October 28th, 2016

Senate Report: The People’s House – A History of the Vermont Statehouse

Part II in a Series
By Senator Bill Doyle
By 1808, it became necessary to have hard money to purchase glass and nails to finish the building. At this meeting, Montpelier voted to raise a tax of 4 cents on the dollar for each inhabitant. Two-thirds of this tax could be payable in grain, butter and cheese.

In 1807, Montpelier’s grand list was $23,000, four percent of which was less than $1,000. When the building was completed, the owner of the land conveyed it to the state of Vermont. In 1810, Montpelier became part of the newly formed Jefferson County. The Jefferson Party was in great disfavor because of President Jefferson’s embargo, which virtually forbade our trade with Canada. (One of the exceptions was Smuggler’s Notch in Jeffersonville, which was one route by which the embargo was circumvented.) In 1814, local legislators put in a bill which changed Jefferson County to Washington County.

It should be noted that Thomas Davis, the second son of Jacob Davis, the first permanent settler of Montpelier, was as generous as his father in enterprises for the public good. He gave land for the state Capitol, which included the county jail, and provided accommodations for the members of the legislature and those who conducted business with it. The large brick house was the original Pavilion Hotel, which was described as “the largest, most thoroughly constructed, and the most elegantly finished and furnished hotel in the state. It was hardly excelled in deed by any public house in New England at that day, and equal but a few.”

The Statehouse was constructed of wood, 50 by 70 feet on the ground, 36 feet above the basement, with a belfry on the top. The hall of the House of Representatives occupied most of the first floor. There was no Senate until 1836. The seats of the House were constructed of pine planks and in front of the Speaker’s desk was a stove which warmed the hall and from the ceiling was suspended a large chandelier. One legislator called the chandelier foolery, but a woman who saw it as a young girl described it this way: “It’s only ornament, suspended between the ceiling and the floor, was a thing of wonderful beauty in my childish eyes. It was a primitive device for lighting the room. It consisted of an immense brass hoop, the top of which was surmounted by brass lilies, each holding a tallow candle, and beneath the lilies were glass prisms so attached they were swayed by currents of air.”

The Governor’s and Council’s chamber, which ultimately became the Senate in 1836, was located on the third floor, and was furnished with chairs and table for its 14 members. Most of the third floor of the Statehouse was used for caucuses. It was known as Jefferson Hall.

Several attempts were made to change the location of the capitol from Montpelier. In 1810, the year Jefferson County (now Washington) was created, such an attempt was defeated 102-66. In 1812, a committee was formed to inquire whether the Act of 1805, which made Montpelier the capital, should be repealed. In 1813, the committee reported that they received proposals from the counties of Rutland, Addison, Chittenden, Windsor, Orange and Caledonia relating to the removal of Montpelier as the state capital.

The inhabitants of Vergennes proposed to furnish the state with a large house, furnished with as many good stoves as necessary for convenience and accommodation, and offered to pay the state one-half the present value of the Statehouse in Montpelier.

Windsor proposed to furnish a building and to pay the treasurer of Vermont one-half the present value of the Statehouse. Burlington offered the same proposal. These proposals were deemed “inexpedient and improper” and defeated 121-55.

In 1824, a proposal to make Burlington and Windsor the permanent seat of government failed, 118-49. An account in the Bellows Falls Intelligence on December 6, 1824, said the bill was defeated after a “humorous” debate.

Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.

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