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.

Did slavery really end in Vermont in 1777?

Begin with the accepted notion that Vermont was the first state to abolish slaves. Was it? 

Examine the abolition clause of the 1777 Vermont Constitution. A close read reveals that the abolition of slavery was not unconditional. A close read of an act passed by the Vermont legislature in 1786 prompts the question: What about slavery in Vermont is implied by the passage of this law? (answer–despite the 1777 abolition clause, people were still enslaved in Vermont). 

Connect the constitution to the first census in Vermont from 1791. Read the background article, Counting Heads in 1791.The 1791 census recorded 16 people held as slaves in Bennington County. Years later census officials from Vermont asserted that the enumeration must have been a mistake, because slavery had been outlawed by the state constitution fourteen years earlier. Do students think it was a mistake? Why or why not?

The 1791 census for Vermont can be examined from another angle. Review each column. What do students think “all other free persons” means? Who might that include? How many communities reported the presence of enslaved people? If your students live in VT, they could look for their own town or neighboring town to gather information. (NH Census here) How are these people remembered in their own communities? How should they be remembered and could students take up the challenge of proposing a way to remember and honor their lives?

A case study of Dinah Mason adds real historical figures to the picture of slavery in early Vermont, and further complicates the larger story. A bill of sale preserved at the Vermont Historical Society 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 presented here—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. Groups of students could be assigned sections of the court report to analyze.

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