In March 1778, the Vermont legislature was elected and met for the first time. This was significant because no one, not even the other thirteen states, recognized Vermont as an independent state.
I mentioned, almost in passing, back in Episode 131, that Vermont had declared its own independence in January of 1777. The Continental Congress, and just about everyone else outside of Vermont, ignored the declaration.
The main reason for ignoring it was that it was divisive. The Continental Congress was doing everything it could to keep the thirteen states united. It did not want to highlight a matter of local contention between the states.
Vermont Territory Disputed
To explain, why, perhaps a little background would be helpful. In the colonial era, the exact territorial borders of many colonies were ill-defined and sometimes contradictory. New York thought that its eastern border was the Connecticut river. This was based on the original land grant to the Duke of York from the King in 1664.
|Flag of the Vermont Republic
Of course, none of this really mattered until any colonists began to settle in the territory. In the 17th Century, the area was also claimed by France as part of Quebec. The French established Fort Ste. Anne to help secure their claim. The first British settlers in 1724 came from Connecticut.
This disputed inland territory mostly remained the home of Native Americans until after the French and Indian War. Then, at the end of that war in 1763, there were an estimated 300 colonists living in the region. Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire began selling land grants to colonists shortly after King George II’s decree of 1740. Land speculators purchased land, but did not really settle in the area until after the French and Indian War.
In the 1760’s, settlement really began in earnest as thousands of New England colonists moved into the area holding New Hampshire land grants that they had purchased. This greatly concerned New York, which still believed it controlled the area and had a number of wealthy and influential land owners with New York claims to the same land.
|Charter to Duke of York
New York took the ruling to mean that the Privy Council confirmed that they had always controlled the region and that the New Hampshire land grants were null and void. It began selling more land to New York speculators and evicting settlers with New Hampshire grants as squatters. In 1767, the Privy Council issued another ruling stating that it had not nullified all the New Hampshire grants and that New York could not just resell people’s farms to others.
New York continued to try to enforce its land claims and ignored those of New Hampshire. It attempted to evict settlers and settle new communities holding New York claims. The settlers with New Hampshire grants resisted, giving rise to the Green Mountain Boys. I discussed this in more detail back in Episode 38.
After the outbreak of war in 1775, the New Hampshire grant-holders in the disputed land tended to flock to the patriot side and seized Fort Ticonderoga under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. New York land claimants tended to be loyalists. Thus the fight over the land became part of the Revolutionary war.
The patriots, in January 1777, met in the village of Westminster to declare that the disputed territory was neither part of New Hampshire nor New York but was its own new territory known as New Connecticut. This new territory would respect New Hampshire land grant claims, but going forward would be entirely independent of either state.
No one paid much attention at the time since the war with Britain was the focus for everyone. Later that same year, on June 2, delegates met again in Westminster. They changed the name from New Connecticut to Vermont, using a derivation for the French words for “green mountain”. They then agreed to meet again on July 4. On that first anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence, the delegates agreed to draft a constitution, which they adopted four days later on July 8, 1777.
The independence movement was a group project, with no one person to be credited as the father of Vermont. However, I want to highlight a couple of key figures in Vermont’s birth. One was a man who did not even live in the area.
Dr. Thomas Young was born in New York. He was the son of Irish immigrants. He studied medicine and began a career as a physician. In some ways he was a radical product of his era. He was known for his deism, rejecting much of the traditional religions of the day in favor of rationalism. He was also a longtime proponent of land justice. One of his big issues had to do with the way elites controlled the masses through the control of land. His Irish roots probably had a lot to do with that. British law controlled who could or could not own land in Ireland, ensuring that the Protestant elite held economic power over their Catholic tenant farmers.
I’m not sure if it was because of this publication, but shortly after this, Young left New York for Boston. There, he was a member of the Sons of Liberty and a leading member of the radical committee of correspondence. He became good friends with Samuel Adams and was an early radical leader of the patriot cause.
Many believe Young was a key organizer of the Boston Tea Party. However, like many leaders, he created an alibi for himself during the actual destruction of the tea. At the time, he was giving a lecture at the Old South Meeting House on the bad health effects of drinking tea. It was important for known radical leaders to have alibis during the actual destruction of the tea so that officials did not try to prosecute them for participation in that crime.
Even so, as tensions in Boston grew following the Tea Party, threats on radical leaders grew. A few months later, in 1774, Young was attacked on the street, allegedly by British soldiers, and left for dead. He survived, and shortly afterward, fled to Rhode Island and eventually settled in Philadelphia.
