If the gunfire at Lexington and Concord was the “shot heard round the world,” the phrases in the Declaration of Independence were the words read around the world. In the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson declared America an independent nation, rooting his ideas in political theory and justifying them with a list of grievances. After the Declaration was signed, the states drafted their own constitutions to fit the ideals of the fledgling nation. Several state constitutions included Declarations of Rights and implemented the principles of popular sovereignty and natural rights. The state constitution that most radically implemented the ideals of the Declaration belonged to a state that was not yet part of the nation and was, at the time, an independent republic: Vermont. Early Vermonters created a constitution in 1777 that abolished slavery, guaranteed full male suffrage, and allocated funding for education. The creation of Vermont’s constitution was impacted by the revolutionary sentiments of the Declaration, the philosophy of natural rights, and the New England heritage of classical republicanism.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson stated the right to revolution, and he included a long list of grievances against the king to justify rebellion; Vermont followed a similar structure in its constitution. Jefferson wrote that “when [there is] a long train of abuses [from the government] . . . it is their [the people’s] right to throw off such a government.” This declaration was followed by a list of complaints against the king, from dissolving local governments to depriving Americans of fair trials. Vermont’s constitution included a similar declaration of the right to revolution and list of grievances, but these grievances were against New York, not Great Britain.
The land that would become Vermont was initially known as the New Hampshire Grants; it was claimed by the governments of New York and New Hampshire. New Hampshire Governor John Wentworth sold thousands of acres in the Grants, enriching himself. In response, Lieutenant Governor Cadwalader Colden of New York regranted the same lands to New Yorkers. This angered the New Hampshire settlers, who as Yankees already disliked the “Yorkers,” so they formed the Green Mountain Boys and fought a guerilla war against New York. Thus, in their new constitution, the Vermonters declared independence from New York. Echoing the Declaration of Independence, they wrote that “whenever those great ends of government are not obtained, the people have a right . . . to change it . . . to promote their safety and happiness.” The authors of the Vermont Constitution then launched into a list of complaints against New York, alleging that the Yorkers waged exorbitant taxes on them, regranted their lands to others, and sent Indigenous Americans and foreign troops to “distress” and drive them out, respectively. By mimicking the style and the format of the Declaration, the Vermonters lent more credence to their arguments and solidified their reasoning for leaving New York.
The revolutionary sentiments of the Declaration were not the only ideals that inspired the Vermonters. The actual provisions of the Vermont 1777 constitution were also heavily influenced by natural rights philosophy. Natural rights philosophy was pioneered by English philosopher John Locke. Locke argued that all men were born free and equal and have the right to life, liberty, and property. These ideas are apparent in the Declaration of Independence and the newly-developed state constitutions, but—as many Americans celebrated the ideals of freedom and equality—they held thousands of Africans in bondage.
Vermonters seemed to see this contradiction more clearly than their American brethren. In Chapter 1 Clause 1 of the Vermont Constitution, Vermont recognized that “all men are born equally free and independent . . . therefore, no male person ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a . . . slave.” However, the abolition clause did include an important caveat: men could be held as slaves until they turned twenty-one and women could be held until they turned eighteen. This led to the indenture of both poor white and black children. Despite the inherent conflict in this caveat, the abolition of slavery was still a largely radical idea—and a radical implementation of natural rights philosophy. In fact, when Vermont was seeking admittance to the Union in 1791, the Southern states fought vehemently against it because of Vermont’s denunciation of slavery, which proved to be more powerful on paper than widespread in practice.
Although natural rights theory was significantly impactful in Vermont’s Constitution, it was not the only political theory that inspired Vermonters. The Framers of the Vermont Constitution were also inspired by the classical republican tradition of New England. Classical republicanism was first devised by the Romans and gained popularity in Europe during the Italian Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It emphasized self-sacrifice for the common good, civic virtue, and education. Classical republicanism was largely adopted by the forefathers of early Vermonters. The Grants that would become Vermont were first settled by farmers from New England. Their New Englander forefathers were the Pilgrims and Puritans who came to America seeking religious freedom. According to Alexis de Tocqueville, a French politician and traveler who analyzed America’s political culture, “Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine, but it corresponded in many points with . . . republican theories.”
The early New Englanders were famous for implementing classical republican ideals through their emphasis on collective unity and their use of town meetings for governance. Vermonters took these ideas and further incorporated them into the 1777 Vermont Constitution. Chapter 1 of the Constitution, which effectively served as a bill of rights, was peppered with phrases alluding to classical republican beliefs. The Constitution asserted that “private property ought to be subservient to public uses, when necessity requires it;” “the government is . . . instituted for the common benefit;” “all freemen . . . have a right to elect officers, or be elected into office;” and “that every member of society hath a right to be protected . . . and therefore, is bound to contribute his proportion towards the expense of that protection.” Additionally, the Vermonter’s Constitution allocated funding for public schools, demonstrating their value for education. Vermont’s founding fathers used the doctrines of their ancestors to form a government that significantly extended suffrage and education access, further implementing some of America’s fundamental principles and beliefs.
The Vermont Constitution was fully infused with the principles and values of America. It included a nod to the revolutionary sentiment of the time period. It took ideas from the popular natural rights theory, and it borrowed from the New England heritage of classical republicanism. However, the most important part of the Vermont Constitution was not the ideals it borrowed, but the changes it implemented. Countless Framers discussed the importance of inalienable rights, representation, and the common good, but few people put their ideas into policies that benefited everyone—not just an elite few. Vermont’s 1777 constitution is truly significant because it did take measures to help all Vermonters—not just Protestant, property-owning, white men; it guaranteed full male suffrage, abolished slavery, and provided education access, leaving a legacy of which Vermonters can be justifiably proud.
Thomas Jefferson, “Declaration of Independence,” July 4, 1776, www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
“State and Continental Origins of the U.S. Bill of Rights,” Teaching American History, teachingamericanhistory.org/resources/bor/origins-chart/.
Peter Onuf, “State-Making in Revolutionary America: Independent Vermont as a Case Study,” The Journal of American History 67, no. 4 (March 1981): 799, www.jstor.org/stable/1888050.
“Constitution of Vermont,” July 8, 1777, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/vt01.asp.
Gary Aichele, “Making the Vermont Constitution: 1777-1824,” Vermont History Journal56, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 167, 169, vermonthistory.org/journal/misc/MakingVermontConstitution.pdf.
“Locke’s Political Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-political/#SelePrimSour; and We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, 3rd ed. (Calabasas: Center for Civic Education, 2009), 17-18.
Kari Winter, “Bordering Freedom but Unable to Cross into the Promised Land: Africans in Early Vermont,” Historical Reflections32, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 480, www.jstor.org/stable/41299385.
David Hackett Fischer, “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” Jesse Woodson James, jessewoodsonjames.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/0/8/12083819/fischer-albionsseed.pdf.