Underground Railroad Project: Anti-Slavery

Funded by the Vermont Humanities Council. The following materials were compiled in 1997. 

The Beginnings of the Anti-Slavery Movement in Vermont

The Vermont Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1834 just one year after the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society. One hundred delegates from 30 towns throughout Vermont came to the first meeting. The Chairman of the Executive Committee for the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society was Rowland Robinson. The purpose of the organization was to abolish slavery in the United States, and improve the mental, moral, and political condition of the “colored population.”

The Anti-Slavery Society did not wish to interfere with slavery or encourage slaves to revolt. Rather, the Society tried to accomplish its goals in a moral way. They wished to “expose the guilt and danger of holding men as property” by publishing pamphlets, newspaper articles, and songs as well as lecturing in churches and at public meetings. This song, "The Slave's Lamentation," was written by Fairbank Bush of Norwich, Vermont. It was published as a broadside and circulated throughout the state.

In 1835, the society funded one agent who circulated anti-slavery material, lectured, and sold subscriptions. Members frequently wrote letters to Vermont newspapers such as The State Journal, The Middlebury Free Press, The North Star, The Voice of Freedom, and The Green Mountain Freeman. The Society also had depositories in Montpelier, Brandon, Vergennes, and Middlebury where people could read and purchase abolitionist newspapers, pamphlets, and books.

The Spread of the Anti-Slavery Movement vs. Prejudice in Vermont

By 1837 there were 89 local anti-slavery societies in Vermont with over 5,000 members. Bennington’s anti-slavery society was founded in 1837 with 140 members. The Lincoln-Starksboro society had 485 members--among these members were many Quakers. One of the most famous Quaker abolitionists was Lucretia Mott. Lucretia Mott was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and spoke throughout the United States and England --her most well-known speech is "I Am No Advocate of Passivity" given in 1860 to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

African Americans also belonged to the anti-slavery societies. At the annual meeting of the Chittenden County Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 a Mr. Miller spoke to the “coloured persons present” encouraging them to live down the “prejudice existing in the community against them.”

While the Vermont Legislature routinely passed resolutions against slavery and while there were many local anti-slavery societies, that did not mean that Vermont was free from prejudice against blacks. Frederick Douglass tells of his African-American friend Daniel O'Connell's experiences while on a lecture tour in Vermont:

Once when O'Connell was "traveling to Vermont, and having arrived at a stage[coach], they took in five new passengers. It being dark at the time, they did not know the colour of his [O'Connell's] skin, and he was treated with all manner of respect. In fact he could not help thinking at the time that he would be a great man if perpetual darkness would only take the place of day. Scarcely however had the light gilded the green mountains of Vermont than he saw one of the chaps in the coach take a sly peep at him, and whisper to another "Egad after all 'tis a nigger." He had black looks for the remainder of the way, and disrespect."

Objections to the Anti-Slavery Movement

Like the Vermont Colonization Society, there were people who objected to the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society. Some people did not agree with the anti-slavery societies because they felt that:

  • Slaves were too ignorant to be free
  • Abolitionists were infringing on the rights of slave owners
  • The anti-slavery societies were endangering the Union.
  • These objections to the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society were sometimes violent. In 1835 abolitionist Samuel J. May made a lecture tour through the state and was mobbed five times. May was an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the first Unitarian minister to propose, from the pulpit, immediate emancipation.

The most famous riot took place at Montpelier where Mr. May had been invited to address the Society. Many of the members of the legislature then in session were abolitionists, and May was offered the use of Representatives Hall for his first meeting. In spite of a few rotten eggs and stones appearing on the capitol grounds as a warning to him, he gave his speech and accepted a second invitation for the next evening from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church. 

In the morning, placards appeared about the town advising "the people generally and ladies in particular not to attend the anti-slavery meeting, as....as the person who is advertised to speak will be prevented by violence if necessary." In the afternoon May received a letter, requesting him to leave town, "without any further attempt to hold forth the absurd doctrine of antislaver." At the appointed hour he mounted the pulpit and started to speak. 

Chaos began at once; May got in some remarks on free speech. When May attempted to speak again, a rush was made for the pulpit to the cry of "throw him over, choke him!" Rioters included several prominent local businessmen who were involved in the Colonization Society.

Frederick Douglass toured Vermont and tells of a speaking tour he made here in 1843:

"Those who only know the State of Vermont as it is today can hardly understand, and must wonder that there was forty years ago a need for anti-slavery effort within its borders....The several towns [we] visited showed that Vermont was surprisingly under the influence of the slave power. Her proud boast that within her borders no slave had ever been delivered up to his master, did not hinder her hatred to anti-slavery." In Middlebury, for example, "the opposition to our anti-slavery convention was intensely bitter and violent....Few people attended our meeting, and apparently little was accomplished. In Ferrisburgh the case was different and more favorable. The way had been prepared for us by such stalwart anti-slavery workers as Orson S. Murray, Charles C. Burleigh, Rowland T. Robinson, and others."

The Meanings of Emancipation

Members of the anti-slavery societies also often disagreed with each other. While some members believed in immediate emancipation (that slaves should all be set free immediately), others believed in gradual emancipation (that slaves should be set free more gradually). The “immediate emancipationists” were much more radical than the “gradual emancipationists.” The Vermont Anti-Slavery Society took the stand that immediate emancipation was the only "effectual remedy for the evil of slavery."

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