Racial Justice Alliance hosts debate about slavery language in state constitution

Michael Bielawski/TNR

IS VERMONT A MODERN SLAVE STATE?:  Mark Hughes, director of Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, talks to about two dozen audience members about what he sees as problems with the wording in the Vermont Constitution regarding slavery.

BURLINGTON — The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance held a public discussion Wednesday evening about whether the Vermont Constitution permits slavery.

The Green Mountain State is often cited as the first state in the nation to ban slavery by way of its constitution, back in 1777. But Mark Hughes, director of the VRJA, disputes that oft-repeated claim, and his group hosted two scholars to shed light on the topic.

“Vermont is not the first state to abolish slavery,” Hughes said. “Vermont is the only state that has had language permitting slavery for 242 years. … That is our designation.”

Hughes and others have proposed amending the Vermont Constitution to clarify language that, they say, permits slavery to this day. That proposal is known as PR.2, a “declaration of rights” for clarifying the prohibition on slavery and indentured servitude.

One of the scholars at the evening event was UVM professor Peter Teachout, an expert in constitutional law and history. He said any attempts to modify the constitution should be taken with caution.

“I’m concerned about being faithful to the framers of the Vermont Constitution and what they intended,” he said.

Michael Bielawski/TNR

Professors Peter Teachout, left, and Harvey Amani Whitfield

Teachout told True North that amending the constitution is “an awesome responsibility” and should be done “reluctantly and for compelling reasons.”

“Constitutional provisions, unlike statutes, are supposed to be permanent expressions of a state’s basic values and commitments,” he said. “It is a particularly awesome responsibility when what is being considered is amending a provision that has the sort of historic significance that Article 1 of Chapter 1 has.”

Teachout also talked about Article 1 during the event.

“It has always, until recently, been considered to make Vermont the first state constitution to ban slavery, in 1777,” he said. “Not just adult slavery but child slavery as well — an absolute ban.”

Article 1 reads as follows:

That all persons 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 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.

The last few lines are the ones Hughes and other activists find objectionable. They argue the constitution opens the door for child slavery, slavery of those who are incarcerated, and slavery of those who are in debt.

UVM professor Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield also spoke on the topic. Whitfield is a professor of U.S. and Canadian history and the author of five books on slavery, including “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.”

He argued that despite the apparent ban in 1777, Vermont had examples of owned slaves for at least three more decades, and that this carryover was not unique to Vermont.

“What I recognized was something that I knew from the research that I’ve done on Canada and the research that I’ve done on other parts of New England and the Northern states, and that was that slavery sort of died a long death,” he said. “It doesn’t immediately end in Massachusetts any more than it does in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and I wanted to figure out what was the case in Vermont.”

Whitfield said slave transactions in the state after 1777 demonstrate that slavery was not prohibited.

Hughes, an outspoken social justice activist who says he intentionally excludes whites from some of his meetings, told True North why he feels it is important to revisit this issue some 242 years after the fact.

“This old constitution is an interesting document because it’s basically the lynchpin to every construct of our society,” he said. “The constitution is the yardstick that is used when legislation is created, it’s the standard that’s considered when courts decide cases, it’s the common ground that everybody stands on when they take an oath.”

In particular, he takes issue with the phrase “bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”

He noted that with the minorities today having high rates of incarceration and poverty, any language in the constitution that might appear to allow slavery needs to be addressed. Otherwise, he said, it promotes “systemic racism.”

State Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, also attended the event. He told True North he supports PR.2 because the constitution is the foundation of the state’s system of law.

“It’s the measure by which the courts will make rulings on subsequent laws,” he said. “So we want to make sure that our constitution is clear on this issue so that if other laws are being questioned then when they look back at the foundation, they can make sure there aren’t any laws that are reinforcing systemic racism.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Image courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR

21 thoughts on “Racial Justice Alliance hosts debate about slavery language in state constitution

  1. Let’s be absolutely clear. The article being referenced above is a debate about slavery and Vermont’s constitutional language defining it – at least in as much as the TNR headline and the text of the article is concerned.

    The article states, “Hughes and others have proposed amending the Vermont Constitution … clarifying the prohibition on slavery and indentured servitude.” That’s it, in a nutshell. And I’ve explained why, specifically, the Article 1 clause describing servitude of those under the age of 21 or at a ‘person’s own consent’, is, at best, ambiguous, and conflicts with other points in the Article, including current employment law. That specific language should be edited, if not removed.

    Neil, this has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with what the meaning of the word is is. It has everything to do with what the Constitution says. Period. And I’ll be happy to debate the finer points of free markets and our constitutional guarantees of life and liberty against socialism with anyone.

