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.