Front Page Titles (by Subject) : Samuel Williams 1743-1817: The Natural and Civil History of Vermont (Chapters XIII, XIV, and XV) - American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 2
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: Samuel Williams 1743-1817: The Natural and Civil History of Vermont (Chapters XIII, XIV, and XV) - Charles S. Hyneman, American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 2 
American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983). 2 vols. Volume 2.
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Samuel Williams 1743-1817
The Natural and Civil History of Vermont (Chapters XIII, XIV, and XV)
walpole, new hampshire, 1794
In addition to sermons, pamphlets, and newspaper essays, a surprising number of books on politics, some of them multi-volume treatises, were published during the founding era. The present selection is an example. Since it is impossible to print here the four hundred pages and more that Williams wrote, three successive chapters in which political matters are most directly treated are reproduced—pages 324-351 of the original edition. The book enjoyed a long life as a textbook in the schools of Vermont and was reprinted as late as 1944. The author, son of a Massachusetts Congregationalist minister, was blessed with fine mental equipment, betrayed by excessive vanity, and enticed into moral lapses that led to his forced resignation from the Harvard College faculty at the age of forty-five. He instituted his career as a Congregational minister but from the day of his ordination found time for serious study of astronomy and mathematics, published occasional papers, and claimed to possess “the best astronomical apparatus in America” when he accepted a chair in Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Harvard. Forced out of this position ten years later, he made his way in disgrace to Rutland, Vermont, where he mustered a miserable income by publishing a newspaper and a magazine and doing odd jobs for the state government. Apparently not embittered by his previous defeats and current disfavor with fortune, Williams and his family were kindly received in the frontier capital. He responded by writing an analysis and critique of the state and its problems that is worth careful reading two hundred years later. A man with Samuel Williams’ diverse interests and profound learning could not be satisfied writing a simple history, and in the sections reproduced here, the eye of an anthropologist is turned upon the American experience. The result is an analysis of American politics combining traditional, theoretical discourse with early social, scientific analysis.
State of Society.—Customs and Manners: Education, early Marriages, Activity, Equality, Economy, and Hospitality of the People.
The customs and manners of nations are derived from descent, situation, employment, and all those regulations which have an influence upon the state of the people; and they serve better than other circumstances to ascertain the character of nations, and to denote the state of society at any given period in their history.—The customs and manners of the people of Vermont, are principally derived from the people of Newengland, from whom they are descended: But in a few particulars they have received a direction, from the state of society which takes place among the settlers in a new country.
Education.—Among the customs which are universal among the people, in all parts of the state, one that seems worthy of remark, is, the attention that is paid to the education of children. The aim of the parent, is not so much to have his children acquainted with the liberal arts and sciences; but to have them all taught to read with ease and propriety; to write a plain and legible hand; and to have them acquainted with the rules of arithmetic, so far as shall be necessary to carry on any of the most common and necessary occupations of life. All the children are trained up to this kind of knowledge: They are accustomed from their earliest years to read the Holy Scriptures, the periodical publications, newspapers, and political pamphlets; to form some general acquaintance with the laws of their country, the proceedings of the courts of justice, of the general assembly of the state, and of the Congress, &c. Such a kind of education is common and universal in every part of the state: And nothing would be more dishonourable to the parents, or to the children, than to be without it. One of the first things the new settlers attend to, is to procure a schoolmaster to instruct their children in the arts of reading, writing, and arithmetic: And where they are not able to procure or to hire an instructor, the parents attend to it themselves. No greater misfortune could attend a child, than to arrive at manhood unable to read, write, and keep small accounts: He is viewed as unfit for the common business of the towns and plantations, and in a state greatly inferiour to his neighbours. Every consideration joins to prevent so degraded and mortifying a state, by giving to every one the customary education, and advantages.—This custom was derived from the people of New-england; and has acquired greater force in the new settlements, where the people are apprehensive their children will have less advantages, and of consequence, not appear equal to the children in the older towns.—No custom was ever better adapted to private, or public good. Such kind of education and knowledge, is of more advantage to mankind, than all the speculations, disputes, and distinctions, that metaphysics, logic, and scholastic theology, have ever produced. In the plain common good sense, promoted by the one, virtue, utility, freedom, and public happiness, have their foundations. In the useless speculations produced by the other, common sense is lost, folly becomes refined, and the useful branches of knowledge are darkened, and forgot.
