On this date in 1777, Vermont banned adult slavery with the approval of its constitution.
Vermont was not one of the original colonies. The area was originally known as the New Hampshire Grants and was claimed by both the colonies of New Hampshire and New York. This led to several years of conflict.
In January 1777, representatives of the New Hampshire Grants convened in Westminster and declared their land an independent republic, explicitly declaring independence from “the arbitrary acts of the crown,” including “the jurisdiction by said crown granted to New York government over the people of the New Hampshire Grants.”
In effect, Vermont declared its independence from both New York and the British Crown.
For the first six months of its existence, Vermont was known as the Republic of New Connecticut.
On July 2, 1777, a convention of 72 delegates met in Windsor. They adopted the name “Vermont” and began work on a constitution. The convention approved the new constitution on July 8, 1777.
The Vermont constitution was not ratified by the people. It was ultimately affirmed by the legislature at its sessions in 1780 and 1782, and declared to be a part of the laws of the State.
The document opened with language reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence.
“WHEREAS, all government ought to be instituted and supported, for the security and protection of the community, as such, and to enable the individuals who compose it, to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of existence has bestowed upon man; and whenever those great ends of government are not obtained, the people have a right, by common consent, to change it, and take such measures as to them may appear necessary to promote their safety and happiness.”
The constitution also included a list of grievances against the government of the New York colony.
Most significantly, the Vermont constitution ended adult slavery in the state, declaring 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 male 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 he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law, for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.
While the constitution did allow males to be held as slaves unit the age of 21 and females to the age of 18, it effectively ended adult slavery in Vermont. As the Journal of the American Revolution put it, “Despite the inherent conflict in this caveat, the abolition of slavery was still a largely radical idea—and a radical implementation of natural rights philosophy.”
In another move far ahead of its time, the Vermont constitution also guaranteed full male suffrage – including for black men.
That all elections ought to be free; and that all freemen. having a sufficient, evident, common interest with, and attachment to the community, have a right to elect officers, or be elected into office.
The Republic of Vermont existed as an independent state for 14 years before it was admitted into the Union on Feb. 18, 1791.
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