New sign honors Cornwall abolitionist William Slade
CORNWALL — A new sign has gone up in the center of Cornwall village.
This particular sign doesn’t order people to stop, but they should — to take a moment to read about one of the town’s most colorful and accomplished historical figures, a man named William Slade (1786-1859). The Middlebury College graduate and ardent abolitionist served his state as governor, congressman, and as a passionate advocate for public education.
Were it not for the efforts of Daniel Bragg and Cornwall Historical Society member Roth “T” Tall, Slade’s considerable contributions to Vermont and the nation might have remained largely hidden to all except archivists and history buffs committed to combing through dusty books.
“It’s a citation that’s long overdue,” Tall said of the Slade historical marker, erected earlier this year at the north end of the Cornwall Town Hall parking lot near the intersections of Routes 30 and 74.
The public showcasing of Slade’s story is a nice story unto itself.
It began in 2016, when Bragg — an East Montpelier resident whose daughter attended Middlebury College — did some reading on Slade and concluded the late lawmaker deserved a permanent, public display that would explain his achievements to future generations.
“The level of dedication that he had, I thought, was very impressive,” Bragg said of Slade. “He was a little irascible at times. His speeches in Congress were very, very strong. And they were some of the strongest anti-slavery speeches in Congress at the time.”
Bragg, 65, (pictured) reached out to State Historic Preservation Officer Laura Trieschmann to get advice on how to pursue the Slade marker. Those who lobby for historical markers must follow some specific steps in order to turn their ideas into signs or monuments. Bragg followed those directions, which included clearing the proposed tribute with Cornwall officials and researching the text (and accuracy thereof) for the Slade sign.
“You needed to have people in Cornwall liking this idea,” Bragg said. “I had to get some allies.”
So he searched online for a contact at the Cornwall Historical Society and began an email exchange with Tall, who knows his community as well as anyone.
Tall’s contributions to the Slade tribute included submitting the proposed sign language to Middlebury College officials for fact checking, and searching for the actual home in which he was raised. Turns out the home no longer exists. Tall and Bragg agreed the town hall parking area would be a more suitable spot for a Slade sign than at the site of his former home, off a busy stretch of Route 30.
Bragg devoured all the information he could find about Slade, and was surprised to see a fairly modest paper trail that didn’t seem to measure up to his body of work.
Here’s a quick bio: Slade was born in Cornwall, on May 9, 1786, the son of William Slade and Rebecca Plumb. He attended local schools and was a member of the Middlebury College class of 1807. He studied law in Middlebury with Joel Doolittle and was admitted to the bar in 1810 — the same year he married Abigail Foot. The couple would have eight children.
Slade established and edited the Columbian Patriot from 1814 to 1816 and maintained a local bookstore and printing office. He served as Vermont Secretary of State from 1815 to 1822, Addison County Court judge from 1816 to 1822, and as clerk in the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., from 1823 to 1829.
Slade served in the U.S. House from 1831-1843, first elected as an Anti-Masonic Party candidate to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Rep. Rollin C. Mallary. He later switched his allegiance to the Whig Party.
Like many other lawmakers from the North, Slade disdained slavery and was outspoken in his opposition. He was an abolitionist and joined John Quincy Adams’ protest of a “gag rule” enacted in 1836 that Southern lawmakers successfully employed to table anti-slavery petitions. Congress would repeal that gag rule in 1844.
After leaving office, Slade became corresponding secretary of the Board of National Popular Education from 1846 to 1859, which he co-founded with Catharine Beecher. The board worked to place women teachers in schools in western United States.
Slade died in Middlebury on Jan. 18, 1859, and is interred at West Cemetery.
Bragg crafted his proposed sign language and sent it to Trieschmann, of state historical preservation. Together with Tall, they vetted the text to make sure it was factually and grammatically correct.
“For the most part, it turned out pretty well,” Bragg said of the sign text. “You’re limited to a certain number of words, and I always want a lot.”
One side of the sign honors Slade, while the other explains the gag rule.
The symbolic nod to Slade was put up without fanfare.
“We had talked about having a dedication for it, but I got busy with my own personal life and couldn’t organize it,” Bragg said. “I would still like to see something happen there … It should happen.”
This isn’t the first time Bragg has pursued recognition for a fellow Vermonter, nor is it likely to be the last.
During the past five years he has successfully collaborated with state officials on historic markers for both William Upham (in Montpelier) and Clarence W. Fitch (in Adamant).
Upham was a former U.S. Senator and, like Slade, a staunch abolitionist. He served in the Senate from 1843-1853.
Fitch, born in 1875 in East Montpelier, was a leader of the cooperative movement of the mid-20th century, when rural families banded together to create social and cultural organizations for the benefit of their communities. He founded the first credit union in the state, and served as president of the Grand City Cooperative Creamery, the Washington Electric Cooperative, the Vermont Credit Union, the Vermont Credit Union League, and the Adamant Cooperative Store.
Bragg called Slade, Upham and Fitch “the tip of the iceberg,” in terms of the total number of Vermonters deserving markers for their contributions to government, humanity and education.
“I’m really into popularizing Vermont’s legacy,” Bragg said. “We don’t get enough credit or take enough credit, and I think some great things have been done here. It’s really bad we tend to forget these people who made huge sacrifices.”
Historic preservation officials are happy to consider — and finance — markers pitched by Bragg and others. It’s another way of instilling pride in, and awareness of, Vermont’s storied past.
“The people in the Division of Historic Preservation really want the average person on the street to invest in these things,” Bragg said. “They want to hear from people what they think should be commemorated. The program is dependent on ordinary people making a contribution.”
While his everyday travels don’t take him through Cornwall, Bragg knows many will learn the fruits of his labor.
“I feel super-gratified that someone who did so many different cool things is going to be recognized by anyone who drives by and stops to take a look,” Bragg said. “It’s a pretty easy way to communicate.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].