Early Marriages.—Another custom, which every thing tends to introduce in a new country, is early marriage. Trained up to a regular industry and economy the young people grow up to maturity, in all the vigour of health, and bloom of natural beauty. Not enervated by idleness, weakened by luxury, or corrupted by debauchery, the inclinations of nature are directed towards their proper objects, at an early period; and assume the direction, which nature and society designed they should have. The ease with which a family may be maintained, and the wishes of parents to see their children settled in the way of virtue, reputation, and felicity, are circumstances, which also strongly invite to an early settlement in life. The virtuous affections are not corrupted nor retarded by the pride of families, the ambition of ostentation, or the idle notions of useless and dangerous distinctions, under the name of honour and titles. Neither parents nor children have any other prospects, than what are founded upon industry, economy, and virtue.—Where every circumstance thus concurs to promote early marriages, the practice becomes universal, and it generally takes place, as soon as the laws of society suppose the young people of sufficient age and discretion to transact the business of life.—It is not necessary to enumerate the many advantages, that arise from this custom of early marriages. They comprehend all the society can receive from this source; from the preservation, and increase of the human race. Every thing useful and beneficial to man, seems to be connected with obedience to the laws of his nature: And where the state of society coincides with the laws of nature, the inclinations, the duties, and the happiness of individuals, resolve themselves into customs and habits, favourable, in the highest degree, to society. In no case is this more apparent, than in the customs of nations respecting marriage. When wealth, or the imaginary honour of families, is the great object, marriage becomes a matter of trade, pride, and form; in which affection, virtue, and happiness, are not consulted; from which the parties derive no felicity, and society receives no advantage. But where nature leads the way, all the lovely train of virtues, domestic happiness, and the greatest of all public benefits, a rapid population, are found to be the fruit.
Activity and Enterprize.—A spirit of activity and enterprize is every where found in a new state. Depending upon their own industry, and having nothing to expect from speculation and gaming in public funds, or from the errors or vices of government, the views of the people are directed to their own employments and business, as the only probable method of acquiring subsistence, and estate. Hence arises a spirit of universal activity, and enterprize in business. No other pursuits or prospects are suffered to divert their attention; for there is nothing to be acquired in any other way. Neither begging, or gaming, or trading upon public funds, measures, and management, can be profitable employments to the people who live at a distance from wealthy cities, and the seat of government. The only profitable business, is to pursue their own profession and calling.—To this pursuit their views become directed; and here, their activity and enterprize become remarkable. No difficulty or hardship seem to discourage them: And the perseverance of a few years generally serves to overcome the obstacles, that lay in their way at first. It is only those who are of this enterprising spirit, who venture to try their fortunes in the woods; and in a few years, it generally raises them into easy and comfortable circumstances.—To the most essential and necessary duties of man, heaven has annexed immediate and important blessings. The people thus active, laborious, and perpetually in hard exertions, are destitute of many of the conveniences of life; and of what, in every populous city, would be esteemed its necessaries. Can their health and spirits remain unimpaired, amidst this scene of hard living, and hard labour? Will they not waste away thus labouring in the woods, without good living, able physicians, and the advantages of medicine? So far from it, that no people have so few diseases, multiply so fast, or suffer so little from sickness. Temperance and labour do more for them, than art and medicine can do for others. The disorders which wear away the inhabitants of wealthy cities, are almost unknown in the woods. Very few die, but under the unavoidable decays of nature; and the deaths are to the births, in no higher a proportion than 1 to 4,8. Unacquainted with the improvements which are made in the medical art in Europe, the people of the new settlements neither know the names of the diseases, or their remedies; nor stand in any need of their discoveries, or prescriptions. The benevolent Author of Nature has annexed that health to their temperance, industry, and activity, which is never found in drugs, medicines, or any attainments of art. And while the people are thus active and industrious in performing their duty, the property and health of individuals, and the prosperity of the state, are all found to flourish together.
