Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

"True Principles of Liberty and Natural Right": The Vermont State Constitution and the American Revolution
by Ingraham, Kevin R., Ph.D., State University of New York at Albany, 2018, 176; 10752319
Abstract (Summary)

The Vermont state constitution was the most revolutionary and democratic plan of government established in America during the late eighteenth century. It abolished adult slavery, eliminated property qualifications for holding office, and established universal male suffrage. It invested broad power in a unicameral legislature, through which citizens might directly express their will through their elected representatives. It created a weak executive with limited power to veto legislation. It mandated annual elections for all state offices, by which the people might frequently accept, or reject, their leaders. It thus established a participatory democracy in which ordinary citizens enjoyed broad access to power. It was, in the words of Ethan Allen, government based on “true principles of liberty and natural right.”

Over the course of the revolutionary period, furthermore, the people of Vermont defended their democratic system against repeated attempts to weaken it. The constitution included a mechanism by which, every seven years, a Council of Censors would be elected which had the power to propose revisions to the plan of government. Constitutional conventions met in 1786 and 1793 to consider these recommendations, and though the delegates accepted a number of minor revisions, they rejected innovations that would have significantly altered the state’s system of participatory democracy. In this sense, the experience of Vermont during this period differed from that of other states, which had by the end of this period established systems that concentrated power in the hands of a limited number of citizens.

The people of Vermont established this form of government for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important factor was that Vermont was a rural, agrarian and backcountry region, populated by small subsistence farmers with a common set of interests and grievances. Here, and elsewhere across America during this period, small farmers often clashed with political and economic elites over issues of taxation and the conditions of land ownership. When confronted with policies they perceived to be unjust, they often rose up to defend their interests. However, unlike other rebellions during this period, the New Hampshire Grants insurgency succeeded, and led to the establishment of an independent state. Moreover, the grievances that motivated these backcountry insurgents included political dimensions. Subsistence farmers demanded a greater voice in the governments that had promulgated policies they perceived to be unjust. Living under more democratic forms of government, they realized, would enable them to enact laws that promoted their interests.

This study informs our understanding of the American Revolution in a number of ways. For one, events in Vermont demonstrate the importance of internal divisions and conflict in the Revolution. Rural farmers challenged the land-owning and mercantile elite of New York, and won. In the process, they created the most revolutionary and democratic constitution in America. Vermont thus went further than any other state in fulfilling the promise of the Revolution. Ironically, however, this very achievement illustrates the limits of the Revolution. In other states, common people continued to face significant restrictions on their access to power. Universal suffrage for white males, for example, was not achieved until the mid-nineteenth century, and slavery was not abolished until 1865. Perhaps, then, the Revolution is best understood not as a watershed event that radically changed American society, but rather as one episode in a much longer continuum of change.

This study also seeks to change Vermont’s place in the historiography of the Revolution. As an independent republic, unrecognized by any outside power, historians often treat it as an anomaly. As a result, it is often neglected. Vermont, however, deserves to be taken seriously. Though it was not formally recognized by other states, its government exercised full authority and sovereignty within its borders. Its constitution, furthermore, embodied the purest expression of radical republican ideals in America at the time. It was a singular achievement of the American Revolution. Rather than be relegated to the shadows, therefore, Vermont deserves to be at the forefront of the discussion. By doing so we may more clearly understand the nature of the American Revolution itself, with all its achievements, limitations, and contradictions.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Hamm, Richard
Commitee: Pastore, Christopher, Wittern-Keller, Laura
School: State University of New York at Albany
Department: History
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 80/03(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American history
Keywords: American, Constitution, Revolution, State, Vermont
Publication Number: 10752319
ISBN: 978-0-438-59274-2
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