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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Slavery: A Crime Against Humanity

The Presbyterian Church in East Topsham was one of the local churches of that denomination that included many abolition sympathizers. Their pastor, the Rev. R.N. Johnston, took an early and active stance for abolition. William Lloyd Garrison, pictured below, once spoke there "to a crowded hours." (Journal-Opinion photo)

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), a major spokesman for the abolitionist
movement and publisher of the abolitionist magazine The Liberator
"The Negro Woman's Appeal to Her White Sisters" ca. 1850.
This type opf abolitonist material aimed to appeal to women as wives
and mothers for the plight of slaves separated from their families. (Library of Congress)

Alexander Twilight, born in Corinth, Vermont in 1795, became the first African-
American to graduate from an American college (Middlebury) and the first of his race to
serve in a state legislature. His lasting contribution was a teacher and headmaster of the
Orleans County Grammar School in Brownington, Vermont.

(Library of Congress)

Published in the Journal-Opinion, August 25, 2010

“Born of a resistance to arbitrary power—her first breath that of freedom—her first voice a declaration of the equal rights of man— how could her people be otherwise than haters of slavery—how can they do less than sympathize with every human being and every community which asserts the rights of all men to blessings like their own?”

This is how, in 1855, the Vermont Senate explained the strong stand taken by many Vermonters against slavery in America. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, this column examine the way Vermonters struggled with America’s “peculiar institution.”

Slaves from Africa were first brought to Virginia in 1619. By the time the union was formed there were slaves in all the states. Slavery was the basis of the economy in southern regions, and it was a contentious issue. Slavery’s importance was reflected in the compromises written into the Constitution. But, not in Vermont. When it adopted its constitution in July 1777, Vermont declared adult slavery unlawful.

As there was a negligible black population, this significant action was easy. Randolph Roth, who has written on both the subject of abolition and the Connecticut River Valley, estimates that approximately 250 blacks lived in the valley in the late 1700’s. Some were free and others held as slaves. The 1790 census recorded four slaves held in Haverhill, three in Orford and two in Piermont. It also listed a small number of “non-white free persons.” The 1791 Vermont census listed as free, Jeptha Sharp of Bradford, George Knox of Thetford, Jeremiah Virginia of Newbury and other African-American area residents.

Some of these were active leaders in their communities. Jeptha Sharp was among those Bradford residents, who in 1796, petitioned the state to create Vermont’s first incorporated library. Alexander Twilight, born in 1795 in Corinth, was the first African-American to graduate from an American college and the first to serve in a state legislature. His lasting contribution was as a teacher and headmaster at the Orleans County Grammar School in Brownington, Vermont. His lasting monument is the large granite hall he built with his own hands for the school’s expanding student population.

While both Vermont’s dedication to equality and individuality, (and its small black population), are important reasons for the growth of the abolition movement, the lack of shipping interests involved in the slave trade or commercial dealings with the South were contributing factors.

The first organized effort in Vermont to deal with the issue of slavery was the formation of the Vermont Colonization Society in 1818. Its members held that the cure to the “heavy curses” of slavery was to purchase slaves from their masters and send them back to Africa. Believing that whites and blacks could not mix in society, they feared a “dreadful collision” between the two races.

Rev. Silas McKeen of Bradford was active in the Society. In a sermon delivered at their meeting in Montpelier in October, 1828, he reviewed the success of the national effort in establishing Liberia on the west coast of Africa and the settling there of 1200 free blacks. He extolled the valuable influence of this Christian colony on the rest of Africa’s “moral desert.”

McKeen hoped that these efforts might awaken a “slumbering conscience” in slave holders. As a result, Southerners would recognize that the “intolerable burden and curse” of slavery could be “taken off their hands” as freed blacks were restored to freedom in Africa. He predicted that unless this effort was successful, the “impending doom” of God’s wrath would descend upon the nation.

For other Vermonters, the only solution to the curse of slavery was immediate emancipation. This more radical movement found its voice in the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society, organized in 1834. With great zeal, its members criticized both slavery and the racist “gradualism” of the colonizationists. William Lloyd Garrison of Boston was its primary spokesman.

Strident voices raised the level of reaction to the abolitionist movement. Abolitionist attacks on the Constitution led to fears among many for the union it created. Commercial interests feared for interruption of trade and the loss of rights to private property. Abolitionists’ connections with other reform movements, such as women’s rights and the prohibition of alcohol, caused additional opposition. There is no doubt that some Vermonters feared the impact of a free black population.

In 1835, Congressman William Slade of Vermont reflected this hesitancy with the following statement: ”I believe the immediate and unqualified abolition of slavery to be inconsistent with a just regard, both of the best interest of the community, and the highest welfare of the slaver.” In later years, he became an advocate of immediate emancipation.

In 1835 two incidents in the area reflected that opposition. They are described in the Vermont History article “Racism in Antebellum Vermont” by John M. Lovejoy. In September, an itinerant abolitionist lecturer was driven from a Bradford lectern by a mob with the use of a fire pump. He had chosen to speak despite appeals that it would “only agitate the subject.”