Equality.—The nearest equality that ever can take place among men, will also be found among the inhabitants of a new country. When a number of men are engaged in the same employments and pursuits, and have all of them to depend upon their own labour and industry for their support, their situation, views, and manners, will be nearly the same; the way to subsistence, to ease, and independence, being the same to all. In this stage of society the nearest equality will take place, that ever can subsist among men. But this equality will be nothing more than an equality of rights; and a similarity of employment, situation, pursuit, and interest. In a new country this similarity will be so great, as to form a near resemblance of manners and character; and to prevent any very great inequalities of privilege from taking place in society, either from rank, offices of government, or any other cause.—But nothing ever did, or ever can produce an equality of power, capacity, and advantages, in the social, or in any other state of man. By making men very unequal in their powers and capacities, nature has effectually prevented this. The whole race resemble one another in the make and form of their bodies; in their original appetites, passions, and inclinations; in reason, understanding, and the moral sense, &c. But in these respects it is similitude, not equality, which nature has produced. To some, the Author of Nature has assigned superiour powers of the mind, a strength of reason and discernment, a capacity of judging, and a genius for invention, which are not given to others. To others, the Deity has assigned a strength, vigour, and firmness of constitution, by which the bodily powers are more favoured in one, than in another. Causes thus natural and original, will be followed with their natural and proper effects. Superiour wisdom and abilities, will have superiour influence and effect in society. Superiour strength and activity of body, will also have advantages peculiar to themselves. In making these natural distinctions, nature evidently designed to qualify men for different attainments, and employments. And while she gave to all the nature and the rights of man, she assigned to some a capacity and a power, to make a much more useful improvement and exercise of that nature, and of those rights, than she has given to others.—Thus a state of nature is itself a state of society, or at least naturally tends to produce it. And in the earliest stages of society, all that equality will take place among mankind, which is consistent with it. Placed in a situation nearly similar, the employments, views, and pursuits of the people, become nearly the same. The distinctions derived from birth, blood, hereditary titles and honours, and a difference of rights and privileges, are either unknown or resolve themselves into nothing, among a people in such a situation; in every view, they cease to be of any use or importance to them. Their situation naturally leads them to discern the tendencies, and designs of nature. They all feel that nature has made them equal in respect to their rights; or rather that nature has given to them a common and an equal right to liberty, to property, and to safety; to justice, government, laws, religion, and freedom. They all see that nature has made them very unequal in respect to their original powers, capacities, and talents. They become united in claiming and in preserving the equality, which nature has assigned to them; and in availing themselves of the benefits, which are designed, and may be derived from the inequality, which nature has also established. Wherever a number of people are engaged in a common, economical, laborious pursuit of subsistence, property, and security; such views of their equality, and rights, immediately occur to their minds; they are easily discerned, and they are perfectly well understood.
Economy.—Every thing in the situation and employments of the people, in a new country, will naturally tend to produce economy. There are no large estates, or cultivated farms, prepared beforehand for the heir. Every thing for food, raiment, and convenience, must be procured by the labour and industry of the planter; and it is not without much difficulty and hardship, that the people can procure the necessaries of life at first, or the conveniences of it afterwards. What is thus procured with labour and difficulty, will be used with prudence and economy. The custom will not be to fall into scenes of expensive entertainments, amusement, and dissipation: But to provide for the calls and demands of nature, to preserve the health and vigour of the body, and to be able to raise up and support a family. And this will of course, introduce a steady regard to economy, in all their expenses, habits, and customs.—The influence that this has on the affairs of individuals, and on the state of society, is every where apparent. No such degrees of wealth can ever exist in any place, as shall be equal to the demands of luxury. And where custom has introduced a habit of living and expense, above the annual income, dependence, venality, and corruption, with constant want and distress, is the never failing consequence. But the most pernicious of all the effects of luxury, is the degradation it brings on the nature of man. It destroys the vigour and powers of men, and by constantly enfeebling the body and mind, seems to reduce them to a lower order of beings. The body, weakened by excessive indolence and indulgence, loses health, vigour, and beauty, and becomes subject to a thousand emaciating pains and maladies. The mind, subdued by indolence and inactivity, scarcely retains its rational powers; and becomes weak, languid, and incapable of manly exertions, or attainments. To a state thus degraded, effeminate, and unmanly, luxury frequently reduces those, who bear the remains of the human form. Political writers have frequently argued that luxury was of real service to the nations of Europe; that it tended to find employments for the poor, and was necessary to keep the money in circulation. This reasoning cannot be contradicted: But it supposes the state of society to be essentially bad; and that it cannot be supported but by the management, operations, and balance of vices. In such a state of society, luxury is certainly a benefit: And the highest degree of it, would be the greatest benefit of all. It would be the best thing that could happen in such a society, for the corrupted venal part to spend their estates, by luxury and dissipation, and to have them pass into other hands. This would be far better for mankind than to have them live useless, be constantly corrupting others, or train up an emaciated feeble race, degraded by effeminacy and weakness, below the rest of the human race. Whatever might be done to load such with honours, titles, and distinctions, it will be impossible ever to make them men; or at least such kind of men, as shall be upon terms of equality with the rest of the human race.—Activity, industry, and economy, will prevent such a race from appearing, or such effects from taking place, in any of the new states of America.
