(HOST) For historian and commentator Howard Coffin, New Year’s Day marks a significant anniversary in American civil rights, and reminds him of the role Vermonters played in securing them.
(COFFIN) New Year’s Day, in America, is a day when human freedom should be celebrated. On the first day of the year 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln had issued after the victory at Antietam took effect. American slavery thus was doomed.
Now, I love research. I particularly enjoy searching through Civil War documents in some Vermont archive where at any moment I may discover some remarkable surprise that will make its way into a book.
Middlebury’s Sheldon Museum is a favorite haunt, a bright, well organized repository with a deep collection, overseen by enthusiastic experts. One recent day as I turned the pages of the 1863 Middlebury Register newspaper, the museum’s Susan Peden interrupted, handing me an old printed document with some signatures at the bottom. Lo and behold, it was the constitution of the Addison County Antislavery Society.
Vermont’s anti-slavery activity in the three decades before the Civil War has become a particular interest of mine. And here was the document that, officially, got it all going in Addison County on a winter day in 1843. The constitution’s first article stated, "The system of slavery, which exists in this country, is sinful-a daring violation of the law of God and the principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence…" Among the signers were Rachael and Rowland Robinson, the Quaker abolitionists whose Ferrisburg home was an underground railroad stop. The abolitionist preacher Oliver Johnson also signed.
Subsequent research revealed that the new society’s members gathered that night at the Middlebury Congregational Church and closed with a hymn written by Johnson.
Let us now the time redeeming,
Press the helpless captive’s claim
He shall cast aside his chain.
The next time the society met, a letter was read from the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who in 1828 had published an anti-slavery newspaper in Bennington. Garrison wrote, "Almost my first efforts in the universal emancipation – were made in Vermont – It was a suitable place, of all others the best chosen to plant the standard upon the summit of her green mountains and blow the trumpet of liberty through all her valleys."
The Civil War, when the Addison anti-slavery folks organized, was a score of years away. Did what was taking place up in little Vermont have any effect on the slaveholding states, half a thousand miles and more away? Well, the Georgia Legislature got wind. Hearing of such antislavery activity it determined that "a sufficient number of Irishmen ought to be employed to dig a ditch around the limits of Vermont and float the thing into the Atlantic."
The Georgians well understood thatthe great issue was being joined to the North and that a battlecry of freedom was sounding ever louder.
Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the civil war.