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Vermont in the Nineteenth Century

By Paul M. Searls

Vermont’s path diverged from much of the rest of the nation in the nineteenth century. Over those one hundred years, the United States went from being a pre-capitalist society to a nation whose industrial output exceeded that of any other country. Vermont, however, remained an overwhelmingly rural state, and it is useful to think of it as, to paraphrase historian Hal Barron’s description of the town of Chelsea, the state that “stayed behind.”1 It is inaccurate, however, to think of Vermont as having escaped the progress, disruptions, and conflict generated by America’s evolution in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Vermont felt those changes no less keenly than more industrial parts of the United States. In some ways Vermont experienced that process differently than other places; in other ways its evolution was very similar. Either way, the result was that Vermont was a radically different society at the end of that century than it was at the beginning.

The consequences of this century of change were profound, striking at the heart of Vermonters’ sense of themselves as a community. Different kinds of Vermonters fervently contested the present and future of the state in a variety of areas of life. Vermonters revisited their collective past, asking anew what kind of society had the state’s founders wanted: Was it to be a society that embraced change, or one that tried to perpetuate tradition? Would it be a community of people whose boundaries—“who is a Vermonter?”—were drawn narrowly or broadly? Was Vermont, as an idea and an aspiration, strong because that idea was rigid or flexible? Ultimately, in a state characterized by deep divisions, did those with opposing views of life desire different goals, or were they merely pursuing different paths to the same goal?

One simple way to organize Vermonters in that era follows the lead of Robert Shalhope in his book Bennington and the Green Mountain Boys, dividing them into broad “uphill” and “downhill” categories. This distinction is geographical: the farmers who first arrived placed their villages on the tops of hills, whereas the professionals who followed favored river valleys for their better access to commerce. The categories are better understood as ideological, however. Briefly stated, each group entails an individually coherent and mutually contradictory bundle of values. Generally speaking, “uphillers” embraced tradition and communal values, while “downhillers” sought material and social progress. As Shalhope describes it, with the passing of the Revolutionary generation, the future direction of Vermont came to be hotly contested by these two groups. That contest echoed across the totality of the nineteenth century.

Not all residents of Vermont fit easily into these categories, of course. They neglect such groups as Native Americans and African Americans, and particularly the Catholics who occupied Vermont from its beginning. The story of Vermont’s industrialization perhaps begins with this source of cheap labor, provided early in the century especially by Ireland and Québec. For example, the large number of Irish centered around Burlington’s waterfront was one of the city’s defining features early in the century. Meanwhile, some rural towns, such as Fairfield, were heavily Irish by the 1830s. Later in the century, the censuses of 1880 and 1900 (1890 is largely missing, having been destroyed in a fire) document the influx of other ethnic immigrants to Vermont, in substantial numbers in some cases (for example, Scots and Italians to Barre). Cultural diversity increased significantly during the nineteenth century.

Whether in farming villages or industrial centers, Vermonters of all kinds saw life change dramatically in the 1820s. The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, connecting the southern end of Lake Champlain to the Hudson River and thus creating a water route to New York City, touched off a dramatic shift to a capitalist economy. Vermonters were now increasingly dependent on economic forces originating in distant places, and becoming more enmeshed in a national market economy. The result was a great deal of social ferment: notably, on the part of the emergent middle class a reform impulse, and on the part of the less fortunate, religious and political experimentation. (Middle-class reformers embraced the causes of temperance and antislavery; working-class people were more frequently drawn to evangelical revivals and the anti-Mason political crusade.) These economic and social forces accelerated with the coming of railroads in the 1840s, which furthered exposed Vermont to developments in the rest of the country. The railroads brought new and cheaper goods into the state, forced wheat and sheep farmers into unsuccessful competition with western farmers, and made it easier for Vermonters to seek their fortune elsewhere. All of these changes proved challenging to the maintenance of Vermont as a viable, prosperous community. By mid-century, uphill and downhill Vermonters had settled into opposing visions of what was desirable in such areas of life as land use, education, and welfare.

One consequence of these improvements in transportation was that, from the 1830s on, Vermont was perhaps chiefly characterized by its high rate of emigration to cities and the West. From about 1850 until well into the twentieth century, Vermont’s overall population remained about the same, with the growth of big towns offset by losses in the much more numerous rural ones. Vermont cemented its position as New England’s most rural state. But this did not mean that “stagnation” or “decline” was the order of the day, despite what many contemporary observers believed. Even the most isolated hill farmers were active participants in the national economy. Vermont’s small towns exerted considerable political power, as a result of the state’s one-town, one-vote legislative apportionment.

Industrialization had its greatest impact in the largest towns. At mid-century, mills of many kinds existed in every corner of the state. Vermonters mined iron and copper, quarried slate, granite and marble, and produced a vast array of finished goods. As elsewhere, the rise of industry was accompanied by worker unrest and conflict, notably the 1846 “Bolton War” touched off by the Central Vermont Railroad’s failure to pay its workers. There were also a number of strikes, such as that among female textile workers in Woodstock in 1866. In the second half of the century worker discontent continued, often in concert with national developments, such as when employees of the Vermont Marble Company joined the Knights of Labor in 1885 and briefly took political control of Rutland through their United Labor party. Workers in Barre organized the nation’s largest local of the Granite Cutters union, and beginning in the 1880s they engaged in a long series of conflicts with quarry owners and manufacturers over wages, hours, and the workplace health and safety impact of new technologies that mechanized stone cutting and increased the dust problem that caused silicosis.

