Database Reveals Vermont Congressman Was a Slave Owner | Off Message

Database Reveals Vermont Congressman Was a Slave Owner


Matthew Lyon's portrait in the Vermont Statehouse - JEB WALLACE BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace Brodeur
  • Matthew Lyon's portrait in the Vermont Statehouse
Matthew Lyon fought in the Battle of Bennington during the Revolutionary War. He founded the Town of Fair Haven, whose post office is named after him.
And he championed free speech, winning reelection to Congress from the Vergennes jail cell where he was imprisoned for criticizing President John Adams.

The businessman, soldier, printer and newspaper publisher was also a slaveholder.

Census records from 1810 show that after moving from Vermont to Kentucky, Lyon owned 10 slaves, a fact that complicates his legacy and calls into question whether his portrait ought to continue hanging in the Statehouse.

“He was quite a rabble rouser,” said Paul Carnahan, a librarian at the Vermont Historical Society. “I wouldn’t put it past to him to own slaves.”

Lyon’s history as slaveholder came to light this week when the Washington Post published a database listing more than 1,700 members of Congress known to have owned slaves. The paper built the database by examining thousands of pages of Census records for all known members of Congress during the 18th and 19th centuries, and reviewed other records, too.

Post journalists undertook the enormous project to better understand the links between slavery and political power in early America — and how that history shapes debates about racial inequities today.

The effort is a work in progress. The Post has asked for the public’s help in updating the database with relevant information. It couldn't determine whether 677 members of Congress owned slaves or not.

The database, released Monday, initially included Samuel Chandler Crafts, who served in Congress from 1817 to 1825 and as governor from 1828 to 1831. His parents founded the Vermont Town of Craftsbury.

When Seven Days asked questions about Crafts, Carnahan explained that it appeared the Post mistook a slaveholder who was likely Crafts' uncle, Samuel Crafts of Pomfret, Conn., for the Vermonter.

“I’m sure it was just a question of mistaken identity,” Carnahan said.

The Post had relied on Census forms to include Crafts in its database. Post reporter Julie Weil told Seven Days the database would be updated to remove Crafts.

There is little question, however, that Lyon became a slaveholder after moving from Vermont to Kentucky in 1801. Census records do not show any record that he owned slaves while in Vermont, said Stephen Perkins, executive director of the Vermont Historical Society.

Lyon moved to Eddyville, Ky.,  where he also was elected to Congress, serving in from 1803 to 1811. The 1810 census lists him as owning 10 slaves, Perkins said. Lyon moved to Arkansas in 1820, but his son Matthew continued to own slaves in Eddyville through the middle of the 19th century, Perkins said.

The revelation that Lyon owned slaves should absolutely inform conversations about how he is remembered by Vermonters, including whether his portrait should continue to hang in the Statehouse, said Vermont state curator David Schutz. The portrait hangs on the first floor east hallway, outside the Senate Natural Resources and Energy committee room.

The image is “a little bit strange” because it was commissioned in the 1940s by an admirer and painted by an artist with limited source material, Schutz said.

“It’s also a little unusual to have a figure like Matthew Lyon in the Statehouse because he never served in the Statehouse,” Schutz said.

Vermont was already in the midst of rethinking whose portraits should hang in the building following criticism that its walls are dominated by images of governors who are almost exclusively white men. Portraits of three women lieutenant governors are scheduled to be unveiled at the Statehouse on January 12. 

“We are asking tough questions for the first time about who should be in the Statehouse,” Schutz said.

Public hearings on the Statehouse's new interpretive plan are expected to take place this winter.

Schutz noted that a portrait of Alexander Twilight, the first person of African descent to serve in a statehouse in America, will soon be unveiled at the Vermont Statehouse. Twilight, a Middlebury College graduate, was elected in 1836 to the Vermont House of Representatives, but it is unclear if his African lineage was public knowledge at the time, Schutz said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced the bill that got the Fair Haven post office named after Lyon in 2006, and Schutz said Sanders even wanted him on a stamp. Sanders' office did not respond to a request for comment.

The new information about Lyon illustrates how nuanced the study of history is and how important it is for society to continually study it.  Lyon immigrated to Connecticut from Ireland as an indentured servant, raising interesting questions about his later ownership of slaves, Schutz said.

Vermonters tend to focus on the state's role in the abolitionist movement and downplay its ties to slavery, and this is an opportunity to take a closer look at that narrative, Schutz said.

“That is what history is — ever-evolving information that is being reevaluated through new lenses," Schutz said. “And those new lenses are examining how we come to terms with our own time.”