The Backwoods State That's Forward On Abolition
Updated on February 6, 2010, 6:59 PM - Written by Tim Buttner
The Green Mountain Boys, the paramilitary group concentrated in and around Western Vermont a decade prior to the Revolutionary War, made themselves so notorious that even George Washington ignored congressional demands to subdue them during the Revolutionary War, around the time that Vermont split itself from New York and formed its own Constitution under the Commonwealth of Vermont. It was its own independent nation, and became the first to abolish slavery in The New World. The Constitution, which is dated July 8, 1777, stated clearly in the first chapter that slavery was prohibited. Throughout the time it became the fourteenth state, ran the last stop on The Underground Railroad, and participated in the American Civil War the Vermonters were fighting against every proslavery bill, act, any other legislation in favor of slave states. How could such a backwoods state, especially one where the population of African-Americans in the 2008 census1 is slightly less than one percent of the states total population, lead the nation in abolitionist movements of the 19th Century?
To understand the psychology of the early Vermonters, one needs to look no farther than the leaders of the Green Mountain Boys2. Ethan Allen3 had a standing warrant for his arrest, along with his brother Ira and cousin Seth Warner, from the New York Authorities because of their interference with the New York government, which was located in Albany a mere 30 miles away from Bennington, the home of Ethan Allen. When authorities attempted to exercise authority in North East New York, they would often return severely beaten, and the rebellious Green Mountain Boys remained allusive to apprehension. The Green Mountain Boys joined the Revolution in support of the colonists, and Colonel Ethan Allen fought beside General Benedict Arnold. At their declaration of independence from New York when the Green Mountain Boys became the army of the Vermont republic and Allen became Major General, but they still fought beside the Continentals. Soon however the rebellious Vermonters decided to become neutral during the war, and became a safe-haven for deserters from both sides. Allen negotiated with the governor of Canada, allegedly to establish Vermont as a British province, between 1780 and 1783 in a bid to sway the Continental Congress to accept Vermont as an independent state, but the activity resulted in him being charged with treason. Naturally the charges couldn't be proved, and so dropped. Ethan Allen died in 1789 and two years later Vermont became the fourteenth state, carrying over their state constitution prohibiting slavery.
When the first chapter, and first article, of the constitution is carefully analyzed it becomes clear that the abolishing of slavery didn't mention blacks, but instead in a simplistic "all are equal" way decided that slavery was wrong outright as a moral issue. Article 1, titled All persons born free; their natural rights; slavery prohibited, 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.4
If Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys are any example, freedom is an essential part of being a Vermonter over all other matters. That's why in 1786 Vermont legislature passed an act that prevented the "Sale and Transportation of Negroes and Malattoes Out of This State."5 Defying the return slaves made the state a safe-haven, just as it had during the Revolutionary War. By becoming part of the United States Vermont brought their social beliefs along with them into the abolition movements of the eighteen-hundreds.
By 1816 Vermont continued to attract New Yorkers looking to desert a life they no longer wanted a part of, only this time they were slaves instead of soldiers. Pompey Vanderburgh6 was one such slave who escaped to Bennington where he married and had nine sons. He was one of many more to come, who would travel the journey to Vermont for freedom. Some continued on to Canada after 1834 when Great Britain abolished slavery, but quite a few chose to stay in Vermont. Between 1819 and 1834 however a group formed in Vermont that had some different ideas on how to handle these fugitive slaves. The Vermont Colonization Movement7 first formed in 1819 at the state house in Montpelier, and the three main objectives of the group were to 1) remove all "negroes", free and enslaved, from the United States to Liberia, 2) introduce civilization into Africa, and 3) eradicate the slave trade. These groups often formed in churches, such as Methodist Society in Pittsford, and the donation collection would be used to fund the group. Another Vermont Abolitionist group that formed was the Anti-Slavery Society8, who often was at odds with the Colonization Movement. The Anti-Slavery Society, which formed in 1834, was more about the goal to "abolish slavery in the United States and to improve the mental, moral, and political condition of the "colored population."" The two groups appeared to be for the same thing, but the Anti-Slavery Society called to question the Colonization Movement's title as an "Abolition Society" and other objectors claimed the they had prejudice toward African-Americans. The Colonization Movement tried its best to spread the word about the colony, and continued meeting until 1868 when support for the movement ended because of the emancipation proclamation.