Hospitality.—That benevolent friendly disposition, which man should bear to man, will appear under different forms, in different stages of society. In the first combinations of mankind, when all are exposed to danger, sufferings, and want, it appears in one of its most amiable forms, and has been called hospitality. In this form it exists among the people who are subjected to the common danger, fatigue, and sufferings, which attend the forming of new settlements. Feeling every moment their own wants and dangers, they are led by their situation, to assist each other in their difficulties and danger. The traveller finds among them, all the relief their circumstances will enable them to afford him: And before they are able to erect houses for public entertainment, the stranger is sure to find the best accommodations, the situation of private families will admit.—This hospitable disposition seems to be universal, in all the new settlements: And the unfortunate and poor man finds a relief from it, which he never expects to find among a more wealthy people. No custom was ever better adapted to afford relief to an individual, or to promote the advantage of the state. A beggar or robber is scarcely ever to be seen in a country, where there is nothing to be obtained by the business. The poor find their relief in labour, and not from a multiplicity of laws, which extract large sums from others, but afford little relief to them: And from the profits of their labour, they will soon cease to be in distress. Those that appear to be objects of distress, are generally such in reality: And where the public has not been abused by such pretences, few will be exposed to suffer on such accounts. In such a state of society, hospitality naturally performs what it ought to perform: It encourages none in idleness and dissipation, but relieves those whose circumstances require relief. It provides only for those, who cannot find other resources; and aims only to put such into a situation, in which they may support themselves, and be of use to the public.
State of Society.—Religion: Importance of this Principle, Danger of any Controul in it, Equality of all Denominations, Effect of this Equality,Grants and Laws for the Support of Religion, Extent of Religious Liberty, Connexion of Religion with Science and Education.
Religion is one of those concerns, which will always have great influence upon the state of society. In our original frame and constitution, the Benevolent Author of our Natures, has made us rational and accountable creatures: Accountable to ourselves, to our fellow men, and to our God. These foundations of religion, are so strong, and universal, that they will not fail to have an effect upon the conduct of every one: And while they thus enter into the feelings and conduct of all the members, they will unavoidably have a great influence upon the state and conduct of society. Nor can society either set them aside, or carry on the public business without them. Instead of this, in one form or another, society will be perpetually calling in the aids of religion. When human declarations and evidence are to receive their highest force, and most solemn form, or when the most important transactions are to be performed, and offices of the highest trust and consequence are committed to men, the last appeal will be to religion, in the form of solemn affirmation or oath.
The most pure and benevolent system of religion, which has ever prevailed among men, is that of Christianity. This religion founded in truth, and adapted to the nature and state of man, has proposed for its end and aim, that which is of the highest importance to men and to society, universal benevolence, the love of God and man, or universal virtue. But neither this, nor any other system of moral truth, can impart infallibility to men. Whatever infallibility there may be in moral, in mathematical, or in revealed truths, men may greatly mistake when they come to explain, and apply them: And instead of being above all possibility of error, they will find that infallibility belongs only to the government of God; and that it certainly is not entailed upon any parties, or denominations of men.—Nothing therefore could be more dangerous, than to allow to any of these denominations the power to make laws to bind the rest, in matters of religion. The ruling party would vote themselves to be the only pure denomination, they would make the rest contribute to their support, and establish their own sentiments and practice, as the perfection of knowledge, wisdom, and religion; and in this way adopt measures, which tend to entail all their imperfections and errors, upon future ages. The dominion of one party over another in matters of religion, has always had this effect: It has operated to confirm error, oppress the minority, prevent the spirit of free inquiry and investigation; and subjected men to the most unrelenting of all persecutions, the persecution of priests and zealots, pleading principle to justify their vilest actions.—At the same time, every good man feels himself bound not to renew or admit any such authority in matters of religion. The obligations of religion are antecedent to, and more strong than any obligations derived from the laws of society. The first and the most important obligation any man can feel, is to obey his Maker, and the dictates of his own heart. The peace of our minds depends more essentially upon this, than any other circumstance in the course of human life.—What then has society to do in matters of religion, but simply to follow the laws of nature: To adopt these, and no other; and to leave to every man a full and perfect liberty, to follow the dictates of his own conscience, in all his transactions with his Maker?
The people of Vermont have adopted this principle, in its fullest extent. Some of them are episcopalians, others are congregationalists, others are of the presbyterian, and others are of the baptist persuasion; and some are quakers. All of them find their need of the assistance of each other, in the common concerns and business of life; and all of them are persuaded, that the government has nothing to do with their particular and distinguishing tenets.—It is not barely toleration, but equality, which the people aim at. Toleration implies either a power or a right in one party, to bear with the other; and seems to suppose, that the governing party are in possession of the truth, and that all the others are full of errors. Such a toleration is the most that can be obtained by the minority, in any nation, where the majority assume the right and the power, to bind society, by established laws and forms in religion. The body of the people in this commonwealth, carry their ideas of religious liberty much further than this: That no party shall have any power to make laws or forms to oblige another; that each denomination may lay themselves under what civil contracts and obligations they please; but that government shall not make any distinctions between them; that all denominations shall enjoy equal liberty, without any legal distinction or preeminence whatever.