Although he only arrived in Philadelphia in 1775, Young involved himself immediately in the radical politics of the city. He participated in the efforts that year to throw out the old colonial legislature and replace it with a new one, along with a new radical state constitution.
In April of 1777, Young wrote an open letter addressed to the inhabitants of Vermont which is generally credited with inspiring the patriot committee to change the name of their state from New Connecticut to Vermont. The letter also encouraged them to draw heavily on the radical Pennsylvania Constitution when creating their own. He enclosed a copy of Pennsylvania’s constitution with his letter.
The Vermont Constitution was very much caught up in the patriot ideology of the day. It was one of the most radical of its time. Much of it was taken from the radical Pennsylvania Constitution, but in some ways it was even more radical.
It also borrowed from the Declaration of Independence, stating
THAT all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
The Vermont Constitution explicitly banned adult slavery. It granted the right to vote with no property requirements. A man who was 21 or older could vote if they lived in the state for one year and took an oath to vote according to his conscience. It even set up a system of public schools. It followed the unique Pennsylvania model of creating a legislature with only one house. It also dispersed executive power to a governor and council.
The problem was that neither New York, New Hampshire, Britain, nor the Continental Congress recognized Vermont’s declaration of independence nor its constitution. On January 20, 1777, less than a week after the state declared itself independent, the President of the New York Convention warned the Continental Congress that it would not accept the dismemberment of its state. Any attempt to recognize Vermont would result in New York leaving the Continental Congress and end New York’s support for the Congress. New York already had a pretty sizable loyalist population. This action could very well push New York back into the loyalist camp and have them throw their support behind the British army in Canada.
The last thing Congress wanted was to create this kind of internal dissension while they were in the middle of the war with Britain. As a result, everyone outside of Vermont refused to recognize Vermont. Congress dismissed the petition for recognition in June 1777 and made clear that they were not in any way in favor of a new independent state of Vermont.
Around this same time, the Vermont delegates were writing their constitution. Also, General Burgoyne’s army was capturing Fort Ticonderoga and marching his soldiers along what Vermonters claimed was their western border. They continued to press on with the creation of their new government despite the imminent military threat from invading armies.
While combating the British, the other states simply ignored the new Vermont government. New Hampshire General John Stark formed his militia army and marched through Vermont to fight the Battle of Bennington on the authority of the New Hampshire legislature. Many in Vermont joined in this fight, but not under any color of the Vermont legislature. Whatever claims politicians were making in Westminster were largely ignored as the war swept through the land.
Even so, Vermont continued its efforts to establish self-government. Based on the 1777 Constitution, the people held elections and seated their first legislature in March 1778. They elected Thomas Chittenden as their first governor.
Thomas Chittenden was born in Salisbury Connecticut. He lived most of his life there, serving as a justice of the peace, a member of the colonial assembly, and a colonel in the colonial militia. He moved to what would become Vermont in 1774, at the age of 44. By this time, his children had already grown to adulthood. Even so, Chittenden purchased his property from the owner of a New Hampshire land grant and moved to start a new life in Vermont with his adult children.
He and a friend purchased a large tract of land to be settled by their families. They moved to the wilderness area along the Onion River (today called the Winooski River) where they set about building a house and clearing the land. Chittenden established himself as a community leader.
In September 1776, Chittenden met with other leaders at Dorset to discuss the idea of Vermont independence. This led to the January 1777 declaration and the June 1777 constitution. Chittenden, as the leading political advocate, became the state’s first governor in March 1778. Chittenden would prove highly popular and would be reelected to consecutive one-year terms for more than a decade. After a short break, he would also serve as Governor for a few more years after Vermont joined the Union.
I also can’t complete an episode on the founding of Vermont without at least mentioning Ira Allen, sometimes called the founder of Vermont. Ira Allen was the younger brother of Ethan Allen. He joined his brother in the New Hampshire Grants in 1770 and fought with the Green Mountain Boys. He participated in the attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and at the siege of Quebec.
Allen became one of the leading advocates for Vermont independence. When, in May 1776, the Continental Congress advocated for states to form their own governments because the royal governments had failed to protect the interests of the people, Allen used that same logic to argue that New York had failed to protect the interests of the people of the Grants. Therefore, they were entitled to set up a new government that would protect those interests. Although Congress never intended for Vermont to set up its own government, Allen effectively used Congress’ resolutions to convince his neighbors that Congress would be supportive of this effort at self-government. It helped to convince people to support the movement. Of course the fact that New York’s new constitution reaffirmed its land claims in Vermont and the application of quitrents on those living there also affirmed the desire of many to declare independence from New York.