In November, Rev. George Storrs of the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society spoke at the Methodist Church in Newbury. “A number of men and boys gathered in and outside the chapel making speeches, talking loudly about maintaining the Constitution and the Union. They did their best to disrupt the event, hollering, ringing the bell, breaking a panel on the front door, and throwing brickbats. But Storrs prevailed, raising his voice loudly when the occasion called for it.”

While three of these rioters were arrested and fined for disruption of the free speech rights of Rev. Storrs, there seems little doubt that many Vermonters agreed with them. Wells’ History of Newbury mentions, that in 1842, many at the Newbury Seminary objected to the admission of a black student as, “it was held by a large portion of the public to be a sin and a crime to teach a colored person to read and write.”

In the late 1830’s and 40’s, national events increased support for the abolition movement. Since Vermont’s and Kentucky’s entrance into the Union, there was a pattern of balancing new states between free and slave. From the beginning of the nation’s expansion, there was more agreement in Vermont against the spread of slavery than there was over what should be done with it. Territorial gains from the acquisition of Texas, the Mexican War, and “schemes for the acquisition of Cuba” raised fears among otherwise conservative residents of the area.

When, in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act designed to punish those who harbored slaves with imprisonment and fines, Vermonters declared any slave brought into the state would be free. This was an extension of the 1804 statement by Judge Harrington of Middlebury who declared that “slave ownership would only be recognized by a bill of sale for the slave signed by Almighty God, Himself.” Numerous petitions and legislative resolutions from Vermont so outraged many in the South that one Georgia Senator suggested that a ditch be dug around Vermont so that it could be floated into the Atlantic.

Runaway slaves found refuge and work among area residents. The sewing circle of the Topsham church wrote the following: “We want to give the little money we raised, in such way that the fugitives who are really needy, will be befitted.” Tradition holds that there were a number of stations along the Underground Railroad in towns bordering the Connecticut. Modern research suggests that the notions of danger and secrecy are exaggerated and “that actual aid to fugitives was provided casually if not haphazardly and often delivered quite openly.”

The battle between the two major anti-slavery groups caused turmoil between and within the major Protestant churches of Vermont. Congregational ministers generally supported the colonization even as a growing number in their membership joined many Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians in supporting the more radical abolitionists. With time, some Congregationalists abandoned their earlier stance. This change is reflected in an 1856 Thanksgiving sermon preached at Lyme by Erdix Tenny, entitled “American Slavery: Not Sanctioned by the Bible.”

The Rev. Orange Scott of Newbury was one Methodist minister who worked to persuade his denomination to “embrace immediate emancipation.” Both abolitionist groups used Christianity to justify their stance, an appeal that had less effect on the unchurched.

Two of the most active ministers in the cause were Rev. James Milligan, of Ryegate and Barnet and Rev. R. N. Johnston of Topsham. Both served Presbyterian churches, a denomination that took an early and active stance for abolition. Milligan toured the area lecturing for the “immediate, unconditional abolition of slavery and the full integration of Afro-Americans into American society.” He joined Storrs in facing down the Newbury mob in 1835.

Johnston served the Topsham church from 1851 to 1866. According to Roth, Johnston both gave anti-slavery lectures and arranged lecturing tours that “opened the way for old anti-slavery apostles.” On one of these occasions, William Lloyd Garrison lectured in Topsham, “to a crowded house, for almost all classes of people were curious if not anxious to hear the great Abolitionists.”

Topsham Sketches states that Johnston’s activities “roused not only the ire of some of the members of his church but of people in neighboring towns and several times he received threats against his life. A placard was hung on “the church by some pro-slavers which read ‘Death to traitors and nigger preachers.’” He wrote on one occasion that he was warned that a mob of 50 men from Corinth and Bradford was coming to do him harm. Johnston was also involved in two anti-slavery conventions held in Bradford in 1858 and 1860. At those meetings, conflicts continued to erupt between “every shade” of anti-slavery advocates.

By the time these conventions were held, the abolition movement was having a major impact on Vermont’s political parties. In 1854, Vermonters began to abandon the Democratic and Whig parties and embraced the newly formed Republican Party. The Republicans held Vermont’s loyalty until 1964, the longest single-party state control in American history.

By 1860, the issue of slavery had created an “insolvable dilemma” that tore the nation apart. The Republican candidate in the election of 1860 was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln held more moderate views on slavery than the radical abolitionists and Vermonters gave him three-quarters of their votes. When in 1861, Vermonters responded to Father Abraham’s call for troops, the main motive was not to abolish slavery, but to restore the union.

In 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation giving freedom to those slaves being held in the 10 rebellious states. In 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was adopted, officially abolishing slavery in America.

Tragically, it was not the end of involuntary servitude, which still exists in America. In April, Governor Douglas signed into law a bill establishing a task force to recommend actions to the Legislature to deal with the issues of human trafficking. In doing so, Vermont joins most other states in addressing this issue. To rephrase the 1855 statement: How could Vermonters be otherwise than haters of slavery—how can they do less than sympathize with every human being and every community which asserts the rights of all people to blessings like their own?

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