The effect of this religious freedom, is peace, quietness, and prosperity to the state. No man is chosen to, or excluded from civil offices, on account of his particular religious sentiments. The clergy of the several denominations, have no chance to assume any powers, but among their own party. The people are under no obligation to support any teachers, but what they choose to lay themselves under. And no civil advantages are to be gained, or lost, by belonging to one denomination, rather than to another. The causes and the motives to contention, being thus taken away, there is scarcely any thing left to influence men to join one denomination rather than another, but belief, sentiment, and conscience. In this equality of all parties, religious professions become what they always ought to be; not matters of gain, profit, or civil distinctions; but matters of opinion, persuasion, and conscience: Sentiments and faith respecting the Deity, in which none expect to find the power of oppressing or ruling over others; but the same protection and benefit from the government, which they are at equal expense in supporting.
The settlement and support of the ministers of religion, has been encouraged and assisted by the government. The earliest grants of land in this state, were made by Benning Wentworth, governor of Newhampshire. This gentleman was of the communion of the church of England. In the grants of land that were made by him, there were three rights in each township reserved for religious purposes: One to the society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts; one for a glebe, designed for the use of an episcopal clergy; a third for the first settled minister, intended for his private property, to encourage the settlement of a minister in the new plantations. In the grants of townships, which have been made by the government of Vermont, two rights have been reserved for the support of a clergy: One for a parsonage, designed for the support of a minister, and unalienable from that purpose; another to become the property, and designed to encourage the settlement of the first minister. This right accrues to the first clergyman who is settled in the town, of whatever denomination he may be.—The salary of the minister ariseth wholly from the contract which the people may make with him. These contracts are altogether voluntary: But when made, by a law passed October 18, 1787, are considered as being of equal force and obligation as any other contracts; but no persons of a different denomination are obliged by them. The law has no reference to any particular denomination, but considers them all as having a right to make what contracts they please, with the minister they choose; and being of course bound by their own act, to fulfil their contract. A law designed to confirm the equal rights of all, is not subject to the exceptions or complaints of any party.
No embarrassments have attended any of the grants of land, which have been made for religious purposes, but those designed for a glebe, and those made to the society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts. In most of the towns there are not any persons of the episcopal persuasion, nor any incumbent to have the care of the glebe lots. The society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts, have not concerned themselves about the lands, which were granted to them. Both these rights have remained unimproved and uncultivated, except where individuals have gained possession of them; and it has been a disadvantage to the state, to have such tracts of land lying waste. It has been repeatedly a matter of consideration in the general assembly, what ought to be done with these lands.—Instead of coming to any decision upon the matter, in October, 1787, the general assembly passed an act, authorising the selectmen of the several towns, to take care of and improve the glebe and society lands, for the space of seven years; and to apply the incomes to the improvements of the lands, those excepted, which were in the possession of an episcopal minister. This law has been but little attended to, and is not at all competent to the improvement of the lands, or to render them beneficial to the state, or to any valuable purpose.—In any view of the matter, these lands ought not to be suffered to remain useless, and detrimental to the state. If the society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts, had made such as assignation of them, as would have served to promote religious instruction and knowledge, the people would have had the benefit that was intended by the grantor. If this be neglected an unreasonable time, it becomes the duty of the legislature, to prevent their remaining a public disadvantage to the state, by continuing uncultivated and useless.
The principles of religious liberty, are asserted in their fullest extent, in the constitution of Vermont. In the declaration of rights, there is a clause which seems to be adequate to the subject, and clearly expresses the religious rights of the people.—“Nor can any man be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments, or peculiar mode of religious worship; and no authority can, or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship.”* In the plan of government formed in 1778, and revised in 1786, a religious test was imposed upon the members of the assembly, inconsistent with the above declaration: In the late revisal of the constitution (1792) this imperfection has been done away; and religious liberty has acquired a complete establishment, by a declaration that “no religious test shall be required of any member of the legislature.”†
A greater attention to the liberal arts and science, would be of great advantage to the religious and civil interests of the state. The people of Vermont have not the advantages for the education of their youth, or the improvement of knowledge, which the people in the other states have. The disadvantages and dangers, which arise for want of literary institutions, are greater than they are aware of. The religion of ignorance, will either be, infidelity, or superstition; and it often produces an unnatural mixture of both, greatly unfavourable to the moral, and civil interests of men. When folly, in its own view, is become infallible and sacred, it opposes with obstinacy, all improvements in society; and requires, with a peculiar insolence, the submission of all other men, to its own weakness and bigotry. The only remedy for the difficulties which arise in society, from this cause, is the increase of knowledge and education. And where society is destitute of the means and institutions, which are requisite to promote knowledge, it is without one of its most essential advantages; the means of her own cultivation, and improvement.
