And They Called The County Washington

by William Doyle

History, dull? Never! Political shenanigans in Vermont in the early 1800s provide a glowing example.

In that era the Federalists and the Jeffersonians warred with each other with a vengeance. Disclosure of battle plans, smuggling and even the naming of Washington County kept the citizenry at fever pitch.

Although the Federalists remained powerful in Vermont, the Jeffersonians made gains in Vermont and the nation in the election of 1800. By 1807, the Jeffersonians, for the first time, had captured the governship, as well as a majority of the General Assembly, and had substantial representation in the United States House and Senate.

The Jeffersonians success must have been due partly to their superb organization. Spooner's Vermont Journal, dated 1809, mentions a letter signed by a Federalist who explained the Jeffersonian plan for the next election. He alleged that instructions were distributed as follows:

"There shall be a Grand Inspector on each side of the Green Mountains, who shall appoint a county committee in each county. Every county committee shall appoint a centre committee in each town in its county; and each centre committee shall divide its town into small districts, and in each district appoint a sub committee, who shall make a true list of the names of all the freemen in such district, and against each man's name write his political character by noting him to be a Federal, Jeffersonial, Doubtful, or wavering."

The Jefferonians' gains, however, were nullified by Jefferson's embargo halting trade with England. The fact the state shared a border with British Canada made Vermont more sensitive than many other states to the young nation's foreign policy decisions. When Jefferson called for an embargo on trade between the United States and Britain (and its colonies), many Vermonters were outraged. The young state shipped a considerable amount of its products north to Canada, and received goods from that country. To have the trade cut off was an economic hardship. Many defied the ban, skirting marshals patrolling the trade routes. Smuggler's Notch received its name in this period because the remote mountain gap was used as a pathway north. It was reported that in 1809 there were as many as 700 sleighs carrying oak and pork on the road from Middlebury to Montreal. Angry citizens transposed the letters of "embargo" to "o grab me" or "go bar em" as a way of denouncing the "dambargo."

Vermont's violations of the Embargo Act were so numerous that the United States customs collector in Vermont wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury that the law could not be enforced without military assistance. President Jefferson's response was to direct the collector to arm and equip vessels to prevent illegal trade. If this were not successful, the United States Marshal was authorized to raise a group of men "to aid in suppressing the insurrection or combination." Jefferson's orders enraged many Vermonters, "who resented imputations of treason." As a result of a town meeting, St. Albans wrote the president, denying the charge of insurrection. Vermont Federalists accused the Jefferson administration of supporting French radicalism.

As a result of the embargo, the Jeffersonians paid a heavy political price in the 1808 elections. The Federalists captured three out of the state's four congressional seats, and Federalist Isaac Tichenor recaptured the governship. Tichenor had been born in Newark, N. J., and was affectionately referred to as "Jersey Slick."

Governor Tichenor's inaugural address declared that "we sincerely regret that the law (embargo) was not accompanied with that evidence of national necessity or utility which...would have commanded obedience and respect." The Jeffersonians, with a majority of 16 in the General Assembly, replied that the embargo "was the only practicable measure that could have averted the dangers and horrors of war."

The General Assembly remained in Jeffersonian control, however, and that opposition dogged Tichenor's entire administration. When he suggested that compassion be accorded the smugglers, he was charged with "declaration of duty." The Jeffersonians parlayed this charge into treason and used it effectively in the election of 1809, which Tichenor lost to the Jeffersonian candidate, Jonas Galusha. Interestingly, Galusha, like the hot-headed Matthew Lyon, had married a daughter of Thomas Chittenden, the state's first governor. Galusha won four successive one-year terms to the governship, and the Jeffersonians retained control over the one-house General Assembly.

In 1810, Federalists in New England had formed pro-British organizations called Washington Benevolent Societies, which favored trading with England. Brookfield, Royalton and Williamstown were centers of Washingtonian Societies. Financial supporters of these societies included Federalists Nathaniel Chipman and Isaac Tichenor. The Jeffersonians charged these societies were advocating treason, and one Jeffersonian newspaper called for "committee of public safety" to deal with "traitors parading for their Malignancy."

In his farewell address in 1797, President Washington had urged a policy of neutrality for the young nation. The Montpelier Watchman in June of 1812 asked its readers to support all Federalist candidates to show that the "political character of Vermont is really WASHINGTON."

The pro-French Jeffersonian societies that had been encouraged by Matthew Lyon in the 1790s continued their pro-French activity and supported a war against Great Britain.

The competition between the two parties was even reflected in place names. In 1810, the General Assembly created a new county in central Vermont, and the legislators from the towns comprising the county asked that it be named Washington. But the Assembly was controlled by the Jeffersonians, who voted 101-90 to call the county Jefferson. In 1814, a Federalist-controlled General Assembly renamed the county Washington. The matter ended there.

The foregoing brief look at an early Vermont political scene offers convincing proof that history, far from being dull, is dynamic, exciting and exhilarating!


William Doyle is a county senator and an instructor of political science. He is the author of The Vermont Political Tradition: And Those Who Helped Make It.

This is an article published in Central Vermont Magazine Summer 1988 issue. For information on where to locate these magazines contact the chamber at 229-5711.

Thanks are extended to Earline Marsh, Alan Noyes, Elizabeth Ralph, Sally Finn and Jack Belding for their time selecting and editing Central Vermont Magazine articles for publication on the web.


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