Slavery in the North

Northern Emancipation

Denying the Past



Massachusetts Slavery

Massachusetts Emancipation

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York Slavery

New York Emancipation

Pennsylvania Slavery

Pennsylvania Emancipation

Race Relations in Pennsylvania

Rhode Island


A Missed Chance

Northern Profits from Slavery

Fugitive Slaves





Back to Africa

Keeping the North White



The newly formed state, which broke away from New York, abolished slavery outright in its constitution, dated July 8, 1777.


I. THAT all men 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.

After declaring its independence, Vermont existed as a free republic known as the Commonwealth of Vermont. It was admitted to the union in 1791, with a state constitution that also contained the slavery ban. The 1777 constitution entitles Vermont to claim to be the first U.S. state to have abolished slavery.

Historian Joanne Pope Melish finds that "the language of the act was sufficiently vague that slaveholding may have persisted without sanction in a few cases for several years."[1] She cites the age limit in the clause banning involuntary servitude and points out the possibility of binding out black children of parents who had been slaves before 1777. But more likely, as Melish states, this was meant to continue the common New England policy of binding out indigent children, white or black, to prevent them being public charges.

The Vermont slave story has another footnote, however. The official report of the U.S. Census in 1870 assigned 16 slaves to Vermont in 1790, all in Bennington County. The chief clerk of the Census Bureau at the time, George D. Harrington, happened to be from Vermont, and he "discovered the mistake" and changed the status of the 16 to "Free Other." A modern historian has turned up an issue of the "Vermont Gazette" of Sept. 26, 1791, which reported the return for Bennington County, with 21 black males and 15 black females, and the marshal's assistant's boast, "To the honor of humanity, NO SLAVES." On the one hand, this seems to verify that the 1870 report was an error; on the other hand it raises the suspicion that the state pride and Free Soil enthusiasm of the census taker and Chief Clerk Harrington may have obscured a lingering slavery in Vermont.


From a speech on emancipation, by Sen. J.R. Doolittle of Wisconsin, March 19, 1862.[2]

I can give you a case directly in point. A very distinguished gentleman from Vermont was first elected to Congress, I believe, about 1843. One of the well-to-do farmers in his neighborhood called upon him, the evening before he was to leave for Washington, to pay his respects. He found him in his office, and told him that he came for that purpose, and to bid him good bye.

"And now, judge," said he, "when you get to Washington, I want to have you take hold of this negro business, and dispose of it in some way or other; have slavery abolished, and be done with it."

"Well," said the judge, "as the people who own these slaves, or claim to own them, have paid their money for them, and hold them as property under their State laws, would it not be just, if we abolish slavery, that some provision should be made to make them compensation?"

He hesitated, thought earnestly for a while, and, in a serious tone, replied: "Yes, I think that would be just, and I will stand my share of the taxes." Although a very close and economical man, he was willing to bear his portion of the taxes.

"But," said the judge, "there is one other question; when the negroes are emancipated, what shall be done with them? They are a poor people; they will have nothing; there must be some place for them to live. Do you think it would be any more than fair that we should take our share of them?"

"Well, what would be our share in the town of Woodstock?" he inquired.

The judge replied: "There are about two thousand five hundred people in Woodstock; and if you take the census and make the computation, you will find that there would be about one for every five white persons; so that here in Woodstock our share would be about five hundred."

"What!" said he, "five hundred negroes in Woodstock! Judge, I called to pay my respects; I bid you good evening;" and he started for the door, and mounted his horse. As he was about to leave, he turned round and said: "Judge, I guess you need not do anything more about that negro business on my account." [Laughter.]

Mr. President, perhaps I am not going too far when I say that honorable gentleman sits before me now.

Mr. [Jacob] COLLAMER [R-Vt.]. As the gentleman has called me out, I may be allowed to say that the inhabitants of the town were about three thousand, and the proportion was about one to six.

Interview with author William Heffernan, who has studied slavery and race in Vermont

1. Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and 'Race' in New England 1780-1860, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998, p.64.
2. Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd session, vol. IV, appendix, p.84, col. 3.

2003 - Slavery in the North - About the Author