The Constitution of Vermont was not signed by a colonial legislature, because it did not have one! On July 8, 1777, two delegates from all the 28 towns in Vermont met at Elijah’s West’s Windsor Tavern.
Caption: The building in Windsor where the Vermont Constitution was signed. This picture was taken in the 1870’s, almost 100 years later. (vermonthistory.org)
The Vermont Republic was built on individual freedoms and that is reflected in its 1777 Constitution . The Preamble effectively addressed the right of Vermont citizens to settle the New Hampshire Grants, despite what the Supreme Court ruled (which was New York had the right to the land west of the Connecticut). The constitution echoes the sentiments of the earlier settlers. It makes the case for legitimacy of the New Hampshire Grants through the corruption and tyranny practiced by New York and Great Britain. Declaring the high rent from New York for each township outrageous and therefore void. Most importantly, the Preamble declared all men of the Vermont Republic to be freemen.
The document is one of the shortest declarations ever written, containing two chapters. Chapter 1, titled A Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of the State of Vermont has 19 articles that address personal freedoms guaranteed to the citizens of Vermont. The constitution included many of the First Amendment rights that America enjoys today such as freedom of speech and the right to assemble peacefully. Also included are some other keystone rights such as the freedom of religion (article 3) and the right to bear arms (article 15). It is to be noted that Article 15 gave the right for a individual citizen to bear arms, but restricted the formation of a standing army. The use of militia over a standing army was a liberal principle that guarded against encroachment by government. The history of the Green Mountain Boys is proof of the effectiveness of a good militia. Chapter 2, the Plan or Frame of Government called for higher accountability of government through 44 articles defining how the government would be run. One of the most interesting is article 37, which called for no public tax except for when a law that was passed by the legislature and only if the money would have been more service to the community, if not collected. The basic requirements to tax were stringent in Vermont, purposely opposite of the liberal taxing practiced by New York and England.
Four unique things about the Vermont Constitution:
- It was the first constitution that outlawed slavery (article 1).
- It was the first constitution to have universal male suffrage, meaning that that they gave all freemen over 21 the right to vote (article 6).
- Restriction on taxation (article 37).
- Lastly, Article 17 gives the right of secession to any citizen within the Vermont Republic. This is not found in the United States Constitution, but is presented in the United States Declaration of Independence. Looking back it is clear that the Untied States Government repeatedly ignored this right in fractious times. The best examples being the American South during the Civil War and Texas in 1869 case of Texas v. White . No one ever tried to secede from the Vermont Republic, but in light of its rich history of independence, its values seem to stand towards liberty over solidarity.
The constitution was not entirely unique and was partly based off of Pennsylvania’s Constitution in 1776 (ratified a year earlier). An example of slight differences is universal male suffrage. Pennsylvania almost had universal male suffrage, but it was only for taxpaying citizens . Vermont in contrast gave all freemen the right to vote. These slight differences highlight liberalism in the Vermont constitution that had not been seen before 1777.
- 1777 Constitution, Vermont Secretary of State, accessed April 26, 2017, https://www.sec.state.vt.us/archives-records/state-archives/government-history/vermont-constitutions/1777-constitution.aspx
- See Cornell University of Law: Legal Information Institute, accessed April 26, 2017, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/74/700. Also, see The American Thinker: 10 Years of Thinking, accessed April 26, 2017, http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2013/01/on_secssion.html. Both sources are good reference points for Texas v. White. Both are professional, but The American Thinker provides more discussion on the issue of Texas’s right to secede. What constitutes a state and its ability to secede as presented in this case.
- Constitution of Pennsylvania – September 28, 1776, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, accessed April 26, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pa08.asp. See section 6 for universal male suffrage.