By Dick McCormack
When the Legislature convenes in January, there will be an effort to amend the Vermont Constitution to alter the 1777 language prohibiting slavery, the first prohibition of slavery in North America. I think doing this is a bad idea. As I understand it, supporters of amending object to the anti-slavery language because it limits protection from slavery to persons over 21 years old, and because the language is silent on the de facto servitude of women under 18th century laws. I agree that these are indeed flaws. I also agree that the Vermont Constitution is a living document and that amendment is authorized by the constitution itself.
Other early language has been amended, but to change the law, not to rewrite history. The language in question has not been actual law since preemption by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits slavery in the U.S. So the flaws in the Vermont language have no practical, legal impact, and amending them will not actually change anything.
But the language is especially important historical language, and its presence in our constitution is part of the record of the founding of the independent State of Vermont, often called the Republic of Vermont. The founding language of our constitution reflects the characters and values of Vermont’s founders, including freedom, equality, human dignity. Vermonters continue to respect these values which define our view of ourselves. Being the first North American polity to outlaw slavery is a point of pride for all Vermonters. Whatever flaws may be in the language, it is best understood in the context of 1777, at which time it was a major step forward. The prohibition of slavery was a good thing, deserving of preservation.
But, yes, the failure to prohibit all slavery was a flaw. Our history is flawed. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free a single slave at the time, but it did proclaim emancipation. The Declaration of Independence claimed certain “unalienable rights” for “all men,” but not for women, and it was blatantly racist regarding “the savage Indians.” But it was and is a thunderclap for freedom. The Magna Carta did very little for common people, mainly serving the wealthy nobles, but it established the consent of the governed as the authority for the just powers of government. So too Vermont’s ban on slavery failed to do what it failed to do, yet did what it did.
Then why not just delete the obnoxious part? If it were current law it should be deleted. But altering the historic record to make it worthier than it actually is would be dishonest revisionism. Making historical figures appear to say what we wish they’d said, instead of what they did say, puts a smiley face on the darker side of our history.
The good of our history, like Vermont’s first-in-America prohibition of slavery, deserves our respect. The darker side is something to which we must face up frankly. Respect for the good is often denigrated as jingoist. Frankness about the bad is condemned as unpatriotic. But actually, both are simply respect for the truth. Legislators need to hear from the folks at home before the Legislature convenes in January.
Dick McCormack is a senator for Windsor County.