By Julia Purdy
The Freeman’s Oath—renamed the Voter’s Oath in 1994—is unique to Vermont. Like so much that is exceptional about Vermont, it is traceable to our very beginnings. It may come as a surprise to many that Vermont does not appear in the list of the original 13 colonies, because it was never a colony! The story of how Vermont came into being explains the importance of the oath in the minds of its drafters, an importance that still resonates today.
At first the wedge-shaped territory that would become Vermont was wilderness traversed by native people in their seasonal rounds and by British soldiers en route between Fort Number Four in Charlestown, N.H., and the strategic Lake Champlain. It constituted a huge tract of rich land and timber resources that so far had seen only feeble attempts at settlement as Europeans understood that term.
The unquestioned premise of European expansion since Elizabethan times held that if some territory appeared to be unoccupied and therefore going to waste, it was up for grabs. Samuel Purchas, apologist for English mercantilism, invoked several “natural” rights, the foremost being that “as men, we have a natural right to replenish the whole earth: so that if any Country be not possessed by other men, . . . every man by Law of Nature and Humanitie hath right of Plantation, and may not by other after-commers be dispossessed, without wrong to human nature.” And possession had to be obvious and visible.
A born New Hampshireite and the first governor of the new Province of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth not only was familiar with the rigors of life on the frontier but saw with crystal clarity the potential to his west. He was supported in this by his king, George II, who espoused the formation of small, self-governing towns as the best path to colonization.
In 1750, Wentworth roped in the farthest edge of the undeveloped territory to his west with his first grant to developers—Bennington. This act confronted directly the thorny issue of the New Hampshire-New York boundary.
All colonial authorities certainly knew about the “Duke’s Grant” of 1664, issued to the Duke of York by his brother Charles II, for love and affection but, more importantly, to “reduce” the Dutch settlements around Manhattan, thus securing the profitable fur and tobacco trades. To net as much terrain as possible, it set boundaries in the vaguest terms. The grant extended from the mouth of the Connecticut River to Delaware Bay and stipulated that the territory would extend west to meet “His Majesty’s” other Governments.
But where exactly was that? Did the York grant reach east to the Connecticut River? Or did it lie 20 miles east of the Hudson River? Such ambiguities were not unusual. Wentworth adopted the latter view, but diplomatically wrote to the governor of New York just to make sure. New York did not reply right away, so Wentworth went ahead.
Between 1750 and 1764, he issued grants west from the Connecticut River for 138 townships in all—about 330,000 acres—which became known as the “New Hampshire Grants.” They were sold to developers, virtually none of whom set foot here, but families and tradesmen began to trickle northward.
In 1764, New York finally reacted and appealed to the new king, George III, who officially affirmed the boundary to be the Connecticut River. Wentworth was ordered to stop his activities, and he did. New York moved in, imposing its own grants on top of the New Hampshire Grants, occupied or not.
The crucial but usually overlooked fact is that the Wentworth settlers were freeholders, owning their land in fee simple. By contrast, the manorial land system of New York—and favored by George III—meant that parcels of many thousands of acres were awarded to individual owners, who then hired tenant farmers but had no particular interest in schools or civic life.
New Hampshire yeomen, who had bought their 100-acre parcels apparently unencumbered, were now obligated to buy back their titles at inflated prices—in cash. Those who could not, either sold out to speculators, became tenant farmers to New York landowners, or were evicted, literally overnight.
Appeals to the king resulted in a moratorium on grant-making, which New York soon violated, issuing titles totaling over 600,000 acres to political favorites. Evictions followed, enforced by the very sheriffs, judges and lawyers who held New York grants. The conflict of interest was so glaring that Ethan Allen and a lawyer representing the Grants walked out of the first hearing.
At that point Ethan Allen mustered the Green Mountain Boys to defend the Grants titles by a combination of intimidation, public ridicule, and physical force. It became clear that the settlements had to take matters into their own hands, and the first priority was to resist New York jurisdiction, which a convention in Manchester declared to be invalid. A year later, a crowd prevented a New York court from convening in Westminster, resulting in the fatal shooting by the New York sheriff’s posse.
Beginning in 1776, fired by the Declaration of Independence, yet blocked from joining the Union by New York opposition, the Grants people met in various towns to explore the possibility of forming “a separate District,” and in July 1777, 33 towns represented at the Dorset meeting endorsed the proposal unanimously.
In January 1777, delegates convened at Westminster and voted “That the district of land commonly called and known by the name of New Hampshire Grants be a new and separate State; and for the future conduct themselves as such.”
In Windsor, on July 2, 1777, the new commonwealth held its constitutional convention, naming itself Vermont. Several provisions are especially interesting to us today. First, anyone holding slaves or indentured servants was required to set them free when they reached the age of majority. Second, the General Assembly would represent the people. Finally, the constitution sealed the concept of a free, franchised citizenry in the Freeman’s Oath. The oath secured “all the privileges of a freeman of this State” to men 21 and older, “of a quiet and peaceable behavior.” It also enshrined the guiding principle, so hard-won, and with its foes fresh in the memories of all, that each vote was to represent the free and genuine conscience of the voter, “without fear or favor of any man.”
By Julia Purdy