By Senator Bill Doyle
The Whigs occupied the statehouse for almost twenty years, beginning with Silas Jenison in 1835, with the Democrats winning only one election, in 1853. In addition to the Whigs, Democrats and Anti-Masons, a splinter party had come upon the Vermont political scene. The Liberty party grew out of the organized anti-slavery movement in the state, which had begun with the founding in Middlebury of an Anti-Slavery Society in 1834.
The society, in its first annual report, declared, “We therefore proclaim war with slavery, our weapon is truth – our basis, justice – our incentive, humanity – our force, moral power – our watchword, onward – our hope of success, in God.” Abolitionist speakers were met with resistance, in some cases. In 1835, anti-slavery lectures by Samuel May were broken up in Montpelier and Rutland, In 1837 the society resolved that “American slavery in principle is under all circumstances a flagrant sin.” In 1840, the society resolved that “the ministers who… oppose the cause of emancipation or remain silent on the subject, are unworthy of support or confidence as religious guides or teachers.”
During the late 1830s, abolitionist petitions poured into the United States Congress. Most of the petitions related to the existence of slavery in the District of Columbia, and the domestic slave trade. As a result, a “gag rule” was adopted by Congress that required that petitions on the subject of slavery be laid on the table without action. Congressman William Slade, who had received many such petitions from his constituents in Vermont, rose to address the U.S. House of Representatives and said; “We must not bury these petitions. And let me say to you gentlemen, that such a policy will certainly defeat itself. You cannot smother investigation of this subject. The spirit of free inquiry is the master spirit of the age.”
Vermonters submitted many petitions, prompting angry replies from Southern politicians. Governor Wise of Virginia said, “We cannot reason with the heads of fanatics, nor touch hearts fatally bent upon treason.” The Georgia House resolved: “That His Excellency the Governor be and is hereby requested to transmit the Vermont resolutions to the deep, dank and fetid sink of social and political iniquity from whence they emanated, with the following equivocal declaration inscribed thereon: Resolved. That Georgia standing on her constitutional palladium, heeds not the maniac ravings of hellborn fanaticism, nor stoops from her lofty position to hold terms with perjured traitors.”
The Georgia Senate, not to be outdone, requested President Franklin Pierce “to employ a sufficient number of able-bodied Irishmen to proceed to the State of Vermont and to dig a ditch around the limits of the same, and to float ‘the thing’ into the Atlantic.”
Feeding Southern resentment was Vermont’s participation in the underground railroad, the secret system of helping fugitive slaves escape from their masters and flee to the North and Canada. Vermont was on the border, it served as a “trunk” route north. There are still some houses in the state which have secret passageways and trap doors that were built to hide runaway slaves.
Those interested in the anti-slavery movement during the pre-Civil War period often were involved in the temperance crusade. The Montpelier anti-slavery paper, “Voice of Freedom,’ saw this relationship. “The temperance and anti-slave causes go well together. In fact, I do not know of any moral or religious enterprise which can prosper without temperance being its companion. It was this which prepared the way for me to be an abolitionist, and I trust it has been so with thousands of others.”
As early as 1806, the Council of Censors warned about the problems of intoxicating liquor. “No crime is, perhaps, attended with more evil consequences to society and individualism than that of drunkenness. In proportion as this vice prevails, the morals of old and young appear to be affected. If there be any reformation on this head, we rejoice and are glad.”
Addison County granted no liquor permits in 1843. In 1844, former Congressman Slade, in his successful campaign for governor, proposed local option. No licenses would be granted in any town that did not “in town meetings warned for that purpose, pass a resolution specially requesting the county court to grant licenses for the sale of intoxicating liquors in that town.” This was the gist of the law signed by Governor Slade in 1844.
In 1852, the General Assembly passed a prohibition law that required a referendum vote. With over 40,000 votes cast, statewide prohibition passed by only 521 votes. All of the counties west of the Green Mountains favored the new law, while the counties to the east were opposed, with the exception of Caledonia.
The organizational techniques successfully used to enact a prohibition law were also employed in the anti-slavery movement. The Sudbury Anti-Slavery Society recommended “the use of these means which have been most effectual in removing intemperance” to liberate slaves.
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 email@example.com; or call 223-2851.