More Great Thoughts: Freedom and Unity

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(Host) Sometimes a great Vermont idea is so obvious we run the risk of overlooking it. Here’s commentator Tom Slayton with some thoughts on our Vermont state motto, “Freedom and Unity.”

(Slayton) It’s generally believed that “Freedom and Unity,” the Vermont state motto, was coined by Ira Allen, though nobody knows for sure. It turns up first on the Vermont State Seal, which Allen designed, but nowhere does Allen – a man not known for shrinking modesty – take credit for it.

Later, it was engraved on the tombstone of Vermont’s first governor, Thomas Chittenden, which gives him a second-best claim as author. Chittenden, Ira Allen, and his more famous brother, Ethan, were all instrumental in founding Vermont.

“Out of storm and manifold perils arose an enduring state, the home of Freedom and Unity,” says the Chittenden epitaph. If you were especially proud of a phrase, wouldn’t you put it on your tombstone?

Chittenden died some years after the design of the state seal – so Ira Allen still has the first, best claim to authorship of the catchphrase. Yet no one is really sure.

Perhaps it’s just as well. Whoever gets the credit, it’s a perfect motto for Vermont and a great Vermont idea – as evidence its recent use as the title for the new history of Vermont, and the almost-as-new permanent exhibit of state history run by the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier. Both aim at summarizing our state’s experience and both use as their titles that encapsulating phrase, “Freedom and Unity.”

It still epitomizes much of our experience as a state and a people because it sums up neatly the balance that has existed here for years between Vermont’s well-known affection for personal independence – Freedom – and our equally strong respect for community values – Unity.

That, at least, is my favorite interpretation of the phrase, and it seems to be the prevailing one.

Yet it is possible that the founders of Vermont may have had a different meaning in mind. They might have been referring to Vermont’s desired future as one of the new United States.

Remember that Vermont was an independent republic from 1777 until we finally became the 14th state in 1791. Some romanticize our 14 years as a small country, saying they show how unusual Vermont was. Other historians believe that Vermont’s leaders never took the Republic concept seriously – that they were simply angling for statehood all along and forming a Republic was one way to push for inclusion in the United States.

Thus it could be argued that “Freedom and Unity” was a subtle advertisement for joining the union since it proclaimed that Vermont could maintain its own political freedom, and yet achieve unity with the other 13 states.

These are the sorts of questions that historians found doctoral theses and careers on. Whatever your interpretation, “Freedom and Unity” remains a great Vermont idea because it so aptly summarizes the balance that living in a small, rural state like Vermont demands.

If Freedom and independence is one side of the Vermont coin, then unity and interdependence is the other. To understand life in this small state, you have to know both.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life Magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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