On July 8, 1777 Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery when it adopted its Constitution. That was the constitution of the newly created Commonwealth of Vermont—a completely independent republic.
Due to its unique history, the state was not only fighting a Revolution for independence against the British Crown, but against the claims of New Hampshire and especially New York.
The rugged land west of the Connecticut River and east of Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, split by the Green Mountains had been claimed by Samuel de Champlain as a part of New France, but it was unsettled by them. As early as 1690 a handful of Dutch from New York established a settlement in the Eastern part of the area giving that colony a claim. In 1724 the first British settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut arrived in the river valley.
It was definitely frontier territory with only a few hundred European settlers. During the French and Indian Wars the natural invasion route of Lake Champlain made the area a bloody battleground in which local militia, including Ethan Allen, joined Jeffrey Amherst’s campaigns against the French. Raids by French allied native tribes terrorized isolated farmsteads and caused a retreat of much of the population back to more settled areas of New England.
After the Treaty of Paris in 1763 the region was officially ceded to the British. Even before the wars, starting as early as 1743, New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth began issuing land grants in the area which became known as the Hampshire Grants. The town of Bennington was laid out based on those grants in 1743 but not settled until fighting in the region stopped in 1761. Wentworth made 14 other town grants, including those west of the Green Mountains, some less than 40 miles from Albany.
Settlers began pouring into the region from New England. But George III issued a decree in 1764 giving New York possession of land up to the Connecticut River making the whole region a portion of Albany County. New York declared the Wentworth’s grants null and periodically dispatched the Sheriff and judicial officials to assert its claim. Allan organized the Green Mountain Boys to defend the New England settlers and resist New York. A low grade conflict continued for years, even into the first years of the Revolution with open fighting breaking out at Winchester in March 1775.
On January 18, 1777, representatives of the New Hampshire Grants convened in Westminster and declared their independent republic called New Connecticut. On June 2, 1777 delegates at the Winchester Convention changed the name to Vermont, a corruption of the French for Green Mountain and set a second meeting for early July to draft a constitution.
The document was drawn up on July 4 and adopted by the delegates on July 9. It reflected the radical egalitarianism of the pioneer stock best described by Ethan Allen. It not only abolished slavery, but extended suffrage even to men who did not own land, and provided for support of public schools.
Vermont had its Republic, but it was not recognized by the British, its neighbors, or by any of the other 13 states. Its continued existence was tenuous at best.
The first challenge came from General John Burgoyne’s invasion from Canada during which raids by British troops and their native allies swept the Champlain valley sending residents fleeing. Hearing that there was a large cash of arms and provisions plus horses and Bennington, Burgoyne dispatched 2,600 troops—nearly a third of his force—to seize the town.
On August 16 a force cobbled together from the New Hampshire Militia under General John Stark, the Vermont Regiment of the Line of the Continental Army under Colonel Seth Warner, and local Vermont militia attacked the larger British force across the river from Bennington at Hoosick, New York. The day long Battle of Bennington, fought during a rare heat wave with temperatures in the ‘90’s, resulted in almost the entire British force being killed or captured. The rout left Burgoyne’s whole offensive weekend and contributed to his decisive defeat in October at the Battle of Saratoga.
The fight led to respect for Vermont which continued the war as an ally, but not a part of the United States.
Worries that New York might march on the state after victory in the Revolution led Allan and others to enter into secret talks with the Governor of Quebec about becoming a British province with autonomy. These talks, which drew charges of treason against Allan, got nowhere after the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown.
After the war Vermont continued as an independent republic until 1791. With Kentucky pressing for admission to the Union as a slave state, New York and New Hampshire renounced their claims on Vermont so that it could be admitted with Kentucky keeping a balance between northern and southern states.
The new state Constitution reinforced the anti-slavery clause of the republican document. By 1804 all states north of Delaware followed Vermont’s lead and provided for the outright or gradual abolition of slavery.
Modern scholars have wondered about how effective Vermont’s abolition was. Certainly it affected very few people. The state was largely a rugged frontier with subsistence farms unsuited to slave labor. Even the larger settlements had few residents wealthy enough to own slaves as personal servants, which was how slavery persisted in the rest of New England. Only a handful of slaves would have been freed, assuming that the Constitution was enforced.
Some scholars believe that slave owners could have ignored the provision with impunity given the scant law enforcement and court system of the Republic. Others point out that only adults were directly manumitted. Minor children of freed slaves might have been “bounded out” to service until they reached adulthood. But this followed a common New England practice for the minor children of all debtors without property, who could be “bound out” to prevent them from become “burdens on the tax payer.” Any freed slaves capable of supporting themselves—and evidence suggests that was virtually all of them, would be able to keep their families in tact.
A controversy has arisen because an 1870 official history of Census reports listed 90 slaves in Vermont in the year of the first Census, 1890. This appears to be an error by a compiler who assumed that all blacks reported were slaves. Vermont Gazette of September 26, 1791 reported the Census return for Bennington County with well over half of the state’s total population included 21 black males and 15 black females, “…and the marshal’s assistant’s boast, ‘To the honor of humanity, NO SLAVES.’”
Vermont remained a bastion of opposition to slavery. In 1854 the Vermont Senate issued an official report on slavery affirming the equal rights of “all men” and questioning how any government could favor the rights of one people over another. The report fueled the debate about abolition across the country and caused the Georgia General Assembly to pass a resolution calling for land-locked Vermont to be “towed out the Atlantic Ocean.”
Vermont was one of the first states to abandon its old Whig loyalties in favor of a more forthrightly anti-slavery Republican Party. In 1860 it gave Abraham Lincoln his biggest majority in any state. Vermonters flocked to the Union banner in highly disproportionate numbers during the Civil War. 166 Black Vermonters, out of a total of only 700 Black men, women, and children in the state, served in the Union Army including 66 in the famous The 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored).
Vermont has continued its tradition of radical egalitarianism. In 1880 it became the first state to authorize women to vote in town elections and shortly thereafter for the state legislature. In 2000 the state became the first to provide state-sanctioned benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples in civil unions.
With the highest death rate per-population of any state in the Iraq war due the extensive deployment of National Guard troops, three quarters of the population opposed the war in polls taken in 2007 and many towns passed resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. Under former Governor Dr. Howard Dean, the state pressed forward with medical care reform.During the current economic crisis, Vermont has suffered one of the steepest declines of per-capita income in the country. The state remains a liberal bastion and is represented in the U.S. Senate by Independent Bernie Sanders, avowed socialist, and liberal Democrat Patrick Leahy. Way to go, Vermont