The education of children for the common business of life, is well attended to. But the customary methods of education for the professions of divinity, law, or physic, are extremely deficient; and do not promise either eminence, or improvement. The body of the people appear to be more sensible of this defect, than professional men themselves. From the first assumption of all of the powers of government, the assembly had in contemplation, the establishment of an university in the state; and with this view, reserved one right of land in all the townships which they granted, for the use of such a seminary. In November, 1791, the legislature passed an act establishing the university at Burlington, upon a liberal, catholic, and judicious foundation. It has not as yet, entered upon the business of instruction. If it should be furnished with able and judicious instructors, by extending the benefits of education, and promoting an attention to the arts and sciences, it would greatly assist the intellectual and moral improvement of the people: These improvements are of essential importance to men, in every stage of society; but most of all necessary, when they are forming a new state.
State of Society—Nature of the American Government. Constitution of Vermont, Laws.
Nature of the American Government. The object and the principle of government is the same, in every part of the United States of America. The end or the design of it, is the public business; not the power, the emolument, or the dignity, of the persons employed, but only that public business which concerns either the whole federal territory, or some particular state.—The principle on which all the American governments are founded, is representation. They do not admit of sovereignty, nobility, or any kind of hereditary powers; but only of powers granted by the people, ascertained by written constitutions, and exercised by representation for a given time.
Governments founded on this principle, do not necessarily imply the same form. They do not admit of monarchy, or aristocracy; nor do they admit of what was called democracy by the ancients. In the ancient democracies the public business was transacted in the assemblies of the people: The whole body assembled to judge and decide, upon public affairs. Upon this account, the ancient democracies were found to be unfit, and inadequate to the government of a large nation. In America this difficulty never occurs: All is transacted by representation. Whatever may be the number of the people, or the extent of the territory, representation is proportioned to it; and thus becomes expressive of the public sentiment, in every part of the union. Hence the government in different states, though chiefly republican, varies in its form; committing more or less power to a governor, senate, or house of representatives, as the circumstances of any particular state may require. As each of these branches derive their whole power from the people, are accountable to them for the use and exercise they make of it, and may be displaced by the election of others; the security of the people is derived not from the nice ideal application of checks, ballances, and mechanical powers, among the different parts of the government; but from the responsibility, and dependence of each part of the government, upon the people.
This kind of government seems to have had its form and origin, from nature. It is not derived from any of the histories of the ancient republics. It is not borrowed from Greece, Rome, or Carthage. Nor does it appear that a government founded in representation ever was adopted among the ancients, under any form whatever.—Representation thus unknown to the ancients, was gradually introduced into Europe by her monarchs; not with any design to favour the rights of the people, but as the best means that they could devise to raise money. The monarchs who thus introduced it, with a view to collect money from the people, always took care to check it when it ventured to examine the origin and extent of the privileges of the sovereign, or of the rights of the people.—In America every thing tended to introduce, and to complete the system of representation. Made equal in their rights by nature, the body of the people were in a situation nearly similar with regard to their employments, pursuits, and views. Without the distinctions of titles, families, or nobility, they acknowledged and reverenced only those distinctions which nature had made, in a diversity of talents, abilities, and virtues. There were no family interests, connexions, or estates, large enough to oppress them. There was no excessive wealth in the hands of a few, sufficient to corrupt them. Britain tried in vain to force upon them a government, at first, derived from the decrees of her parliament; afterwards, from conquest. Nothing remained for such a people, but to follow what nature taught; and as they were too numerous to attempt to carry on their governments in the form of the ancient democracies, they naturally adopted the system of representation: Every where choosing representatives, and assigning to them such powers as their circumstances required. This was evidently the system of government, that nature pointed out: And it is a system that has no where been suffered to prevail but in America, and what the people were naturally lead to by the situation, in which Providence had placed them. The system of government then in America, is not derived from superstition, conquest, military power, or a pretended compact between the rulers and the people; but it was derived from nature, and reason; and is founded in the nature, capacities, and powers, which God hath assigned to the race of men.
