Vermont’s founding family — the Ethan Allen clan — is generally extolled as a collection of freedom fighters embodying the qualities of courage, independence and tolerance that have come to characterize today’s state.
Aspects of that image — the freedom-fighter and tolerance parts, anyway — need revision, according to a new study of slavery in early Vermont by UVM historian Harvey Amani Whitfield. He’ll be discussing his findings in a pair of talks in Montpelier and Burlington on January 20 — MLK Jr. Day.
Whitfield’s research explodes the myth that the abolitionist provision in the Republic of Vermont’s 1777 constitution ended slavery in the territory. The ban on holding black adults as slaves was indeed the first of its kind in the New World and launched Vermont’s progressive tradition, Whitfield acknowledges. But, he adds, an unknown but significant number of black Vermonters remained in bondage several years after slavery was supposedly prohibited.
“In fact, the state is home not only to a rich abolitionist history, but also to the more troublesome story of slavery,” Whitfield writes in The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.
Limiting the ban to African males older than 21 and females over the age of 18 meant children could lawfully remain enslaved in Vermont for as long as 20 years after the constitution was promulgated. But plenty of adult Vermonters of African descent also did not gain freedom because the 1777 decree went unenforced, Whitfield points out.
Many residents of what would become the State of Vermont in 1791 apparently had no problem with neighbors who continued to hold slaves, Whitfield suggests. Those defying the emancipation initiative included some of “the most respectable inhabitants of the state,” the historian observes in his book.
Among this slave-holding and lawless elite were Vermont Supreme Court Judge Stephen Jacob and Levi Allen, described by Whitfield as “Ethan’s troublesome brother.” And nearly 60 years after the supposed abolition of slavery in Vermont, Ethan Allen’s daughter, Lucy Caroline Hitchcock, returned to Burlington from Alabama in possession of two slaves — a mother and child. Hitchcock continued to enslave this pair for six years in the Queen City.
Ethan Allen himself may also have been a slave owner, Whitfield suggested in an interview. “I can’t say this will be proven, but he does refer to having servants, and in the English Atlantic world references to ‘servants’ often means ‘slaves,’” Whitfield said.
Due to his previous research on slavery in the northeastern United States and in Canada’s Maritime provinces, Whitfield says he was not surprised to find that slavery continued in Vermont long after it had been declared over. Those circumstances prevailed in many of the states that had decreed an end to slavery, he notes. “But I was surprised to see the brazen attitude of certain people in Vermont in holding slaves,” Whitfield adds. The story of Judge Jacob’s arrogant enslavement of a woman named Dinah was “really shocking,” he says, in that it revealed the indifference of many of the Windsor notable’s neighbors to his repudiation of the principle of liberty for all Vermonters.
“It’s important to me as an African-descended person living in Vermont to see these nuances,” comments Whitfield, who has taught at UVM for 10 years.
In showing that the elimination of slavery in Vermont was actually an ongoing process and not a clear-cut break from the past, Whitfield acknowledges and builds on the work of other historians such as Ray Zirblis and Kari Winter. In addition, he cautions, “I don’t intend for my book to be seen as the last word on this subject.”
But it does make a valuable contribution to contemporary understanding of Vermont’s history of both abolitionism and slavery, says Winter, a former UVM professor who now teaches in Buffalo, N.Y. Winter rediscovered and annotated an autobiography by Jeffrey Brace, a former slave who settled in Vermont in 1783.
“Amani has found some sources that neither I nor Ray had considered in depth,” Winter says in regard to Whitfield’s book. “We live in a culture that caricatures good and evil. Real life is more complicated than that — in the 18th and 19th century as well as today — and I think Amani’s work conveys that.”
Questions remain about the history of slavery in Vermont, Whitfield says, noting that court records that may contain valuable information are “scattered” throughout the state and have not been thoroughly sifted. Among the unknowns: the number of slaves held in Vermont post-1777.
Even as he challenges self-congratulatory assumptions about Vermont’s historic commitment to human rights, Whitfield insists that the state is right to take pride in its abolitionist principles. He notes that the Vermont legislature passed two laws — one in 1786 and a similar but stronger measure in 1806 — forbidding the trafficking of slaves in the state. “Vermonters knew that something was wrong, and they tried to deal with it both those times,” Whitfield says.
Righteousness in the cause of black freedom was made manifest in the Allen clan, too. Whitfield’s book takes note of “the glowing significance of Ebenezer Allen’s decision in 1777 to free Dinah Mattis and her daughter Nancy because ‘it is not Right in the Sight of god to Keep Slaves.’”
In his January 20 talks, Whitfield says, “one of the most important lessons I can teach is that nobody wears only white hats or only black hats. That’s not how this history works.”
Harvey Amani Whitfield will speak at noon at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier and at 7 p.m. in the Memorial Lounge of UVM’s Waterman Building on Monday, January 20. The Vermont Historical Society is the publisher of The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.