In 1777, Vermont became the first state to include a provision in its Constitution prohibiting slavery. But it was a partial ban that the state is now working to amend.
The first article of Vermont’s state Constitution states “…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…”
Racial Justice Alliance Executive Director Mark Hughes is holding learning sessions about the clause and efforts by the state legislature to change it.
“What we see here is that there is a series of exceptions to slavery," Hughes said. "We see that first a person constitutionally in the state of Vermont can be a slave provided they are under the age of 21. They can also be a slave if they consent to being a slave and after they arrive at the age of 21 the law can actually bind a person to slavery.”
Hughes says although Vermont was long esteemed for being the first state to ban slavery, it instead has approved forms of servitude since its inception.
“Vermont is unique," Hughes explained. "In addition to being the state that has held constitutionally slavery longer than any other state we also in Vermont are the only state that has had an exception clause that specifically noted that there’s an age limitation, or there’s an age threshold, where a person under the age of 21 could in fact be enslaved. So again very very unique our Constitution.”
The Vermont Legislature has put forth Proposition 2, which clarifies the prohibition on slavery and indentured servitude in the Constitution. The amendment was passed in the 2019-20 session but must also be passed during this biennium and then be approved by voters. Hughes says a second Senate vote is expected soon.
“As passed by the Senate the language ended up falling out like this: All persons are born equally free and independent and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights amongst which are the enjoying and defending of life, liberty, acquiring and possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety," Hughes detailed. "Therefore slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited. Period. We’ve got the constitutional amendment as it has been passed the first biennium. But a football fan would say we’re in the third quarter. Third quarter is the second pass through the Senate. Fourth quarter is the House would pass it out.”