Vermonters Re-enact Constitutional Convention

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(Host) Two Hundred-twenty five years ago today, Vermont’s constitution was adopted by a group of delegates meeting in Windsor. It’s a landmark document. Vermont’s was the first state constitution to prohibit adulthood slavery. It was also the first to eliminate the property ownership requirement for voting or holding elective office. Last weekend, the Secretary of State’s Office invited Vermonters to play the part of the document’s authors and consider what changes might be made to Vermont’s original constitution.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Outside the Old South Church in Windsor, it was July, 2002. Inside, it was an historic moment two and a quarter centuries earlier.

(Moderator) “The date is July 8, 1777. And if you can remember anything after that date, I ask you now to remove it from your minds. I’m asking you to put yourself in the mindset of a delegate to the 1777 Vermont Constitution.”

(Zind) About two dozen people gathered in Windsor to assume the role of Vermont’s founders in a reenactment of the constitutional convention. It was designed to give people a taste of what it was like to draft a constitution. A few dramatic touches added to the authenticity of the occasion. On July 8, 1777, the future of the nation and Vermont’s place in it was uncertain.

(Moderator) “Oh my, it seems Ticonderoga has fallen! The British are on the march!”

(Zind) The participants were asked to consider a number of changes and additions to the work of the founders. Vermont’s original Constitution gives the state the power to seize private property by eminent domain. These modern day delegates debated extending that power to include regulating water, soil and air quality and protecting Vermont’s aesthetic beauty. Unlike the original delegates, this group seemed to have an uncanny ability to predict the post-1777 future:

(Delegate) “What if, in some day in the future, when transportation has improved, the citizens of, say, Boston would come to Vermont in the summer to escape the pestilence of the city and decide that raising cattle or sheep on the farm next to their new home is not an aesthetic use of the property?”

(Zind) Despite those concerns, the winning side argued that the state is capable of making sensible decisions without trampling on the rights of property owners.

(Delegate) “This is not the science of hot air balloons! It is something that we can know in our good common Vermont sense as to whether or not we are affecting the land.”

(Zind) A statewide school funding provision that anticipates today’s Act 60, won approval with surprisingly little debate.

(Delegate) “Every citizen of the Republic of Vermont should be honored and pleased to contribute to the education of all the children of our state.”

(Zind) The original Vermont Constitution created only a single-chamber Legislature, made up of representatives from each town. The mock delegates debated whether there should also be a Senate made of up representatives from a broader geographic area:

(Delegate) “My esteemed colleague from Windsor mentioned the concept of a hot air balloon. It is my opinion that this Senate would be a source of fuel for this balloon!”

(Zind) In the end, each of the proposed changes was approved. There is no way to know if the original delegates debated these matters. No minutes exist from Vermont’s Constitutional Convention. But participants in the reenactment say they got a sense of what the process must have been like. These modern day delegates also seemed to capture something close to the spirit of their historic counterparts. Differences were set aside and Vermonters united to form a new republic:

(Moderator) “All in favor, signify by saying ‘aye.'” (Sounds of ayes.) “Opposed? The ayes have it. Congratulations! Hail to Vermont!” (Sound of applause.)

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Windsor.

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