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Map of Vermont

Vermont became the fourteenth state in 1791, fourteen years after declaring itself independent from the claims of New York. Vermont adopted its first constitution in 1777. Patterning its constitution after the radical document created by Pennsylvania, Vermont went even further, granting universal male suffrage and prohibiting slavery. Wary of power, the framers denied the veto to the governor and forced him to share executive duties with a twelve-man council. A unicameral assembly held legislative power.

The governor, lieutenant governor, and treasurer were chosen annually in general elections; they needed a majority to gain office. If there was no majority, the winner was chosen by the Joint Assembly (the House, or General Assembly, and the Executive Council). Freemen of each town selected their representative to the General Assembly annually. Members of the Executive Council were elected statewide. United States congressmen were voted on by district, with the exception of the years 1812–1820, when they were chosen statewide. United States senators were chosen by the Joint Assembly. The Council of Censors were the caretakers of the state constitution. Thirteen men, each elected statewide every seven years to a one-year term, were charged with examining legislation for constitutionality and with proposing appropriate amendments. The early years of statehood saw the old political factions of the Arlington Junto (Thomas Chittenden, the Allen brothers, and their followers) and their opponents fade as the Federalist and Democratic-Republican divisions took center stage. Voter participation was initially sparse but inched upward. It took Jefferson's embargo to jolt Vermonters out of their political inertia. Fifty percent more voters cast ballots for governor in 1808 than in 1807. Madison's declaration of war precipitated a similar rise in 1812. The war years contributed the highest voter turnout of the period. The two parties were evenly matched. In the years of 1813 and 1814, their candidates for governor were separated by less than 300 votes, and the parties in the General Assembly were separated by a handful of votes. Vermont's congressmen were elected by the same narrow margins.

Despite such intense party competition, very few men held statewide office. Straying from its Pennsylvania model, Vermont allowed unlimited reelection to state office and multiple office holding. From 1787 to 1825, only eight men sat in the governor's chair. Only seven men served as lieutenant governor. Just two had been elected treasurer. From 1778 to 1825, only 114 different men sat on the Executive Council, out of a possible 588 seats. Because of this, and because of their ability to hold other offices, a small group were able to wield immense influence in the state.

After the end of the war, the Federalist Party slowly dissolved, and with it voter participation. The last Federalist candidate for governor ran in 1817. The two-party system being defunct, Republican statewide candidates were chosen by caucus in the legislature and ran virtually unopposed. With no issues to divide the populace, by 1825 the number of votes for governor had dwindled to its lowest level since 1800.


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