The phrase “civil twilight” is a scientific designation, referring to the period after sunset or before sunrise, ending or beginning when the sun is about six degrees below the horizon.
On clear days, during civil twilight, there is still enough light for ordinary activities to take place outside and only the brightest stars are visible in the sky. It is a time of transition, filled with beauty and possibility. Yet, “civil” is also a term referring to citizens and their concerns. And it is in this sense that “civil Twilight” recalls the remarkable life of Alexander Lucius Twilight—the first African American to be elected to any U.S. legislature.
Over six weeks, beginning Oct. 15, 1836, Twilight represented the town of Brownington in the Vermont General Assembly held in Montpelier. Issues before the assembly during the legislative session included the creation of a poor house in one of the counties, an act to increase the bounty on wolves, penalties for capital crimes, and proposed regulations governing the militia of Vermont. Twilight’s primary goal as a legislator was to argue against a law allowing land rents that supported the Orleans County Grammar School to be split to create a new school in Craftsbury. He was convinced that one good school would be better than two mediocre schools, which he feared would be a consequence of the legislation. Though the legislation was approved, despite Twilight’s best efforts, his presence was groundbreaking.
Issues at the center of the national presidential election that same year, in which Democrat Martin Van Buren— President Andrew Jackson’s hand-picked successor— defeated several Whig Party candidates led by William Henry Harrison, highlight the broader political climate in which Twilight took up his leadership role as a public servant. Twilight’s election as America’s first Black legislator coincided with the U.S. House of Representatives, as part of the meetings of the 24th Congress, passing a “gag rule” prohibiting the House from considering anti-slavery petitions. The gag rule was a direct response to the growing influence of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which flooded Congress with anti-slavery petitions. The result of the gag order was that all petitions, memorials, or resolutions related to slavery were automatically tabled and no further discussion or action could be taken on them. Representative and former president John Quincy Adams worked tirelessly against the gag rule because it violated the Constitution. He finally succeeded in having the law repealed on December 3, 1844.
While Twilight commented on the evils of slavery in some of his sermons, he did not take a public stance in his political life against slavery or identify as an abolitionist. However, this political backdrop provides important context for fully appreciating Twilight’s impact on history.
Spencer Kuchle is Associate Director for Collections and Interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.