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

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.