    And Nancy, I very carefully read what you said. “Do not make the mistake of laughing off people … such as Mark Hughes. Organizations like the VRJA [of which Mr. Hughes is director] want nothing less than the racial transformation of Vermont”, and “if and when they succeed, you will not like the ‘new’ Vermont”.

    These are the remarks I’m now addressing. You both are conflating a simple request to remove an ambiguous clause from the constitution with the inevitable rise of socialism and racial transformation. I have no idea what you even mean by ‘racial transformation’.

    I’m not talking about race or socialism, and I’m not addressing what Mr. Hughes or Mr. Parini might say when asked a hypothetical question. I’ve already called out Mr. Parini for race baiting. And if anyone else does it, I’ll call them out too.

    BTW: Digger published my comment calling out Mr. Parini. If you agree, perhaps you might consider logging on and adding your approval to the plus column. https://vtdigger.org/2019/11/20/leo-parini-home-to-vermont/?is_wppwa=true&wpappninja_cache=friendly

    I’m simply cautioning you not to take a bite of the poison apple just because so many others do.

  2. So……looking at the details, this is all brought about by a social justice activist, and a progressive from Burlington.

    Basically trouble makers following rules for radicals, well versed in the acts of subversion. It only strengthen my comments below.

    These are the people that have systematically taken over the democratic party in Vermont and turned it into a socialist marching machine. Vermont……here’s the true problem. Imported organizers from across the country for the last 50 years turning our little republic into a “socialist dream state” where nothing is affordable, cronyism run rampant and needless struggle for everyone (except the connected, life is great there).

    American loving democrats and conservative republicans need to right this ship, we’re listing too far into socialism.

  3. VTDigger is running a commentary by Mr. Leo Parini in which he states that Vermont “suffers” from an “aging, overwhelmingly Caucasian” population. My polite, written pushback of this hubristic declaration was not printed by VTDigger.

    Do not make the mistake of laughing off people like Leo Parini, or others such as Mark Hughes. Organizations like the VRJA, and well-financed media like VTDigger, want nothing less than the racial transformation of Vermont. If and when they succeed, you will not like the “new” Vermont.

    • While I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Digger, I am well versed in the history of slavery, its ubiquitous existence for tens of thousands of years in human societal development, and the fact that, if anything, the ‘Founders’ were conflicted as to how to end the institution at the time of constitutional framing (VT and U.S.).

      But to claim that revising the constitution will result in a ‘racial transformation of ‘the “new” Vermont’ …is something I will ‘not like’ (let alone to assume what everyone else will like) is patently incorrect. And I hope you take my opinion as equally ‘polite, written pushback’.

      In my opinion, if the Vermont Constitution is at all vague in its treatment of slavery (which it appears to be), it should be revised. That doesn’t mean that I’m promoting ‘racial transformation’, or in fact, anything racial. What I am saying is this: the there should be no question in our rule of law, but that slavery (of any cohort) is considered an insidious institution that must be unambiguously condemned and prohibited. Period.

      • Post Script: Mr. Parini is obviously ‘race-baiting’ when he says “…The state suffers from a … overwhelmingly Caucasian population”.

        Since when is the existence of any overwhelmingly homogenous population a sufferable circumstance? I thought we were addressing slavery.

      • What they “conveniently” left out was the sentence before.

        Article 1st. All persons born free; their natural rights; slavery prohibited.

        No you won’t like what follows, unless you love socialism/communism and are connected…then of course you’ll love what follows. This has nothing to do with anything but creating division where it didn’t exist.

        And if you don’t agree with them……you’re wait for it………racist!

        The constitution is not vague. There is no slavery in Vermont, everyone agrees its a repugnant idea and these people who wrote our constitution thought the same 70 years before slavery was abolished!

        This is only done to create division, arguments, hatred, name calling and a chance to open up our constitution for other changes……it’s all about creating division. It’s in the subversion handbook, it’s why Vermont has become, basically socialist.

        Socialism isn’t the end of the world, it only makes things miserable and unaffordable, think housing, health care, colleges, gasoline, food, schooling, taxes, jobs, it’s been pretty well adopted in Vermont and we’ve got the socialist blah’s to go with it. Add in despair, one of the highest rates of suicide and substance abuse and voila…..we’re all equally miserable, what socialism does best.

        • Neil: Article 1, in its entirety is incongruous. The ‘sentence’ you cite is the Article’s preamble describing the general topic considered therein. What the Article actually says is: ” …after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent”.

