Great thoughts: statesman William Slade

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(Host) The Great thoughts of Vermont commentary series examines how ideas have shaped our state. Commentator Gregory Sanford looks at the forgotten ideas of early Vermont statesman, William Slade.

(Sanford) History has not been kind to William Slade. Born in Cornwall in 1786 and a long time resident of Middlebury, Slade served Vermont as secretary of state, U.S. Congressman, and governor. He was an advocate for temperance, an opponent of slavery, and, for the last fifteen years of his public life, a national spokesman for public education. He was an outspoken champion of the right of petition and of government’s obligation to make accessible the records of its deliberations. And yet today, amidst perceptions that government is becoming less accessible, William Slade is largely forgotten.

From 1830 to 1842, Slade represented Vermont in Congress. At the time, southern representatives and their northern allies were engaged in silencing the growing debate over slavery. They argued that slavery was protected by the Constitution and therefore beyond the reach of Congress. Pro-slavery representatives first moved to have all anti-slavery petitions tabled without debate or action. They then supported gag laws prohibiting Congress from even discussing anti-slavery measures.

William Slade warned his fellow representatives that the free discussion of ideas could not be killed by parliamentary maneuvers: “[W]e must not bury these petitions…such a policy will certainly defeat itself…. [T]he spirit of free enquiry is the master spirit of the age. It bows to the authority of truth and reason and Revelation; but it bows to nothing else. It must have free course, and it will have it…. [I]t shall move onward, and onward, until every kindred and tongue and people under Heaven shall…glory in the truth that ‘all men are created equal.'” When opponents tried to apply the gag rule to Slade he replied that, “You may indeed silence the voice of truth in this hall, but it will be only to give it louder and deeper tones elsewhere.”

Slade’s support for open government extended beyond the right to petition. In 1823, as Vermont’s secretary of state, Slade wrote that “The general diffusion of intelligence constitutes the life of a free government…. Every government…therefore, should place within the reach of the people, a complete history of its own legislation. Without the possession of such a history, and a practical regard to the lessons it inculcates, legislation will be, at best, but a succession of experiments, and, as a necessary consequence, every operation of government will be characterized with instability and a want of wisdom.”

But Slade believed the burden of openness was ours, not government’s. “Called upon to act,” he wrote, citizens “should be accustomed to think; and though they cannot ‘possess’ comprehensive views of other governments, they should, at least, understand their own.”

At a time when we seek balance between security and openness, when we are told policy development is privileged information, it is perhaps appropriate we pause and pay tribute to William Slade and his commitment to open and accessible government.

This is Gregory Sanford from Marshfield, Vermont.

Gregory Sanford is the Vermont state archivist. Learn more about the Great Thoughts of Vermont series and share your comments with other listeners.

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