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September 30th, 2014

Senate Report

Vermont’s 1777 Constitution

Vermont’s Constitution written in 1777 was one year before our nation declared its independence in 1776 and twelve years before our nationl constitution was written in 1787. The year 1777 was espe-cially important for Vermont. We declared our independence from England and New York and prevailed at the Battle of Bennington which led to the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolu-tionary War.

One July 2, 1777 a convention of delegates from the East and West side of Vermont met in Windsor to write a constitution. Borrowing phrases from the U.S. Declaration of INdependence, Article 1 stated “that all men are born equay free and independent, have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights among which are the enjoying and defending of life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protection of property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” The first article concluded with a clause prohibiting slavery, Vermont being the first state to do so.

Vermont was also the first state to adopt universal male suffrage. Article 8 provided “that all elections ought to be free, and all free men have a right to elect offices, or be elected into office.” McMaster, in his History of the United States, wrote that under most of the early state constitutions “none but property owning, tax paying men could give consent from whic government derives its just powers. No-where, save in Vermont, did manhood suffrage exist. Elsewhere no man voted who did pay a property tax, or rent a house, or own a specified number of acres or have a specified yearly income.” Other rights guaranteed by the Vermont 1777 Constitution included freedom of speech, press and assembly, protection from search and seizure, and the right bear arms. Article 16 read: “frequent recurrence of fundamental principals, and the firm adhereence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty, and keep government free.”

The Constitution of 1777 contained sevral open government provsions. The doors of the general assembly were to remain open to all individuals. The votes of the general assembly would be printed weekly; all courts were required to be open and justice “impartially administered.” If any court officer collected any more fees than the law allowed, the officer would be disqualified “from holding any office in this state.” A corrupt practices section declared that any voter who accepted any reward for his vote “meat, drink, money or otherwise” would forfeit his voting privileges.

The Vermont Constitution of 1777 was one of the earliest to provide for a comprehensive system of education from the elementary to the university level. Section 40 provided for schools “establish in each town for the convenient instruction of youth, one grammar school in each county ad one university in the state ought to be established by the general assembly.

Clearly the Vermont Constitution of 1777 was ahead of its time.

Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Assistant Minority Leader. 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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