History of Vermont

Vermont is a very small state with a very big impact. It has always attracted independent thinkers, and consequently its people have also made a significant difference in the evolution of The United States of America.  The state has played an instrumental role in the Revolutionary War, the Civil war and it was the first to try many innovative themes in governance. There are countless examples of independent thinking to be found in Vermont history.

“Come York or come Hampshire, come traitors or knaves,

If ye rule o'er our land ye shall rule o'er our graves;

Our vow is recorded–our banner unfurled,

In the name of Vermont we defy the entire world!”

The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier 1877

One of the earliest examples of Vermonter’s independent way of thinking was an organization called The Green Mountain Boys. Founded in 1770 in Bennington (histoyofwar.org), they were committees of safety militias organized to protect the interests of the people. Vermonters wanted freedom and independence from the squabbling colonies of

New Hampshire and New York. The leader of The Green Mountain Boys, Ethan Allen, once said “liberty, property and life” (freedomandunity.org).  They worked to terrify New Yorkers and shareholders who had control of grants to Vermont land. It should be noted though that the Green Mountain Boys stopped short of killing the “Yorkers” in their fight for independent recognition.  They wished to scare and humiliate the Yorkers, and some of their pranks included hosting Yorkers by their trousers to sign posts or flag poles (Ralph Nading Hill pg.74). Despite the triviality of their mischief the governor of New York sentenced them to death and offered rewards to any man who could catch them (freedomandunity.org).

The Green Mountain Boys were leaders as well. Ethan Allen led the Green Mountain Boys in the attack on Fort Ticonderoga. This battle was after the attack on Concord, but before the official Declaration of Independence. This was the first offensive attack in the war by the American side (Ralph Nading Hill pg.79). In the early hours of the morning, Ethan Allen and Captain Benedict Arnold led the 200 Green Mountain Boys across the lake to Fort Ticonderoga. They entered the fort through a break in the south wall (Ralph Nading Hill pg.79). After Ethan reached the commander of the fort, the commander surrendered and the fort was taken without a fight. In the capture of fort Ticonderoga the first prisoners in the Revolutionary War were taken by Vermonter (Ralph Nading Hill pg.81). The book Lake Champlain, Key to Liberty said it best “The fall of such a far famed fortress to a band of farmers emboldened every patriot heart throughout the colonies” (Ralph Nading Hill pg. 81).

Benedict Arnold and the Vermonters he led in 1776 showed there capability at being – again - the first in this country to act decisively. In the summer of 1776 Benedict Arnold was commissioned by General Washington to build the nation’s first navy on the lake we call home: Lake Champlain. It took nearly the whole summer to build the fleet, but on August 24, 1776 Arnold sailed from Crown Point with nine vessels carrying 55 guns, 78 swivels, and 395 men (Ralph Nading Hill pg.97). He sailed north to intercept the British, and on October 11, 1776 the fleet fought the first naval battle of the Revolution: The Battle of Valcour Bay (Ralph Nading Hill pg.100). The battle was long and hard. The American fleet lost many ships and even more were damaged. Eventually they were able to sneak past the British under the cover of darkness and retreated to Fort Ticonderoga (Ralph Nading Hill pg.103). While the Americans did not win this particular battle, they greatly delayed the British from reaching Saratoga at a crucial juncture. If the Battle of Valcour Bay had not happened, or if it had ended much sooner, then the battle of Saratoga might have gone very differently and the country of The United States of America might not even exist today.

Vermont was a very influential power during the Revolutionary War.  Vermonters were passionate about gaining independence and were undisputable leaders in the battles of Valcour and Ticonderoga, but we have never been as independent and influential as when we were our own country.  Yes, Vermont was once a fledgling country of its own!

Vermont’s constitution of the 1770’s was the first written constitution of the democratic revolution. On July 2 1777, delegates met in Windsor and approved a constitution that legitimized the republic in the eyes of the Continental Congress (freedomanduntiy.org). At that time, May 1776, the Continental Congress was preparing to declare independence from England in May, 1776. The early versions of Vermont constitutions served as prototypes for the latter (and more famous) constitutions of the United States, and the French constitutions of 1791 and 1793 (Michael Sherman, Jennie Versteeg pg. 277).

 The Vermont constitution was highly progressive. It established universal civil rights to men and opened public office to all eligible voters. The constitution provided a unicameral (one legislative chamber) legislature to be elected annually by towns of Vermont, with two representatives for larger towns and only one representative for smaller towns. All the sessions held were public and the legislature’s decisions were printed weekly; an almost unheard of combination of acts of transparency in those days. The constitution outlined the powers of the government, lieutenant governor, and the council.

The constitution established a council of Censors, who reviewed all decisions made by the legislature to insure it did not violate the principles of the constitution. It guaranteed individual liberties to all people so clearly that they are referred to today when our country’s Bill of Rights is called into question. With individual liberties so well defined, Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery.

This stand on slavery was honed for nearly 100 years until Vermont became one of the first natural allies of President Lincoln during the Civil War. "Washington is in grave danger. What may we expect of Vermont?" These are a few sentences from the telegram that President Lincoln sent to the governor of Vermont - Erastus Fairbanks- in 1861. Fairbank’s reply was, “Vermont will do its full duty.”  (Gov. Erastus Fairbanks).  He was responding to the growing threat of war with the south and Lincoln’s, highly personal, request that Vermont would participate. Throughout the Civil War Vermont was headed by three governors, who sent 10% of their population to serve in an effort to preserve the union: more than 34,000 out of a total population of 350,000 citizens. Vermont regularly provided recruits to bring the units in the field back up to normal strength. Vermonters suffered a total of 1,832 men killed or wounded in battle; another 3,362 died of disease, for a total loss of 5,194.

The men who governed Vermont throughout the war contributed greatly in their own ways. Fairbanks contributed 6 infantries and one Calvary and in his famous quote “Vermont will do its full duty.” he and his successors proved that statement true over the course of the war. Under Governor Holbrook three military hospitals were built and “soon credited by the United States medical inspector for perfecting a larger percentage of cures than any other U.S military hospital recorded anywhere else could show.” (wikipedia.org)

Vermont’s contribution to Gettysburg has always seemed like a myth to many people but the truth is well documented. The battle was not going well the Confederates were pushing the Union soldiers back with cannons and guns. The Vermont brigade attacked the right flank of the Confederate Army and let loose a torrent of gunfire. This act was the pivotal moment in the battle. After a few minutes under fire, the surviving Confederate forces surrendered. Vermont effectively won the battle of Gettysburg and a few days later the New York Times reported that “A Vermont brigade held the key position at Gettysburg and did more than any other body of men to gain the triumph which decided the fate of the Rebellion.”

In the end, Vermont’s contribution – again - changed the course of a great war. Historian Howard Coffin claims that the most important battle Vermont participated in was the Battle of the Wilderness, where a Vermont Brigade held the crucial intersection of two roads, the loss of which would have split the Union in half irreversibly,

Organized militias, novel leadership councils, preemptive attacks, humanitarian philosophy, great battles won, Vermont’s history is full of examples of innovative ways of thinking. Today we still attract people with a non-conformist mentality and even in modern times Vermont echoes the sentiments of its founders. Though Vermont may be well known for its colorful falls and snowy winters, we have always demonstrated a “newness of spring” mentality when it comes to innovation and governance. We make headlines for the pioneering stands that we take on the hottest issues of our own times and continue to enjoy a reputation for leading the way into the future.