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Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Republic By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

It's come to my attention that some folks don't subscribe to the idea that Vermont was ever an independent republic.  While I certainly can appreciate that position, I take issue with it for a number of reasons, about which I will drone on in a bit.

But first, I need to address something that may or may not be the sum total of the argument against what seems to be a prevailing delusion: You can see the text of Vermont's first constitution here at the Secretary of State's website. (Spoiler Alert: The word "republic"appears nowhere in it.)

Yeah, it's true 'republic' appears nowhere in any version of the VT constitution.  As I noted elsewhere, it also doesn't appear in the US Constitution (though Article IV, Section 4 does guarantee a republican form of state government).  I'm fairly certain that lacking this word doesn't mean we don't live in a republic, which might otherwise come as a surprise to Benjamin Franklin and James Madison.  So, to solve the Case of the Missing Republic, we need to dig a little deeper than a superficial parsing of a single document.

I think the only facts not in dispute are that Vermont did declare itself independent in January of 1777, had a constitution several months later, and was not admitted into the Union until 1791.  I'll add that it also appears non-controversial that Vermonters in general wanted to be--and tried to be--part of the United States, but various obstacles regarding the Vermont Question prevented it for 14 years.

Now the question remains: was Vermont a republic?

It appears to be a long-held view, at the very least.  Rowland Evans Robinson referred to The Republic of the Green Mountains in his book on Vermont independence back in 1892.  The Vermont Historical Society published an article on Vermont's coinage by a numismatist in 1870:

The Latin legend on the obverse is, in English, "the Republic of the Green Mountains ;" that of the reverse is, "the fourteenth star." The legends are variously abbreviated...
...
The symbols and inscriptions of the first coinage were peculiar to Vermont. They had already accomplished their purpose. The announcement that Vermont was to be the fourteenth state in union with the old thirteen, and that it was already an independent republic, was proclaimed far and wide on thousands of these little coins. No repetition could render these declarations more emphatic. 

More recently, our State Archivist referred to Vermont's status thus:

The mountain rule existed in various forms from the days of the Republic when it was originally observed to assure political balance between western Vermont and the then more populous east.

And in at least three rulings, the Vermont Supreme Court has stated its own belief that we were a republic before we were one of the States of the American Union: State v Badger (1982); Baker v State (1998), which was a fairly significant case; Brigham v State (1997), which tossed out our educational funding system.  I'd like to dwell on the latter for a moment:

[Ira Allen explained]:
The greatest legislators from Lycurgus down to John Lock[e], have laid down a moral and scientific system of education as the very foundation and cement of a State; the Vermonte[rs] are sensible of this, and for this purpose they have planted several public schools, and have established a university, and endowed it with funds ... to draw forth and foster talents. The effects of these institutions are already experienced, and I trust that in a few years the rising generation will evince that these useful institutions were not laid in vain; ... our maxim is rather to make good men than great scholars: let us hope for the union, for that makes the man, and the useful citizen.
In thus characterizing education as the "cement of [the] State," Allen was expressing "a central tenet of republicanism: no democracy can survive without a virtuous citizenry ... 'and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education.' "...
Because human nature was not viewed by the framers as naturally inclined to virtue, Allen and his contemporaries "saw education as the state's tool to insure self-preservation."
As Moses Mather concisely observed in 1775: " 'The strength and spring of every free government ... is the virtue of the people; virtue grows on knowledge, and knowledge on education.' " ...
Thus understood, the Education Clause assumes paramount significance in the constitutional frame of government established by the framers: it expressed and incorporated "that part of republican theory which holds education essential to self government and which recognizes government as the source of the perpetuation of the attributes of citizenship." 

The epoch of the American Revolution and framing of State and ultimately Federal governments was steeped in the language of republicanism.  Allen naturally cited republicans Lycurgus and Locke in a manner common amongst our various founders, with no apparent need to identify them explicitly with the label of 'republican' because it was obviously understood.  Similarly, nobody would feel compelled to use the word 'republic' in a constitution that established a republican government because it was unnecessary and redundant.

Which is why so many writers and historians assume Vermont's status as an independent republic.  It declared independence and operated separately from Britain, New York and the various incarnations of the United States for 14 years.  It had a republican form of government.  I'm honestly surprised that anybody would argue that this is, oh, say...delusional.

But is it safe to assume that contemporaries referred to Vermont as a republic?  Well, I'm not sure that really matters, but here's what one of the original settlers of my little town of Fletcher wrote in 1784:

The Vermont Gazette of Oct. 18 [1784] contained the following, which was communicated by the retiring Secretary, Joseph Fay: To the Printers of the Vermont Gazette. GENTLEMEN,
By inserting the following extract of an official letter received last evening, you will not only gratify the public by giving early knowledge of the choice of their rulers for the year ensuing, but sting the ears of our enemies with the unwelcome news of the uniformity of the people by continuing in office those Gentlemen, who have been the guardians and faithful servants of the public, during a bloody war with Great Britain, and contest with several of the neighbouring States, for eight years past. Such a steady firmness does honour to the people, and by a continuance, with the due observance of good and wholesome laws, cannot fail to render this little republic happy, important and the dread of her enemies. 

[Jonas Fay to Joseph Fay.]  

He went on to report who won the elections.  Then there's the Council of Censors, who were responsible for safeguarding and amending our constitution, and reported in 1786:

The ungranted and confiscated lands seem to have been a boon conferred by providence, for the support of our republic in its infancy, while its subjects were unable to pay taxes...

So I think it's glaringly obvious that at least some of the governing elites at the time viewed Vermont as a republic, even though it uses words like 'state' and 'commonwealth' (none of which are mutually exclusive) in the constitution. I certainly wouldn't want to commit the fallacies of appealing to authority or popularity, but given a plain, textual reading it feels way more natural and credible to believe in a Vermont Republic from 1777-1791 than to, um...not.

At the very least, calling so many jurists, historians and early Vermonters drinkers of koolaid strikes me as unwarranted.  Just sayin'...

ntodd 

March 10, 2013 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink

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