From the 1830’s until the Civil War, there was a high degree of political instability. There were many cases during this period when no candidate for Governor was able to gain a statewide majority. The ultimate of political instability was reached in 1835 when no candidate for governor was able to gain a majority. The unicameral legislature was incapable after three days of wrangling and sixty-five ballots, to choose a governor. As a last resort, it was decided that Lieutenant Governor Silas Jenison should also become acting governor.
This debacle was an important factor in the adoption of a Constitutional amendment that abolished the Governor’s Council, which created the Vermont State Senate in 1836 based upon population. But there was also disappointment that the Legislature couldn’t make a decision with regard to electing a Governor in 1835.
Jenison was elected Governor in 1836 and served until 1841. Jenison’s address to the Legislature in 1838 called for the abolition of the death penalty and opened up an era of reform of the Vermont penal system. He wrote that imprisonment and rehabilitation could better deter crime than capital punishment.
In his address to the Legislature in 1838 he said, “experience shows that crime is not increased but diminished if the criminal laws of the country become less barbarous and vindictive. Retaliatory punishment has in a measure ceased and sound and substantial reasons for infliction of punishment are based upon the reformation of the criminal and security of the public. That is evidently the policy of our laws in all cases except in the infliction of the punishment of death.”
Jenison is one of the first governors to have become politically attuned since the War of 1812. This was an era of idealism, optimism and reform and his generation had and no memory of the days of the American Revolution and the uncertainty that followed. The political agenda during this period was dominated by the antislavery movement and the temperance crusade. In 1852, the legislature enacted a prohibition law.
Jenison was born in Shoreham in 1791. His father died when he was only one. Much of his success was attributed to the strength of character of his mother. He worked on the farm in his early youth and could only attend school a few weeks each year. His education consisted of extensive reading and devoting his nights to study, which became a habit of his life.
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 email@example.com; or call 223-2851.