August 26th, 2019

Vermont’s 1777 Constitution

Vermont’s Constitution, written in 1777, was one year after our nation declared its Independence in 1776 and 10 years before our national constitution was written in 1787.

On 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 equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights among which are the enjoying and defending of life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting 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 to offices, or be elected into office.” John Bach McMaster in his Brief History of the United States, wrote that under most of the early state constitutions, “none but property owning, tax paying men could give that consent from which government derives its just powers, where, save in Vermont, did manhood suffrage exist. Elsewhere no man voted who did not 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 freed of speech, press and assembly, protection from search and seizure, and the right to bear arms. Article 16 read: “frequent recurrence of fundamental principles, and the firm adherence 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 several open government provisions. 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 to be “established in each town for the convenient instruction of youth…one grammar school in each county and university in this State, ought to be established by direction of the General Assembly.”

Clearly the Vermont Constitution of 1777 was way 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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