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Paper on the presence of racism in Vermont before the Civil War in spite of the small number of blacks in the state
   Racism in Antebellum Vermont    Neither Vermont’s constitutional prohibition of adult slavery nor JudgeTheophilus Harrington’s famousapplication of that provision ever really precluded the Green Mountain State from those expressions of racismthat existed all over New England and beyond.  By   John M. Lovejoy   wo historical events appear to have established Vermont’s re-sponse to questions about slavery and the existence of racismin the state. The first occurred in Windsor in July 1777, whenthe Vermont Constitution was adopted. It was the first state constitutionto declare adult slavery unlawful within its borders. The second event tookplace in Middlebury at the Addison County Court House in June 1804,when the Honorable Theophilus Harrington, junior member of the three- judge Supreme Court panel, speaking for the court, declared that slaveownership in Vermont could only be proved by the production in evi-dence of a bill of sale for the slave signed by Almighty God, Himself.The court’s practical application of the law prohibiting slavery set for-ever the height of the “bar” over which challengers would have to jump.From that day forward no jumpers applied.The srcinal thirteen colonies had a substantial accumulation of lawson their books, as well as spoken and unspoken codes, relating to ne-groes, mulattos, and Indians and, in several instances, to slavery itself.   1   Vermont patterned a substantial portion of its constitution after that of Pennsylvania.   2   However, because Vermont lawmakers were relativelyunburdened by an existing legal history and its accompanying tapestryof laws, codes, and precedent-setting opinions, the drafting of the Ver-mont Constitution was a simpler process than in most of the other states.Lacking a general, experiential historic base, and possessing a negli-  T   Vermont History   69 (Symposium Supplement): 48–65.   © 2001 by the Vermont Historical Society. ISSN: 0042-4161; online ISSN: 1544-3043   49 .....................   gible black population, Vermont’s “outlawing” of adult slavery came eas-ily and, viewed in context, may have been regarded by lawmakers as aninevitable, relatively simple move. In a similar vein, it is significant tothe history of Vermont to recognize that as the first new state voted to join the Republic, it had no hand in drafting the Declaration of Indepen-dence, the Articles of Confederation, the federal Constitution, or theBill of Rights. Only after admittance as a state did Vermont begin tohave input into the legislative aspects of nation building.It is important to recognize that neither the constitutional prohibitionof adult slavery nor Judge Harrington’s famous application of that pro-vision ever really precluded the Green Mountain State from those ex-pressions of racism that existed all over New England and beyond. Thispaper examines some of the realities of racism, and looks at several bla-tant examples of racial prejudice that occurred in antebellum Vermont.J. Kevin Graffagnino’s admonition in his 1977 article “Vermont Atti-tudes Toward Slavery: The Need For A Closer Look,” turns out to be re-markably prescient.   3   Notes on Natural Sciences and the Word “Nigger”   Antebellum natural science studies in Vermont resembled similarstudies in other states of the new nation. Anthropology was in its in-fancy. The prevailing nineteenth-century concept of man tended to per-petuate variations on the single theme of permanent racial inferiority:“science became an instrument which ‘verified’ the presumptive inferi-ority of the Negro.”   4   The ideas of three men contributed most to Americans’ antebellum justification for Negro inferiority: Carl von Linnaeus (Swedish, 1707–1778), Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (German, 1752–1840), and theReverend Dr. Samuel Stanhope Smith (American, 1751–1819). Theirtheories, dressed in a broad array of factual finery, were either directly orindirectly part of the natural science curriculum at Middlebury College,the University of Vermont, Norwich University, and Dartmouth College.The intellectual basis of racism in Vermont was thus equivalent to theclimate in the rest of America. As William Lee Miller explained in hisrecent book  Arguing About Slavery,   to fathom the degree of nationwideracism in the antebellum period one should “extrapolate backward fromtoday’s worst white attitudes, and multiply by a large number.”   5   One clear indication of the conviction among whites of the inferiorityof blacks is the widespread use of the word “nigger.” By the early nine-teenth century, and probably earlier, most uses of this word by whiteswere considered derisive, particularly when expressed “with dismiss-ive, abusive, or contemptuous force.”   6   William Faux, in  Memorable   50 .....................    Days in America,   observed while in Boston in February of 1819 that“contempt of poor blacks, or niggers, as they are called, seems the na-tional sin of America.”   