It is common knowledge in Vermont that Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery in its constitution of 1777. However, that story is not so simple. While the 1777 constitution outlawed adult slavery, boys could remain enslaved until the age of 21, and girls until the age of 18. Various documents demonstrate that people were held as slaves in Vermont after 1777, and that in any event the status of black people in Vermont into the 19th century was ambiguous. Exploring these stories complicates the picture of the experience of African Americans in early Vermont, and can provoke your students to ponder the meaning of freedom. Considering these issues also sets the stage for thinking about the purpose served by the conventional wisdom of “no slavery in Vermont,” and the realities of racism that are apparent throughout Vermont’s history and into the present day. This essay, The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, provides further background for teachers.
Slavery in the North
- Slavery existed in the North and was central to the development and growth of the northern economies.
- Did its 1777 constitution abolish slavery in Vermont?
- Under the conditions established by the 1777 constitution, did freedom for Black people in Vermont mean the same thing as freedom for white people?
Activating Prior Knowledge/Building Historical Context
Review with students which colonies had enslaved people in America (all of them). Chart of enslaved people in the colonies
Note: Vermont was not one of the original colonies.
Investigation of Primary Sources
PART 1: What was the law and was it being followed?
Present to the class the claim that Vermont is renowned for being the first in America to abolish slavery in its 1777 Constitution.
Investigate two primary sources to consider the questions:
- Did Vermont abolish slavery in 1777?
- Did slavery cease to exist in Vermont after 1777?
Distribute this close-reading and summarizing worksheet that examines the abolition clause of the 1777 Vermont Constitution. A close read reveals that the abolition of slavery was not unconditional.
- After students summarize the clause in their own words, ask students what the status was for young adults? They should come to the realization that boys under the age of 21 could remain enslaved, in servitude, or as apprentices, and girls under the age of 18. The abolition clause was really only for adults and even then, if they were in debt they could be held in bondage.
Distribute this close-reading and summarizing worksheet of an act passed by the Vermont legislature in 1786.
- Students should be able to summarize that slave-owners were getting around the law, selling formerly enslaved people out-of-state, rather than freeing them. Those caught would be fined.
Share the story of young Anthony who was sold to a man in NH at age 8 ½ in 1790–an example of child slavery well after the 1777 Constitution was ratified.
PART 2: What was the status of Black people in Vermont after slavery was abolished?
Distribute the background article, Counting Heads in 1791. Were there slaves in Vermont or not? That’s the question. The 1791 census recorded 16 people held as slaves in Bennington County. Years later census officials from Vermont asserted that this must have been a mistake, because slavery had been outlawed by the state constitution fourteen years earlier.
- Discussion: Refer back to the 1786 act. Just because something was outlawed, doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. People were disobeying the law. Could those 16 people have been enslaved?
Distribute the first page of this 1791 census summary and worksheet.
- Review each column. What do students think “all other free persons” means? “All other free persons” mostly meant free Blacks, or African Americans who were not enslaved. It also included Native Americans and immigrants.
Distribute this 1791 census page from Hartland
- As a class, find Ned Freeman. Have students describe Ned Freeman’s household.
- There are four people of color living in the home. Ned Freeman is the head of the household.
- Find William Gallup. Have students describe this household.
- In addition to William Gallup, there are three other white men over the age of 16. There are two white boys under the age of 16, probably his sons. There are six women. Probably, William Gallup and his wife lived with 9 children, some teens (although, grandparents could also have been living there).
- Have students consider who the one “all other free person” might be. Possibly a servant girl or an apprentice.
If you would like to look at the census for your town, you can get the information from Vermont Historical Society.
After examining the Vermont Constitution, Act of 1786, and the Census, summarize the status of free Blacks in Vermont. Use evidence from the primary sources.
- Some possible answers from students: Some had their own homes, others lived in the homes of white people, probably as servants or apprentices. If they were under age 21 (boys) or 18 (girls), they could be enslaved. Children could be bought and sold, for example young Anthony who was sold at age 8 ½.
A case study of Dinah Mason adds to the picture of slavery in early Vermont, and further complicates the larger story. A bill of sale shows that in 1783 Dinah was purchased as a slave by Stephen Jacob of Windsor, a prominent lawyer who became a judge and served on the Vermont Supreme Court. In 1801 the town of Windsor sued Jacob to force him to cover the town’s expenses in caring for Dinah, who had been turned out by Jacob and was indigent.
The case, which was decided by the Supreme Court in Jacob’s favor, once again raised pressing questions about slavery and the nature of freedom for African Americans in early Vermont. The documents —bill of sale, Windsor census record, Windsor town meeting warrant, and the court report—can be used to investigate these questions. Guided examination of the first three documents feeds into asking why the Supreme Court ruled that Dinah could not have been a slave because slavery was illegal in Vermont.