All the Power that such governments can have, is derived from the public opinion. The body of the people while they remain industrious and economical, will be steadily attached to the public interest, which will entirely coincide with their own. They will more readily discern what their interest is, and be more steadily attached to it, than is to be expected from men who are placed in offices of honour and profit. The public opinion will be much nearer the truth, than the reasonings and refinements of speculative or interested men: The former will be founded wholly in a desire, and aim, to promote the public safety; the latter will be unavoidably more or less governed, by private views, interests, and aims: And when the government has the general opinion of the people to support it, it can act with the greatest force and power; that is, with the collected force and power of the whole nation: And this is the greatest force that ever can be exerted by any government, in any situation whatever.—Despotism never acquires a force equal to this. When a whole nation unite, and the public spirit moves and operates in the same direction, nothing can withstand its force, and the powers of despotism, with all their standing troops and regular armies, fall before it. It is only when the public sentiment and spirit is thus united, and brought into action, that government has acquired, or is able to exert the whole force of the national power.—With this strength, the governments of America amidst every kind of difficulty, rose superiour to all opposition; firmly established themselves, in fifteen different states; and gave uncommon vigour and efficacy to a federal establishment, which was designed and adapted to manage the public business of the whole system.
But whatever be the form or the power of government, it cannot attain its greatest perfection, unless it contains within itself, the means of its own improvement. The men of civilized countries, are making gradual and constant improvements in knowledge, in the sciences, and in all the arts by which life is made more secure and happy. Hence, that form of government which was best suited to their state in one stage of society, ceases to be so, in another: And unless the government itself improves, with the gradual improvement of society, it will lose much of its respectability, and power; become unsuited to the state, and injurious to the people. Despotism has always contemplated the body of the people, as mere mob; and has aimed and operated to keep them in that situation. To governments founded in this principle, the improvement of mankind proves fatal and destructive: And there is nothing, such governments are more anxious to prevent, than knowledge, property, and improvement, in the body of the people.—Built upon the rational and social nature of man, the American government expects to find its surest support, and greatest duration, in the gradual improvement, in the encreasing knowledge, virtue, and freedom, of the human race. The present government of America, is therefore proposed to her citizens, not as the most perfect standard of what man can ever attain to, but only as the best form, which we have as yet been able to discover: Not as a form, which is to bind our heirs and posterity forever, but as a form which is referred to them, to alter and improve, as they shall find best. Upon this idea, it is one of the constituent and essential parts of American government, that conventions shall be called at certain periods of time, to alter, amend, and improve the present form and constitution of government; as the state, circumstances, and improvements of society, shall then require. Thus provision is made, that the improvement of government, shall keep pace with the improvement of society in America. And no policy would appear more puerile or contemptible to the people of America, than an attempt to bind posterity to our forms, or to confine them to our degrees of knowledge, and improvement: The aim is altogether the reverse, to make provision for the perpetual improvement and progression of the government itself.
As this kind of government is not the same as that, which has been called monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy; as it had a conspicuous origin in America, and has not been suffered to prevail in any other part of the globe, it would be no more than just and proper, to distinguish it by its proper name, and call it, The American System of Government.
Constitution of Vermont.—The government of Vermont is of the same nature, and founded upon the same principles, as the other governments in the United States. By their constitution, formed in 1778, and revised in 1786, and 1792, the supreme legislative power is vested in a house of representatives of the freemen. Every town has a right to choose a representative, on the first Tuesday of September annually. The representatives so chosen, are to meet on the second Thursday of the succeeding October, and are styled The GeneralAssembly of the state of Vermont. They have power to choose their own officers; to sit on their own adjournments; prepare bills, and enact them into laws; they may expel members, but not for causes known to their constituents antecedent to their election; impeach state criminals; grant charters of incorporation, constitute towns, boroughs, cities, and counties; in conjunction with the council they are annually to elect judges of the supreme, county, and probate courts, sheriffs and justices of the peace; and also with the council, may elect majorgenerals, and brigadiergenerals, as often as there shall be occasion: They have all other powers necessary for the legislature of a free and sovereign state: But have no power to add to, alter, abolish, or infringe any part of the constitution.
The supreme executive power is vested in a governor, or lieutenantgovernor, and a council of twelve persons, chosen by the freemen, at the same time they choose their representative. The governor, or the lieutenantgovernor and council, are to commission all officers; prepare such business as may appear to them necessary to lay before the general assembly: They are to sit as judges to hear and determine on impeachments, taking to their assistance, for advice only, the judges of the supreme court. They have power to grant pardons, and remit fines, in all cases whatsoever, except in treason and murder, in which they have power to grant reprieves, but not to pardon until after the end of the next session of assembly, and in cases of impeachment, in which there is no remission or mitigation of punishment, but by act of legislation. They may also lay embargoes, or prohibit the exportation of any commodity, for any time not exceeding thirty days, in the recess of the house only.—The governor is captaingeneral and commander in chief of the forces of the state, but shall not command in person, except advised thereto by the council, and then only so long as they shall approve: And the lieutenantgovernor by virtue of his office, is lieutenantgeneral of all the forces of the state.
