August 26th, 2019

Nathaniel Chipman: An Architect for Vermont’s Admission to the Union

By Sen. Bill Doyle
Nathaniel Chipman was one of Vermont’s early leaders, whose greatest achievement was being an architect of Vermont’s admission to the Union. He was born in Connecticut in 1752 and graduated from Yale College in 1777. He was absent from his graduation because he was serving in the Revolutionary War. He was in George Washington’s army at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78 and in 1778 became a first lieutenant.

In 1779 he settled in Tinmouth, Vermont and the same year became an attorney. In 1784, the voters of Tinmouth elected him to the state legislature, and in 1786, he became a Supreme Court Justice. Three years later, he became Chief Justice. In 1784 and in 1814, he was re-elected to this judicial post.

In 1787, Alexander Hamilton, a member of the New York Assembly, introduced a bill that called for the recognition of the independence of Vermont. Hamilton had reason to believe that Vermont might join Canada, which would put new York at a military disadvantage. Hamilton also wanted the new nation to be located in New York, and if Vermont were admitted to the Union, her vote would be most important. Hamilton also thought it was important that a northern free state be admitted to offset two southern slave states, Kentucky and Tennessee, which would soon join the Union. Of the first 13 original states, 7 were northern and 6 were southern.

Chipman realized that Hamilton’s proposal could be a breakthrough in negotiations, and in 1788, Chipman wrote Hamilton indicating that the conflicting land claims between New York and Vermont could be worked out. New York and Vermont agreed to negotiate the differences, and in the summer of 1789, as a result of negotiations, Vermont agreed to pay New York $30,000 compensation, while New York gave up her Vermont land claims.

Vermont’s next step in the process of admission to the Union was to ratify the new United States Consitution. In January 1791, a convention authorized by the Vermont General Assembly met in Bennington to consider ratification. One of the delegates to the convention, Supreme Court Judge Nathaniel Chipman, said Vermont was too small in relation to a new powerful union to remain independent. “Whenever our interests clash with those of the Union, it requires very little political sagacity to foretell that every sacrifice must be made on our part… United we become great, from the reflected greatness of the empire with which we unite.” The United States Constitution was ratified one hundred and five to four by Vermont.

In 1791, President George Washington appointed Chipman to a federal judgeship. In 1793, he wrote one of Vermont’s first publications entitled “Sketches of the Principles of Government.” In 1797, Chipman became a United States Senator and served until 1803. After that, he again represented Tinmouth in the legislature. In 1815, he taught law at Middlebury College. Chipman lived for another quarter century in Tinmouth and died at the age of 91 in 1843.

According to his biographer John Spargo, Chipman was a staunch Federalist in politics and esteemed for his learning. His career was a most remarkable fulfillment of a prophetic letter that he wrote to his friend, Eleanor Fitch in 1779. “Let’s see,” he wrote, “First an attorney; then a selectman; a huffing justice; a deputy; an assistant; a member of Congress.”

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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