“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Friday, August 17, 2012

In Person: Progressive Movements and the Vermont Way

An Evening of Green Mountain History with Greg Guma

Wednesday, Aug. 29, 7:00 p.m.
Vermont History Center, 60 Washington Street, Barre, VT 05641

Anticipating a recreation of Teddy Roosevelt 1912 visit to Vermont during his Progressive Party run for president, writer, editor, historian, activist and progressive manager Greg Guma comes to the Vermont History Center in Barre with an evening of stories and thoughts about the evolving nature of progressive politics in Vermont. Including a preview from the upcoming multi-part documentary, The Vermont Movie, and also:
     * How the Anti-Masons briefly took the state
     * Burlington’s first progressive mayor and an early fusion movement
     * Progressive Republicans in the 1930 and 40s
     * Phil Hoff’s Democratic breakthrough and civil rights fights 
     * Why the Green Mountain Parkway never happened
     * Speaking truth to McCarthy-ism
     * Plus, the rise of Bernie Sanders

For more information, please contact 
Tess Taylor, tess.taylor@state.vt.us 
(802) 479-8505 
or visit the Vermont Historical Society website. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Road from Republic to State

After 14 years as an independent republic Vermont became the 14th U.S. state and officially entered the union on March 4, 1791.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movements, Greg Guma's forthcoming study of the state’s evolution and influence. 

Vermont emerged from the American Revolution in the best economic condition of any former colony. It had no state debts, and since the Continental Congress had refused to admit it as a member state, no responsibility for the national debt.

Its currency was relatively strong and a stream of settlers had begun to arrive. The estimated population jumped from around 20,000 in 1776 to 85,000 when a census was taken 15 years later. After issuing its own Declaration of Independence and holding a Constitutional Convention the independent state had held elections and begun to call itself the Republic of Vermont in early 1778.

In the western region, where the Allen family held the greatest sway, commercial ties were pursued with Quebec. Timber, potash and meat went through the Richelieu rapids to Canadian markets. On the eastern side people shipped their goods south, down the Connecticut River to the American states.

With land as a foundation the Allen family essentially ran the new republic through their agent Thomas Chittenden, who became the Vermont’s first governor long before it joined the United States.

A farmer and land speculator, possibly the first settler of what became Williston, Chittenden launched the Onion River Company with three Allen brothers. Many people resented their grip on the state. But Chittenden was popular with the voters, a practical leader who successfully balanced the factions groping for influence during negotiations with the British and the new Congress.

Despite his political gifts, however, repeated attempts to send delegates to the Continental Congress during the revolution were rebuffed. In fact, delegates were treated downright shabbily and felt they were forced to fight their neighbors as well as their enemies.

Letters from Chittenden to George Washington professed loyalty to the revolution. But they also made it clear that Vermont would side with England rather than be swallowed up. Disappointed with treatment by both sides in the conflict, state government eventually called Vermont’s soldiers home, and the independent republic adopted a stance of neutrality while leading citizens continued to negotiate for permanent sovereignty.

In 1783 American and British representatives signed the Treaty of Paris. The map accompanying the agreement indicated that Vermont was outside the protective boundary of Britain’s Canada. On the other hand, it wasn’t obligated to join the American states.

The Allens wanted to continue building commercial ties with Quebec. But economic interests in the east and southwest had different ideas. This group of land speculators, merchants, lawyers, and “Yorkers” began to openly challenge the state’s leading family and their hand-picked governor. To be blunt, outside interests wanted a greater share of Vermont’s land and resources for themselves. Rebellion and competition wore away at the Allens’ influence and holdings for years after independence was won.

Farmers and workers had their own concerns. They complained, for example, that Vermont had to many merchants, who were draining the region’s wealth. Many also opposed the harsh tactics used by lawyers and sheriffs to foreclose on settlers. Through calculated, expensive legal proceedings encouraged by the state government, poor people were being forced deeper into debt.

Merchants and land speculators were doing well, but others were hit hard in a post-revolutionary depression. In response, some inhabitants returned to combat, confronting their new rulers just as they had previous feudal overseers.

