The Vermont Legislature is right to consider amending the state’s provision that ended slavery. Our Constitution should clarify that Vermont prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in all its forms. But we should be careful precisely how we do it. The current proposals threaten to obscure the hard-won progress toward racial justice that such a change would represent. Vermont needs to find a way to overturn, explicitly, the problematic parts of the existing provision without erasing or rewriting the original provision.
The current proposal would change Chapter 1 Article 1 to say that slavery “in any form is prohibited.” In this particular case, changing the language is not good enough. We need an amendment more akin to how we alter the United States Constitution. That is, we should keep the original text of Chapter 1 Article 1, but add a new provision that explicitly alters it in the way the proposed language does. I’m a historian, so, let me use a historical example to make my case for why this procedural issue matters.
At an Independence Day rally in 1854, the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison set fire to the United States Constitution. That founding document, he proclaimed, “was a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell” because it protected slavery. He was thinking of provisions like the three-fifths clause — which increased slave states’ power in Congress by counting three of every five enslaved people toward representation in the House of Representatives. This corrupted the government itself and “made political activity futile,” in the words of historian Paul Finkelman.
It took the Civil War to overturn the three-fifths clause. But Americans did not change the language of the original three-fifths clause. Rather, they wrote a new 14th Amendment that explicitly overturned it.
In 2011, Congress whitewashed this struggle. The newly elected Tea Party Congress began the session by reading the Constitution — the first time this was ever done. Many Democrats joined in. But nobody read the notorious three-fifths clause during this display of bipartisan unity. How was this possible? Congress read the Constitution’s text to reflect changes made by subsequent amendments, instead of reading the original text followed by the amendments.
So, why read the Constitution the way the Tea Party chose? Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. had it right at the time when he criticized this congressional reading for erasing the struggle to make the Constitution and American union “more perfect.” Obscuring past changes undercuts the idea that fundamental documents sometimes need to be changed to reflect changing values. That obfuscation served the Tea Party’s conservative impulses.
By contrast, preserving evidence of past imperfections renders visible how and why we collectively made changes. Take the innocuous example of prohibition. The Constitution still includes both the 18th amendment, which started prohibition, and the 21st amendment, which ended it. If, instead, the text of the 21st amendment simply replaced the text of the 18th, one could not tell from the Constitution, itself, why the amendment to make alcohol legal was necessary.
In other words, preserving evidence of constitutional flaws is a progressive policy because it shows that the document is a living one. It makes it easier for us to imagine that further changes may be necessary in response to challenges we cannot yet foresee.
The Tea Party arose to serve myriad interests, but I think it’s safe to say racial justice was not one of them. Ironically, I worry the proposals under consideration in Vermont function similarly to the Tea Party’s disingenuous reading of the United States Constitution. Scrubbing all references to slavery, or changing the existing text to unequivocally prohibit slavery in all its forms, erases Vermont’s difficult racist past. It renders invisible the very reasons change was necessary.
And change was, and is, necessary. As the historian Harvey Amani Whitfield has shown, some forms of slavery survived the ratification of the Vermont Constitution. The original provision was not sufficient to fully end slavery. Vermont still incarcerates black people at alarming rates. The struggle for racial justice here is not over, so why erase the most obvious examples that remind of the formidable obstacles to equity?
Christine Kemp-Longmore, in her widely quoted testimony, is right to say a white guy like me will never understand this kind of issue in the same way she or any person of color does. Nevertheless, as a historian, I am congenitally committed to the notion that understanding and preserving our past, however abhorrent, is critical to creating a better future.
Mark Boonshoft is an assistant professor of history at Norwich University. He lives in Montpelier.