Proposition 2, recently passed by the Vermont Senate, is not an anti-slavery amendment as sometimes described. The Vermont Constitution already prohibits slavery as it has since the first Vermont Constitution, written in 1777. This was the first prohibition of slavery in America, an articulation of human dignity and freedom, a clear denunciation of the abomination of slavery, and a point of pride to Vermonters ever since. Almost every word of Proposition 2 is already in the Vermont Constitution and appears in Proposition 2 for context. Rather than condemn and prohibit slavery, Proposition 2 is intended merely to correct the existing constitutional language that limits anti-slavery protection to people over 21. Obviously that limitation is a flaw. So why not correct it?
The Vermont Constitution is a living document that is amendable at the will of the people. But, Proposition 2 doesn’t change law. Vermont’s prohibition of slavery hasn’t been law since 1865, when ratification of the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery throughout the country, and made Vermont’s prohibition moot. Proposition 2 changes language that has only historical value. Our decisions about what parts of history to celebrate, and what parts not to celebrate, speak more about the present and the future than they do about the past. As confederate flags, statues of confederate “heroes,” and other symbols of slavery come down, so too we should preserve and celebrate authentically our anti-slavery history, such as the anti-slavery language of our state constitution.
The reason for the age limitation is a matter of speculation. It’s been called the “apprenticeship clause.” I speculate that it was intended to respect parental authority. In any case, it’s clearly a flaw in the language. Were it law, we would need to change it. But changing an artifact that has only historical value serves only to falsify our understanding of our history, pretending our forebears did a better job than they actually did. I’m a retired teacher of history. And I’m a liberal. I’m not accustomed to planting smiley faces on our history; I rip them off. Just as we need to tell the good truth about our history to honor our forebears and for our own inspiration, we need to tell the bad truth in order to begin taking responsibility for it. We need to tell the truth simply because it is the truth.
Great moments in history are often flawed. The Magna Carta is a catalogue of the privileges of the English aristocracy. The Declaration of Independence promoted certain unalienable rights of all men, defended stealing Indigenous People’s land, and called Indigenous People “savage Indians.” Vermont’s prohibition of slavery was limited to adults. These are all flaws. But the Magna Carta established the consent of the governed as the only basis for the just powers of government. The Declaration of Independence based the founding of our nation on logic of human rights. In 1777 the Vermont Constitution was the first in America to outlaw slavery. Martin Luther King described the Arc of History as bending, not turning sharply, towards Justice.
Finally, I oppose Proposition 2 because it falls so far short of our duty to People of Color. Racial Justice advocates have a list of demands; including reparations, better access to capital, better opportunities to acquire land, a more honest telling of history, objective civilian review of police violence. The very least People of Color deserve is a thorough and open-minded consideration. Proposition 2 is an underwhelming response that doesn’t rise to the occasion.
Proposition 2 will go to a referendum of the people for ratification.
Sen. Dick McCormack