Vermont Celebrates 225th Anniversary of Constitution

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Among the new additions as the legislative session gets underway, there’s a modest display in the State House cafeteria. Along one wall, a series of photographs and notes explain how the Vermont Constitution came into being.
This year marks the 225th anniversary of the document that created our state. VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

In the midst of the legislative bustle, the display goes largely unnoticed. But there would be no State House and no Legislature, in fact, no Vermont if it weren’t for the fifty or so delegates who gathered in Windsor 225 years ago. Over the course of seven days, they created a government and wrote a constitution that outlined its principles.

Gregory Sanford is the state archivist. Sanford says the delegates faced an uncertain future when they met in July of 1777. New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts all laid claim to parts of the territory. They effectively prevented Vermont from becoming a state. Denied statehood, Sanford says the delegates forged ahead to create their own republic.

(Sanford) “In doing so, they pushed some of the political understandings of the time to areas that the other states hadn’t. It’s the first state constitution to outlaw adulthood slavery. It’s the first state constitution that eliminates any property qualifications for voting or for office holding.”

Sanford says the delegates may have come from the small farms and towns hacked out of the Vermont wilderness, but they were well equipped to write a constitution.

(Sanford) “They were a fascinating group. George Aiken, who it was my privilege to know and work with for a while, used to celebrate the fact that at the 1777 constitutional convention, there were no lawyers. But these were a combination of people, many of whom were very well read¿ . They were familiar with the work of many of the other states as they crafted their constitutions.”

The Vermont Constitution creates the basic framework for government. It’s the Legislature’s job to formulate laws in accordance with the broad principles the constitution lays out. The Supreme Court acts to check on the Legislature’s powers. James Morse is a Vermont Supreme Court Justice:

(Morse) “The provisions are broad enough to give lawmakers today a sense of the basic principles of our democracy. If it had in it truck weights and speed limits and things like that, it would be a misuse of that fundamental document. I don’t consider it an old document. To me it’s a living document. It’s not outdated and it’s not old-fashioned.”

The framers of Vermont’s Constitution couldn’t anticipate the issues of the modern world. Morse says they wisely stuck to broadly stated principles and left it to the Vermonters of the future to sort out the constitutional answers to current day questions.

(Morse) “It takes a creative process. It isn’t something that you push a button on a computer and out comes an answer. It takes a lot of study and historical analysis to make sense of the intent that is behind the various rights that are spelled out in the Constitution.”

Morse says there’s a new emphasis on the importance of state constitutions. In the last several decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken a “hands-off” approach on some issues and thrown them back to the states to decide.

(Morse) “You can take school funding. I’m not sure of this, but I suppose forty, fifty years ago, no one would think of looking at the state constitutions for law in that respect. So in modern days, state constitutions have become far more relevant to the work of Supreme Courts than they used to be.”

The exhibit marking the 225th anniversary of Vermont’s Constitution will be on display through February in the State House cafeteria.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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