One memorable incident was the October 1783 raid on a creditor’s house in which a group of Bennington settlers seized notes, obligations and bonds. In November 1786 another band tried to close the courts of Windsor and Rutland counties, mainly in order to prevent lawsuits from moving forward.

The state also experienced its first Watergate-style scandal: Ira Allen was caught with his hand in the till. He had secured ownership of the Town of Woodbridge – now called Highgate – as a favor from Governor Chittenden. In 1789 the state Assembly investigated.

The outcome: Ira lost much of his influence, and Chittenden lost his first election in ten years. He was back in power a year later, however, and remained in office until shortly before his death in 1797.

The Jeffersonian wing of Vermont’s new power structure, originally led by the Allens, was weakened by such controversies. Leaders from other parts of the state meanwhile began to assert more influence. This shift was accompanied by a renewed move toward statehood.

New York needed more political allies in Congress, particularly in the Senate, and approached the Republic of Vermont. Once former enemies worked out mutually advantageous reasons to drop their past disputes and become friends, winning support from the US Congress didn’t turn out to be a problem.  

On January 10, 1791, the Vermont Convention on Ratification of the Constitution voted yes. Five weeks later, on February 18, the US Congress agreed to admit the region. The independent Republic of Vermont became the 14th US state and officially entered the union on March 4, 1791.

At this point there were 85,539 people living in 185 towns, according to a general census. Some leaders tried to stack the electoral deck, pushing unsuccessfully to restrict voting rights to property owners. But as Andrew and Edith Nuquist put it in Vermont State Government and Administration, “The inhabitants of Vermont were restless spirits who, having escaped from their former confines, were more than willing to try new ideas and to rebel at restraints normally imposed by society.”

Ethan Allen eventually settled in Burlington and passed away in 1789. His brothers Ira, Levi and Ebenezer, the last of whom resettled in Quebec, continued to look for economic opportunities. A timber deal with Canada proved disastrous, however, and Ira’s dream of a canal around the Richelieu rapids led to a personally damaging international incident.

In 1795, Ira Allen went to London to secure support for the canal plan. The point of the project, at this point, was to improve his commercial position and help Britain defend Canada from France. But Allen was frustrated at the lukewarm response he received.

He was also in need of money and moved on to Paris to purchase some guns, ostensibly for the state militia back home. Records suggest he actually cut a deal with the French to help bring the recent revolution there to Canada. 

Caught at sea by the British, Ira returned to France to obtain proof of his intentions. But the French also doubted his loyalty and threw him in jail for a year. When he finally returned to Vermont he was a broken man, outcast and in serious debt.

Ira Allen deeded his last property to his brother Heman in 1803, and then fled the state to avoid imprisonment. In 1814 he died a pauper in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Local control, short terms and Vermont's citizen legislature

Ethan Allen, the unpredictable frontier rebel who rallied resistance during the revolution era, has exerted a powerful influence over Vermont’s image as a refuge for rugged individualists and defiant outsiders. Both the true and mythical aspects of his story have helped ingrain an affinity with rebels and independent thinkers.

House Chamber
Nevertheless, the political values that have more consistently influenced the state are accountability, local control and autonomy. Frequently crossing party lines, they have persisted from the time in which Vermont was known as reliably Republican, a place where not even FDR could win an election, to the decades since 1988, when Vermonters have voted for every Democratic presidential candidate.

Beneath the differing political labels is a common approach to governance. The state’s administrative structure is relatively centralized, but government has remained more accountable than most through the retention of short terms of office, a citizen legislature, and the pull of local control. 

Localism is a long cherished value. Even when Gov. Deane Davis, a Nixon Republican, backed a state land use law in the late 1960s, he felt the need to call it “creative localism.” Town Meeting has a powerful enduring influence, both practical and symbolic. As a last vestige of direct democracy, it holds out hope that self-government remains possible in the age of powerful administrative states. The stakes may be overstated at time, but the use of this forum – in some cases the only one available – can be a form of self-empowerment reminiscent of the early Jeffersonian impulse.

