Around New England

VT Senate Seeks To Amend State Constitution To Prohibit — Slavery

April 26, 2019

Despite federal laws banning slavery, and despite the fact Vermont’s constitution was the first in America to ban it, the VT senate has passed a proposal to amend the constitution to “clarify” that all forms of slavery are banned.

As it presently reads, the Vermont Constitution states in Article 1 that “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.”

According to VTDigger, much of the issue revolves around the language in the 1777 founding document that limits slavery to those 21 years old or older.

VTDigger reports that Sen. Jeanette White, a Democrat, who supported the proposal, believes that the constitution does not “make clear that slavery is illegal for all people, not just those over 21.”

She added that the constitution was written in “clumsy language,” VTDigger reports.

The proposal passed the Senate in a 28-1 vote, with the one lone dissenter, Sen. Dick McCormack, also a Democrat, arguing that the Senate ought to be focused on weightier matters than revising a constitution whose language regarding slavery is superseded by the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution.

“We’re the Senate. We’re supposed to deal with things that have weight,” McCormack said in the VTDigger report. “Energy conservation has gravitas, for example. Putting a smiley face on history — pretending that the founders said something that they never said or we wished they had, does not have gravitas.”

But Sen. White disagreed.

“It will not change any law, and it will not guarantee any new rights or freedoms,” she said. “But we’re living in troubling times. We’re experiencing an increase in hate crimes and attitudes of intolerance. They exist all over the country and in all corners of Vermont.”

The Senate measure still has to pass the House this biennium, and then both chambers in the next biennium. After that, the measure will have to be presented to voters in the general election before the constitution can be amended.