That the laws before they are enacted may be more maturely considered, and the inconvenience of hasty determinations as much as possible prevented, all bills which originate in the assembly are laid before the governor and council for their revision and concurrence, or proposals of amendment; who return the same to the assembly with their proposals of amendment (if any) in writing; and if the same are not agreed to by the assembly, it is in the power of the governor and council, to suspend the passing of such bills, until the next session of the legislature. But no negative is allowed to the governor and council.
The formers of the constitution were aware that the plan of government, which they had drawn up, would not be adequate to the affairs of government, when the state of the people should become different, but must necessarily vary with it: And they wisely made provision to have the whole examined and revised, at the end of every seven years. The provision they made for this purpose was a council of censors, to consist of thirteen persons, to be elected by the people every seventh year, on the last Wednesday in March; and to assemble on the first Wednesday in June. The duty assigned to them, is to inquire whether the constitution has been preserved inviolate in every part; whether the legislative and executive branches of government have performed their duty, as guardians of the people; or assumed to themselves, or exercised other or greater powers, than they are entitled to by the constitution; whether the public taxes have been justly laid, and collected; in what manner the public monies have been disposed of; and whether the laws have been duly executed. Powers fully competent to these purposes, are committed to them. They may send for persons, papers, and records: They have authority to pass public censures, to order impeachments, and to recommend to the legislature the repealing such laws, as shall appear to them to have been enacted contrary to the principles of the constitution. These powers they may exercise during the space of one year, from the time of their election; and they may call a convention to meet within two years after their sitting, if they judge it necessary.
In examining a constitution of government, the most capital circumstance to be taken into consideration, is, the condition and circumstances of the people, or the state of society among them. At the first assumption of government in Vermont, the form of it differed but little from the democracy of the ancients. From that period, it has been constantly tending to give more power to the house of representatives,—But it is found by experience, that in so popular a government, nothing is more necessary than some provision, like that of the council of censors, to have all the public proceedings revised at certain periods of time; and such alterations made in the constitution, as time, events, or the circumstances of the people, may require. As the state of society is progressive, there is no way to have the government adapted to the state of society, but to have the government also progressive; that both may admit of the improvements, that are gradually made in human affairs. With this provision, a constitution of government which contains many faults, will gradually mend and improve itself, without being forced to the dangers and convulsions of a revolution: And it seems to be the only provision which human wisdom has yet found to prevent the interposition of such calamities.
Laws.—So much of the common law of England as is not repugnant to the constitution, or to any act of the legislature, is adopted as law within this state: And such statute laws, and parts of laws of the kingdom of England and Greatbritain, as were passed before the first day of October, 1760, for the explanation of the common law, and are not repugnant to the constitution, or some act of the legislature, and are applicable to the circumstances of the state, are also adopted and made law in Vermont.—The criminal law of Greatbritain seems to be adapted only to a very degraded, vicious, and barbarous state of society. No less than one hundred and sixty crimes are punishable by death. Sanguinary laws and executions have there made death so common and familiar, that it seems to have become one of those common occurrences, which is constantly to be expected, and is very little regarded. Several of the punishments, in the contrivances of their cruelty, are fully equal to any thing that has ever been perpetrated by the Indians of America: In brutal rage and inhuman torture, the punishment assigned to high treason, fairly exceeds any thing the Indian genius could ever conceive.—Such a code of criminal law is wholly unfitted to the uncorrupted state of the people in America; nor would they in any part of the continent, be persuaded to admit it. Instead of one hundred and sixty, there are only nine crimes, to which the laws of Vermont have assigned the punishment of death: And since the first assumption of government in 1777, there has not been any person convicted of any of these crimes.—What relates to the internal affairs of government, the regulations necessary for a new country, or such as are suited to our particular state of society, are provided for by statutes made for such particular cases and purposes.—To form a code of laws suited to the state of a large nation, has been justly esteemed the most difficult part of government. It does not appear that human wisdom has ever been able to effect this without great errors, in any part of the earth. If it is to be obtained, the particular states of America have now a fair opportunity to make the experiment, how far human wisdom can proceed at present, in effecting this arduous but most important attainment.
[* ] Declaration of rights, Article III.
[† ] Plan or frame of government, Section V.