          Get rid of that clause. It’s not only ambiguous, it contradicts current labor law. As an employer, I can’t force anyone under the age of 21 to work for me and it’s illegal for me to ask any employee to work for no pay or even reduced pay if, for example, the employee makes a mistake that costs my company money…even if they offer to do so.

          The point is, what’s the big deal with agreeing to removing the clause from the VT Constitution? To accuse those who want to clear the ambiguity of racism is taking a bite of the same poisonous apple – especially when claimin the end result will be ‘the racial transformation of a new Vermont’. Who says? Who cares?

          • Depends upon the definition of is? Slavery prohibited, call it what you want.

            You’re missing the whole point. There is a massive movement and organizations intent on tearing down this country.

            What’s the problem of making the simple change?mwhats the problem of renaming all our schools and libraries? What’s the problem of tearing down all the statues of great men and women? What the problem of rewriting all our history books? What’s the problem of not teaching basic civic? What’s the problem of not reading the foundational literature upon which our country was founded? What’s the problem of using manipulative statistics to enrage and excite violence and hatred in our country?

            Once you see and read the game plan you might be a bit surprised Jay. You might then recognize that the patterns are widespread, systematic and focused on the transformation. Vermont did not “magically” become socialist, it’s well orchestrated. This is but a small part of the transformation.

      • Sir,

        Please carefully reread my statement above, the one I made at 7:58 AM, the one to which you replied. Note that I never *remotely* claimed, nor did I insinuate, “that revising the constitution will result ‘in a racial transformation’ “.

        What I said, and let me repeat it here for emphasis, is that individuals like Mr. Parini and Mr. Hughes, and entities such as VRJA and VTDigger, should be taken seriously as would-be agents of change. Were one to ask Mr. Hughes (who is “an outspoken social justice advocate who says he intentionally excludes whites from some of his meetings”), Mr. Parini (who is sad about all these old White folks messing up his state), and the leftist editor of VTDigger whether they favor the racial transformation of Vermont, they would, in an honest moment, say “yes”.


  4. So……this is right out of the play book. It’s purposely argued a point that will divide people rather than bring them together,

    The main beneficiaries are those who instigate and want to keep tha status quo. If the polarize the American loving democrats and conservative republicans, rinos and progessives ( socialists and communists win) lets look at the top beneficiaries.

    Bernie – independent, who co-opted dem party, declared socialist, closet communist.
    Scott – RINO
    TJ Donovan – progressive
    Zuckerman- progessive
    Mitzi – delusional with power progressive
    Ashe – progressive

    That is quite the line up. Guess who wants to open up our constitution and screw with it? And the argument is Vermont constitution allows slavery? See they’ll have us fighting over something so stupid we want stab our neighbor with pitch fork. And who wins? See the above line up.

    They want us to hate America, hate our founding documents. It’s the plan. They want us fighting, when American loving democrats and conservative republicans call each other names, have fights or can’t talk politics over thanksgiving dinner at home, I can assure you the Vermont socialists are doing a jig. Their plan is working perfectly. This is exactly what was discussed by ambassadors in this weeks testimony, this is subversion, this is how people and outside forces rear down a beautiful republic with in fighting.

    Meanwhile, the progressive party plans to over take the Republican Party in Vermont.

    They don’t care about the constitution, it’s actually in their way. They clearly can’t read, article 16 any one? What about 18? They have a funny word in their, frugal, what’s that?

    It’s ok to love America, despite what Bernie says.

    • For a socialist?

      Their kryptonnite is American loving democrats and conservative republicans working together.

      Love thy neighbor is an atomic bomb.

      Perhaps we can remember this over Thanksgiving and christmas. Love, Joy and peace, good fruit from a divine, truly divine spirit.

  5. Does that mean that you can keep the slaves you have or should you buy more before the law is changed? I wasn’t aware there was a market

  6. I’m sure that the learned scholars are aware that the questioned language referred to indentured servants – the majority of them being Caucasian immigrants from northern Europe – who entered a contract for that service for a fixed duration, in return for their passage to America. That the learned scholars possess this knowledge makes their protestations fraudulent, and possibly malicious.


    Only in the mind Mark Hughes,” director ” of Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, It must be a real
    issue, as about two dozen, were in attendance !! where do these people come from ??

    What I see, is making an issue on a non-issue !!

  8. In 2019, we’re concerned about slavery in Vermont? Am I missing something. Last time I looked Abraham Lincoln kind of took care of that problem. What in heaven’s name do these people expect to accomplish by beating on this dead horse?

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