With Vermont’s “citizen legislature” meeting four days a week for up to five months, House and Senate members can still return to other work. Due to the state’s size, many of them can also drive home at night during sessions. The pay is modest, but the State House functions much like a graduate school for motivated students. Some are in training for higher office. Most stay in touch with their home base.

Nevertheless, political leaders have frequently advocated a proposal bound to alter the dynamic: a constitutional amendment to extend the terms of some or all statewide offices to four years. In the late 1950s a Commission to Study State Government – known as the “Little Hoover Commission” for its similarity to a federal effort in the 1940s led by the former president – concluded that forcing candidates to campaign for re-election so often was a waste of money and detrimental to the state’s welfare.

The necessary amendment failed in the legislature, but was brought back repeatedly over the next decades. In 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal, it was voted down on Town Meeting Day.

Governor Snelling recommended four-year terms for the governor and lieutenant governor “as a team” in his 1983 inaugural address. His rationale was that the “structure and complexity of our society and the value of experienced administrative leadership” had both increased.

Many democratic and Republican leaders supported the idea, including all eight former Vermont governors still alive at the time. Supporters of longer terms frequently cited the increased expense of campaigns and the need for more continuity in program implementation.

The opposition was diverse and unusual, however, ranging from Secretary of State James Guest, a Democrat, and Senate Government Operations Chair Bill Doyle, a Republican, to UVM professor Frank Bryan and anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin. Once more the proposal, which would have required approval in two consecutive sessions and voter acceptance in a referendum, failed to make it out of the legislature.

Most other states extended terms of office long ago. Beyond a suspicion of politicians and the power of Vermont traditions, another reason that hasn’t happened in Vermont can be traced back to the last of the conventions called by the old Council of Censors.

When terms of office were doubled to two years in 1870, the amendment process was also changed. The legislature would henceforth initiate any constitutional innovations, but only once every ten years. This “time lock” provision was later shortened to five year intervals, but has remained a deterrent to rapid changes in the structure and processes of government.
Vermont doesn’t have a provision for referendum by public petition. In 1890, legislation approved the printing of Australian ballots by state government to be used at town meetings.  Since then, the state has continued to influence the nature of local politics. Lawmakers can request endorsement of a decision in a Town Meeting referendum, for example.  Exercising the authority to seek local opinion led to the enactment of the “local option” for alcohol in 1902, and to the defeat of the proposed Green Mountain Parkway in 1936.

Burlington's City Council in session.

These political traditions – local control, short terms and a citizen legislature – as well as small-scale, decentralist impulses, reflect Vermont’s fundamental commitment to individual autonomy. The original Greek idea is self-rule. Valued for its contribution to the search for truth and the functioning of a self-governing society, autonomy involves making conscious choices. Without this basic form of self-management democracy can’t succeed.

According to libertarian philosopher Murray Bookchin, who lived in Vermont for decades, Self-rule also applies to society as a whole. “Self-management is the management of villages, neighborhoods, towns, and cities,” he wrote. “The technical sphere of life is conspicuously secondary to the social. In the two revolutions that open the modern era of secular politics – the American and French – self-management emerges in the libertarian town meetings that swept from Boston to Charleston and the popular sections that assembled in Parisian quatiers."

Total individual autonomy can be an illusion. Whether acknowledged or not, all humans are influenced by social needs and impulses, cultural norms and values. But fundamentally, autonomy is a powerful aspiration that pulls human beings toward self-sufficiency, moral courage and personal development. It is the basic quest for identity, the search for self-actualization studied and debated by psychologists, theologians and social theorists.

In Vermont, this quest underpinned the struggles of early settlers against outside control during the revolutionary era. Active dissent began when they organized to declare themselves free of British rule and exploitation by land speculators. Since then, an instinctive preference for autonomy has fueled numerous Vermont campaigns of resistance and direct, sometimes dramatic challenges to state and federal overreach.