generalized than many of its peers, some of which have hundreds of amendments and concern themselves with such relative banalities as the government of specific municipalities. Teachout likened the document to Dan & Whits, a general store in Norwich, a town of 3,000 on the Connecticut River. The store’s motto: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!”

The most recent amendments to Vermont’s constitution have not been sweeping, dealing with items such as judicial retirement and the setting of bail. But this cycle is different. If any one of the new measures is approved by the state’s electorate, it would be the first major socially progressive amendment to pass since voters approved suffrage for women in 1924, a symbolic measure after the federal Constitution took the same step in 1920.

For the state senators I spoke with, the quadrennial chance to amend the state’s highest document is a moment of gravity—and a chance to cement what they believe are the state’s true values. “The desire in this day and age was to take a harder look and to make that very clear that all segments of society are protected, not just one segment of society,” says Benning, the Senate minority leader. Senator Lyons voiced a similar sentiment: “This is the time to reconsider who we are—constitutionally.”

* A previous version of this story reported that the equal-protection measure has passed the Vermont legislature and will be on the ballot in 2022. It's currently in committee and hasn't yet passed either chamber. The story has also been updated to clarify when and how constitutional amendments are approved in the legislature.