Voicing Concerns: The Use of Petitions throughout Vermont Governmental History

-Sally Blanchard-O’Brien, Archives Month Committee Member

Vermonters have had a lot to ask of and say about their government over the centuries. From pre-statehood times to the present Vermonters have been petitioning their government to effect action on certain issues, to obtain their rights and dues, and to make their voices heard. While there are numerous reasons for petitioning one’s government, we’ll take a look here at three historical reasons in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  

Tired of the New York and New Hampshire colonies both laying claim to the land between them, Vermont declared itself an independent republic from 1777 until it achieved statehood in 1791. While several English settlements existed in Vermont by 1777, there were still areas unclaimed by white settlers. The newly independent Vermonters set out to inhabit these areas by petitioning the General Assembly. Bethel was the first town established by the independent Vermont government, petitioned for in 1778 and chartered in 1779. Many petitions for land came to Vermont’s legislative body in these years, and these petitions have been published and can be read online.

Part of petition for the town of Bethel, including sketch of proposed land, 1778. Courtesy Vermont State Archives & Records Administration (series SE-118).

Vermonters often petitioned the legislature for services or money owed them. In 1778, John Cannon petitioned the Governor and Council for redress of his losses on account of the Battle of Shelburne and Captain Thomas Sawyer. In his petition, he gave an account of what happened: he had prepaid for some wheat, went to collect it and found Captain Sawyer claiming it as wages for his men. Cannon then worked alongside them to re-earn the wheat. However, the fight at Shelburne broke out and — Cannon broke his hand, rode express for the men, and lost his wheat a second time. The Governor and Council found that his request needed more examination, but they gave him twenty pounds’ relief in the interim. In an 1829 incident, Joel Houghton of Stamford found his store robbed; he took it upon himself to track down the culprits, who were later convicted. Because he went to “great trouble and expense to find out and prosecute to conviction said culprits,” he petitioned the legislature for financial compensation for his service. His request was granted. 

Part of petition from Joel Houghton asking for financial compensation, 1829. Courtesy of Vermont State Archives & Records Administration (series SE-118).

Vermonters have also petitioned their government in favor of causes they are passionate about, and have done so for generations. They wrote to their government and expressed their opinions about temperance and abolishing slavery in the 19th century, for and against women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many other issues and laws that come up for debate up to the present day. Collecting signatures adds impact to a statement in support of or opposition to a political issue, demonstrating the public’s opinion about proposed policies.

Petition from residents of Middlebury asking for municipal and presidential suffrage for women, 1904. Courtesy of Vermont State Archives & Records Administration (series A-122).

Whether it’s a list of names in support of a social cause or a narrative plea to obtain what’s due, petitions have had a long tradition in Vermont of voicing the needs of the people to their government. There are thousands of petitions that exist in Vermont’s historical record, each giving voice to the unique social, economic, and political mores of the time. If you are interested in conducting your own research related to petitions to Vermont state government, you can contact the reference room of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration at sos.archives@vermont.gov.  

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