Vermont’s constitutional roots

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton has been thinking a lot about Vermont’s maverick political identity lately, and he has concluded that it is, at least in part, constitutionally based.

(Slayton) The earliest Vermont Constitution, written at Windsor on a rainy June day in 1777, is a remarkable document on many counts, perhaps most of all because it gives us a good look at the priorities and concerns – a look into the minds, really – of the people who founded Vermont.

What the men who wrote the first Vermont Constitution probably wanted most was clear title to their land. It was obvious to them that until they were part of a stable political entity, the deeds to the land they were farming would be meaningless. But they wanted other things as well, idealistic things – that’s clear from the document they put together that June day in 1777.

They started with the most far-sighted and progressive constitution of its day – the Pennsylvania Constitution – and then took it several degrees further, making it a more progressive, even radical document that spoke of their belief in the rights of man and their distrust of governments and kings.

That first Vermont Constitution included three elements that went beyond any governmental document of its day in guranteeing the rights of man. They were: first, an outright ban on human slavery. Second, a guarantee of universal manhood voting rights (that’s male voting rights. Not even Vermont was progressive enough to consider giving women the vote in 1777!) And third, a declaration in favor of local education. A school should be established in every town, says the Constitution “for the convenient instruction of the youth.”

They had recently been oppressed by a king and their homeland was still a war zone, and so those early Vermonters distrusted government. They set up a strong Legislature, but they didn’t want an elite body, so they decided not to create a state Senate. They designed an executive – a governor – that would be relatively weak; no veto. (Both the veto power and the state Senate were added by later, more moderate lawmakers.)

If I had to guess, I’d say the writers of the Vermont Constitution were for their day politically liberal, well-read, and articulate men who believed strongly in human freedom and the power of ideas. They weren’t over-awed by the orthodoxies of the day. Indentured servants may have existed, but the writers of our constituion wanted their opposition to outright slavery known!

And frankly, I think Vermonters today, of most political stripes, are not that much different. The rest of the country sometimes seems not to “get” Vermont, wondering why Vermont seems so unpredictable, so idealistic, even radical, in the face of nationwide conservative trends.

It’s not such a great mystery really. Vermont’s distrust of the orthodoxies of the day, its devotion to an idealistic belief in equal rights and opportunities for all, has been here since our earliest days – since that first Constitution of 1777.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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