7   In perhaps the definitive work on the use of theword “nigger” in the antebellum period, published in Boston in 1837,Hosea Eaton wrote: “Negro or nigger, is an approbrious [   sic   ] term, em-ployed to impose contempt upon them as an inferior race, and also toexpress their deformity of person. Nigger lips, nigger shins, and niggerheels, are phrases universally common among the juvenile class of soci-ety, and full well understood by them.”   8   Lydia Maria Child, a leading light and literary genius in the BostonFemale Anti-Slavery Society, wrote in 1836 that “if a person of refinementfrom Hayti, Brazil, or other countries, which we deem less enlightenedthan our own, should visit us, the very boys of this republic would doghis footsteps with the vulgar outcry of ‘Nigger! Nigger!’ I have knownthis to be done, from no other provocation than the sight of a coloredman with the dress and deportment of a gentleman.”   9   Beyond thewords, reflecting white society’s general opinion of the free coloredpopulation in the major cities of the North, including Boston, one couldfind “cuts and placards descriptive of the negroe’s deformity . . . every-where displayed to the observation of the young. . . . Many of the popu-lar book stores, in commercial towns and cities, have their show-windows lined with them. The barrooms of the most popular publichouses in the country, sometimes have their ceiling literally coveredwith them.”   10   Indeed, such racial stereotyping was widespread in theantebellum North.Vermonters were not exempt from this kind of stereotyping and in-vective. Correspondence among educated and prominent citizens fre-quently exhibited racist attitudes and the epithet “nigger.” For example,on April 2, 1837, Charles B. Fletcher (1818–1852), son of Vermont Con-gressman Isaac Fletcher, wrote from Charleston, South Carolina to HenryStevens, Sr., the founder of the Vermont Historical Society, and reportedthat the “niggers” in the South were not nearly as bad off as Vermontershad been led to believe.   11   Another example is the use of the phrases“nigger” and “nigger business” in letters between Democrat newspaperpublishers Robinson and Southmayd, co-owners of the Castleton Ver-mont Statesman,   and Charles G. Eastman, owner of Woodstock Spirit of the Age,   in a political context to disparage the Whig Party.   12   Even more revealing, and somewhat shocking, are four letters fromGeorge Gilpin Robinson to his brother Rowland Evans written between1854 and 1859. These two men, sons of devout Quakers and prominentVermont abolitionists Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson, apparentlyfailed to absorb the enlightened attitudes about race promoted by their   51 .....................   parents, for their correspondence contains many racial slurs. (For fur-ther background on the Robinson family, see the articles in this issue byJane Williamson and Ronald Salomon.)   13   The first letter was written onApril 3, 1854 from Astoria, New York, where George was living withhis sister Ann for a short time, to Rowland, then at home in Ferrisburgh.He sent word to his brother about a black servant named Sarah who“went Saturday on a nigger cruise to Brooklyn with Niobe’s cook.”This is an allusion to the Saturday afternoon ferry, crowded with Afri-can Americans off from work and going to Brooklyn to shop.   14   The nextletter was written by George, now back in Ferrisburgh, on December26, 1858 to Rowland, now living in Brooklyn, New York, referring toblack servants employed by the Robinsons. “Eliza is gone & Sarah hasstepped into her place—also Julia is gone—Clara is tending the baby,so you see the Black Star is decidedly in the ascendant, whereby thedamned niggers are more than ever impressed with the idea that wecan’t keep house without them,—which, I presume, tends to make A[Aaron ?] the more confident, as it looks as if the quarrel was only be-tween him and the Greyhound company, the rest of the family being asfirm in the colored persuasion as ever.”   15   In a letter to Rowland from Ferrisburgh on January 9, 1859, Georgetrotted out the race-based “smell” problem so long associated withwhite criticism of blacks. “The rest of us are in usual health, except thatSarah went home sick the other day,—so we are out of a maid. I sup-pose the next move will be to get Mary Ann or Frances, unless bychance they find one somewhere that can out stink even them.”   16   Thefinal letter of this set was written February 21, 1859, filling in Rowlandon the latest family toils and intrigues. “ . . . we have little   Frances hereagain. I think odor improves finally, for I can pass within four feet of her without holding my breath. When she comes close to me at break-fast, to deliver the buckwheat cakes it is decidedly refreshing. If Mother’s nigger arrangements are as satisfactory to her as they are hid-eous to me, they must afford her a great deal of comfort.”   17   An exami-nation of the huge generation gap within this family of abolitionists isbeyond the scope of this paper; but it does demonstrate something of the extent to which the derogatory and derisive term “nigger” had be-come common currency in antebellum Vermont.   Notes on Colonization   Among the first responses to the growing awareness of a race prob-lem in America was a movement to eliminate it by removing blacksfrom North America. The American Colonization Society was foundedin 1816. Its early roster included James Madison, Andrew Jackson,
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