The Anti-Slavery Society gained a lot of popularity, and three years after its formation it had over 5,000 members in 89 local anti-slavery societies. It also drew a lot of violent objectors, some of which mobbed abolitionist Samuel J. May five times during his lecture tour of the state. Montpelier, the capital, was the location of the most famous riot when the Society invited May to speak. When he spoke first there was harmless little warnings in the form of rotten eggs and stones on the capital steps, but before the second public speech he received threatening letters suggesting that he leave to avoid harm. As well around the capital notices appeared threatening that anyone with intention to attend shouldn't because the speaker will be prevented with violence if necessary. When May spoke the riot ensued. Of course by sheer support in the Vermont congress, for years prior to the May incident, by 1855 Soloman Northrup, a kidnapped freeman, spoke and the excitement came from support not objectors. Vermont's support was completely abolitionist.
Vermonters considered slavery a plague on the human soul, and congressman as far back as 1820 voted against proslavery amendments to the bill. When the legislature passed their nay, the sent along this message:
Slavery is incompatible with the vital principles of all free governments and tends to their ruin. It paralyzes industry, the greatest source of national wealth, stifles the love of freedom, and endangers the safety of the nation. It is prohibited by the laws of nature which are equally binding on governments and individuals. The right to introduce and establish slavery in a free government does not exist.5
>Vermont continued this political agenda throughout the social movements of the people, and voted against the Annexation of Texas and the slavery in the District of Columbia. In 1843 Vermont legislature passed a law that forbid seizing of a fugitive by citizens, sheriffs, constables, bailiffs, and jailors, and in the same year Frederick Douglass toured Vermont. Of course Vermont's legislature disagreed with the Fugitive Slave Act, and so they voted against it and tried to impede it. With the Compromise of 1850 Vermont refused to vote in favor, and kept up activities contrary to the law of the United States.
Vermont's participation in the Underground Railroad began as far back, and precedes, Pompey Vanderburgh settling down in the state. Either the last stop in the United States before passage into Canada or the last stop on the railroad, it defied simply harboring fugitives. Activists in Vermont lodged fugitives for several nights, often providing work for a salary. The wages earned from this work would be to help these fugitives start their new free life. They even received schooling, which helped support the Society with evidence that slaves wished to be free and that they weren't as dumb as animals, shouldn't be violently beaten down like an animal, and that they could recount the stories through writing. Newspapers were constantly filled with the escape stories, and Vermont flaunted that they sheltered the fugitives rather than hid. Vermonters defied the laws set by the United States more so by capturing fugitives from slave catchers. Vermonters, with free black men, were known to venture into other states to free and transport fugitives caught and put in jail. Congress and the United States government couldn't do anything to stop the Green Mountain State.
Abraham Lincoln swept Vermont with 75.8% of the vote in 1860, and soon the Green Mountain Boys went to fight in the Civil War. Vermont cheered the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation, as it continued to support the efforts of the war, many freed slaves from Vermont enlisted. After the war some freed slaves, such as Jackson Kenny from Virginia, made a life in Vermont because of their interactions with Vermonters in the camps. By the 2008 election9 Barack Obama, the first African-American President, carried the state with 67.8% of the votes.
1 "Vermont 2008 Census." U.S. Census Bureau. November 17, 2009. <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/50000.html>
2 "Green Mountain Boys." Virtual Vermonter. February 2010. <http://www.virtualvermonter.com/history/greenmtboys.htm>
3 "Ethan Allen and his 'Green Mountain Boys'." The American Revolution Home Page. 1998 - 2004. <http://americanrevwar.homestead.com/files/allen.htm>
4 "The Vermont Constitution." U.S. Constitution Online. January 24, 2010. <http://www.usconstitution.net/vtconst.html>
5-8 "The Underground Railroad Project: Vermont Timeline5, Essay: The Underground Railroad in Vermont6, The Underground Railroad Project: The Colonization Movement7, Essay: The Anti-Slavery Movement8." Vermont Historical Society. 2007. <http://vermonthistory.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=86&Itemid=88>
9 "Election Results 2008: President Map" The New York Times Online. December 9, 2008. <http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/map.html>
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