With Burgoyne’s invasion, Allen worked to coordinate defenses, mostly with New Hampshire and General Stark. He did what he could do to assist with men and supplies, even though his position was given no formal recognition by other state leaders. Following the first state election in 1778, Allen served as state treasurer. The state got most of its revenue by seizing the property of loyalists and selling it at auction.
Allen would continue to serve Vermont in a variety of ways in the following years, efforts that will have to be the topic of future episodes.
New Hampshire Secession
Vermont officials fighting for their recognition as an independent republic would go on for years. It was not just New York that opposed this. In the summer of 1778, sixteen towns on the eastern side of the Connecticut River in New Hampshire voted to secede from New Hampshire and join the Republic of Vermont.
The argument the towns used was that the Continental Congress’ Declaration of Independence, removing British rule reverted everything to a state of nature. It was, therefore, the right of the people to choose their own government and form their own allegiances. They were not bound to New Hampshire based of some border drawn by the Privy Council in London. They could choose to be a part of whatever government they wanted.
This caused the Governor of New Hampshire to go apoplectic and write a letter to Vermont Governor Chittenden, demanding he disavow this action. Chittenden discussed the matter in council and sent Ethan Allen to Philadelphia to gauge the opinion of the patriot leadership. Allen returned to say that if Vermont provoked a fight with New Hampshire by trying claim lands east of the Connecticut River, that the other states would likely band together to annihilate the new Vermont Republic instead of just ignoring it.
After several more months of debate, Vermont eventually decided to reject the request of the towns on the east bank of the Connecticut to join them. It formally accepted that the Connecticut river was the state’s eastern border and that it would make no claims on other lands outside of that area. Those towns who voted to join Vermont would remain part of New Hampshire.
None of this ended claims from New York, New Hampshire, and even Massachusetts that Vermont was part of their states. But it did return to the tense standoff where Vermont was able to govern itself and everyone else simply refused to recognize it.
So the Republic of Vermont was born and began governing itself, mostly based on its ability to defend itself from its neighbors and everyone’s unwillingness to have this political fight in the middle of a war with Britain. The controversy over Vermont’s existence as an independent state would continue for many years. Vermont would never seat a delegation at the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention. It would only be several years after the adoption of the US Constitution that Vermont would finally receive recognition as an independent state. But that would be well into the future
Next week, we’ll return occupied Philadelphia, where the British raids into southern New Jersey lead to the Hancock Bridge Massacre.
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Raymond, Allen "Benning Wentworth's Claims in the New Hampshire-New York Border Controversy" Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, Winter, 1975: https://vermonthistory.org/journal/misc/BenningWentworthsClaims.pdf
The Vermont Republic: http://divided.coplacdigital.org/uis/home
Hendricks, Nathaniel The Experiment in Vermont Constitutional Government: https://vermonthistory.org/journal/misc/ConstitutionalGovernment.pdf
Henry, Bruce. “Dr. Thomas Young and the Boston Committee of Correspondence.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, 1976, pp. 219–221. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3816942
Constitution of Vermont - 1777: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/vt01.asp
Steward, Matthew “The Original Tea Partier Was an Atheist” Politico Magazine, Sept. 1, 2014 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/09/original-tea-partier-atheist-thomas-young-110497
Letter of Thomas Young to the Inhabitants of Vermont, April 11, 1777: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1mLahVvDcWUswu8ppG8G4G4g3nhYMDGsfuK6oLetSaCo
Maier, Pauline. “Reason and Revolution: The Radicalism of Dr. Thomas Young.” American Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2, 1976, pp. 229–249. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2712351
Graffagnino, J. Kevin. “‘The Country My Soul Delighted in’: The Onion River Land Company and the Vermont Frontier.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 1, 1992, pp. 24–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/365982
Aichele, Gary J. “Making the Vermont Constitution: 1777-1824” Vermont Historical Society, 1988: https://vermonthistory.org/journal/misc/MakingVermontConstitution.pdf
(from archive.org unless noted)
Chipman, Daniel A Memoir of Thomas Chittenden, the First Governor of Vermont, Middlebury: Self-Published, 1849.
Collins, Edward Day A History of Vermont, Boston, Ginn & Co. 1903.
Edes, Henry “Memoir of Dr. Thomas Young 1731-1777” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. XI:
Wilbur, La Fayette Early history of Vermont, Jericho, Vt.: Roscoe Printing House, 1899
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Van De Water, Frederic F. The Reluctant Republic Vermont, 1724-1791, Literary Licensing, 2012.
Wilbur, James B. Ira Allen, Founder of Vermont, 1751 - 1814, Houghton Mifflin, 1928
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.