Middlebury to celebrate judge in anti-slavery case
MIDDLEBURY — Thousands of vehicles flirt with Court Square every day as they negotiate its serpentine roundabout. Drivers pausing at the Court Street stoplight at the crest of the square have but a few seconds to admire the lush green park fronting the Middlebury Inn.
Unless you’re a historian or the member of a multi-generational Middlebury family, you wouldn’t know the unassuming park once hosted the first county courthouse, erected in 1796. And even fewer people know that courthouse was where one of the most significant early cases in abolitionist history was dramatically adjudicated, back in 1804.
Presiding at the old Middlebury Courthouse (pictured below) on that historic day was Supreme Court Judge Theophilus Harrington of Clarendon. Appearing before him was a New York slave owner who had brought suit to reclaim a fugitive slave who had been apprehended in Vermont.
To its immense credit, Vermont had in its state Constitution banned the institution of slavery — a first in the country. The first article of that Constitution stated, “All men are born equally free and independent… ”
Still, the slave owner presented Judge Harrington with a bill of sale he argued proved the fugitive was his “property.”
Harrington — a large, imposing adjudicator known for not suffering fools lightly — told the plaintiff his bill of sale was not enough to sway the court in his favor.
So the slave owner — according to historical documents — asked if there was any evidence he could produce to convince the court.
And that’s when things got interesting, according to former Vermont Deputy Secretary of State Paul Gillies, who penned an essay about Judge Harrington titled, “What He Said.”
“Nothing short of a bill of sale signed by God Almighty Himself,” was Harrington’s legendary reply, whereupon the former slave was set free.
Renowned local historian Glenn Andres wants to see Harrington’s powerful words immortalized on the site upon which they were uttered 214 years ago. He asked the Middlebury selectboard on June 12 to endorse a state historic marker for Court Square that would commemorate both the location of the first courthouse and the Harrington ruling of 1804.
“We are already on the state’s African American heritage trail because of Alexander Twilight’s attending the Middlebury College,” Andres noted. “This marker would reinforce the recognition of Middlebury’s role in African American history.”
The selectboard unanimously and enthusiastically gave its consent for the marker, which will now go through a design phase before being fabricated and installed — all at state expense.
Harrington’s famous words in the 1804 ruling have echoed through history in other civil rights decisions. Vermont officials considered placing the quote “Nothing short of a bill of sale signed by God Almighty Himself” on the façade of the state pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At least one source reports that 19th century British abolitionists had the quote engraved on a plaque that was placed in London’s Westminster Abbey.
But Harrington’s quote receded into the obscurity of time during the 20th century, according to Andres, who believes the justice’s delightfully acerbic message of equality should be dusted off for display during the current national climate of political polarization and intolerance.
Andres knows quite a bit about the process of nominating subject matter and sites for historic markers. He recently retired after three decades of service on the Vermont Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, the panel that considers marker applications.
“It struck me that this particular proposal was something that people should know about and something that is much more important and interesting than most of the other historical markers (the state) has been approving,” he said.
Gillies called the approval of the old courthouse/Harrington marker “wonderful news.”
Middlebury Selectman Nick Artim borrowed from Harrington’s own words to reinforce his support of the permanent tribute.
“This is a fantastic story,” he said. “I’m thinking nothing short of something signed by God Almighty himself would keep me from agreeing to something like this.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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