July 19th, 2019

The Issue of Slavery

by Sen. Bill Doyle




The Federalists had been torn apart and eventually destroyed by the politics of the War of 1812. The Jeffersonians capitalized on the British bullying of the young republic and used the war as a political tool against the Federalists. This strategy proved effective, and because the Federalists had few positions other than opposing war with Great Britain, the Federalists collapsed as the United States scored military successes against the British.


The country returned to a one-party system, and for about fifteen years the Democratic-Republicans, the party of Thomas Jefferson, ruled Washington and Vermont. But just as the Federalists had fallen prey to the single issue of the War of 1812, the Jeffersonians – who eventually splintered into the Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats following the 1824 election – fell prey to the slavery issue. The reluctance of the Jeffersonians and their successors, and of several other parties that developed during the era, to oppose unequivocally the extension of slavery in the United States, led to the formation of the Republican party.


The parties that existed before the Civil War attempted to maintain their national coalitions by making concessions to the slave interests. This made them lose credibility in the eyes of a majority of Vermonters, who were predominantly anti-slavery. By maintaining an uncompromising stand against the expansion of slavery, the Republicans – who appeared on the political scene in the 1850s, shortly before the Civil War – attracted Vermonters of all previous political persuasions. Although the slavery issue was not the sole reason for Vermont Republican success, it was an overriding issue.


Vermonters rallied to the anti-slavery cry, and it was no wonder the Republicans did so well. Vermont’s Constitution of 1777 was the first to forbid slavery. In 1786 the Vermont General Assembly announced that “the idea of slavery is totally exploded from our free government.” The Vermont judiciary never recognized slavery. In a well-known case, a plaintiff sought recovery of a fugitive slave from New York state. A Vermont Supreme Court judge refused to grant relief without evidence of ownership. Such evidence, he wrote, would be nothing less than a “bill of sale from God almighty.”


In 1818 the Vermont General Assembly opposed the admission of Missouri as a slave state. A legislative report said “the right to introduce and establish slavery in a free government does not exist.”


Shortly thereafter the Assembly passed the following resolution, which said, in part:


That in the opinion of this Legislature, slavery or involuntary servitude, in any of the United States, is a moral and political evil, … That Congress has a right to inhibit any further introduction, or extension of slavery, as one of the conditions upon which any new State shall be admitted into the Union.


That the Senators from this State in the Congress of the United States be instructed, and the Representatives requested, to exert their influence and use all legal measures to prevent the admission of Missouri as a State into the Union of the United States with those anti-republican features and powers in their Constitution.”


During the Missouri debate, the Vermont Colonization Society was founded in the Statehouse in Montpelier. The basic purpose of the Society was to raise money to send free blacks to Africa. Many members of the General Assembly were present at the meeting, including Governor Galusha. On the next day Galusha issued a proclamation for a fast and prayed that “Almighty God would put down all tyranny and oppression, and open a way for the emancipation of all that degraded class of human beings, who are held in slavery, especially those in this highly favored country.”




Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Assistant Minority Leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.


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