The main arena of conflict in the second half of the nineteenth century, however, remained between the downhillers and uphillers. By that time, the groups pursued what Hal Barron calls “two dramatically different patterns of life.” An illustration is provided by the lives  of George Grenville Benedict and “Gramp” Abbott. Benedict was a Burlington native, owner of the Burlington Free Press, state senator, and member of a dizzying number and array of organizations, from Burlington’s exclusive Algonquin Club to the Vermont Dairymen’s Association (though he didn’t farm). It was among people like Benedict that the greatest fears about the perceived decline of Vermont originated. Abbott, on the other hand, had good reason to see rural life in Vermont as stable. In 1870, Abbott pursued a life of diverse activity and relative simplicity. The 1870 census suggests how diversified, and therefore secure, Abbott’s farm was: In that year he owned one horse, one milk cow, two oxen, four other cattle, 40 sheep, and one hog. He raised rye, Indian corn, oats, buckwheat, and Irish potatoes. He additionally clipped wool, churned butter, harvested hay, and made maple sugar. He split fence rails, made shingles, built stonewalls, made soap, and wove baskets.

These were the extremely different worlds produced by Vermont’s peculiar encounter with industrialization. It would have been easy for Benedict to consider Abbott uneducated, as his formal education ended at the district school level. But it is equally easy, from a contemporary perspective, to think that the two were instead equally, but differently, educated. In the same way, the declining population of a town like Chelsea was often seen by outsiders as evidence of its stagnation. Looking back, however, evidence suggests that the people leaving such towns were those who were most superfluous to the evolving local economy. Towns like Chelsea were becoming increasingly homogenous and driven by consensus. Such a society might have been unattractively narrow and restrictive to many, but those who embraced it had good reason to do so, and good reason to fear the interference of outsiders in it. Like Benedict’s world of Burlington’s elite, the social structure of rural communities was simply one among many ways available to Americans to negotiate the changes wrought by industrialization.

In the Gilded Age (roughly 1870-1900) Vermont’s elite did indeed feel compelled to intervene in rural communities in an attempt to improve, or reform, or even save them. Such intervention came in many forms, among them modernizing agriculture, consolidating schools, fighting child labor, and managing the environment. In each of these and many other areas, rural Vermonters resisted outsiders’ reform efforts both in everyday life and in the State Legislature, which small towns dominated as a result of Vermont’s one-town, one-vote system. This resistance created increasing frustration among reformers that what they considered to be commonsensical measures were being rejected by those who needed them most. What the reformers did not appreciate was that strong communities were very fragile, and very carefully maintained, things. The introduction of radical, or even incremental, changes to rural communities had the potential to undermine them dramatically.

The consequences of this ideological divergence are illustrated well by Hiland Hall’s campaign to erect a monument to the Battle of Bennington, an effort that occupied most of the nineteenth century. A native of Bennington, Hall had grown up around Green Mountain Boys. He went on to become a successful lawyer and politician, and in the 1850s governor of Vermont. As Vermont’s economy and society were transformed by capitalism in the first half of the nineteenth century, Hall hoped that all Vermonters would benefit from the increased wealth produced by the industrial economy. When social conflict and inequality resulted instead, he began to think that the celebration of Vermont’s past, particularly through the erection of a monument in Bennington, could bridge this growing distance, uniting Vermonters in a sense of a shared past. Hall first desired a Bennington monument in the 1820s, but it was not until the 1860s that he formed an association devoted to that cause. Even then, it took until the early 1880s, when Hall was at a very advanced age, to commission designs for the monument. Most of the members of the association favored a relatively low, ornate monument, on which would be etched the story of the battle. Ardently opposing such a design, Hall instead favored an extremely tall tower on which nothing was written. His preference baffled members of the association; its chairman, Burlington lawyer Edward Phelps, wrote an open letter to Hall telling him that, if such a monument was constructed, it would “be silent, without a voice,” and that people “would not know what it was for.” Hall assured Phelps and his fellow commissioners not to worry: People would know what it was for.

A reasonable conclusion is that Hall wanted the monument to mean whatever each and every person who viewed it wanted it to mean. Perhaps the dedication of the monument in 1891, as the nineteenth century wound down, illustrates the divergent paths industrialization had propelled Vermonters through during the previous nine decades, and suggests how little upillers and downhillers shared. But the many speakers at the monument’s dedication ceremony who intoned a collective Vermont past that transcended differences, and who spoke of a united community of Vermonters, indicate otherwise. In many ways, Vermont experienced industrialization differently than, for example, the other New England states, and differently situated Vermonters experienced that process differently. But the bottom line is that Vermont’s evolution in the nineteenth century was very typical, and that all Vermonters were engaged in a very basic effort: to preserve those aspects of pre-modern life that were most desirable while embracing the benefits of progress.

1. Hal S. Barron, Those Who Stayed Behind: Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England (Cambridge University Press, 1984

Paul M. Searls teaches U.S and Vermont History at Lyndon State College. He is the author of Two Vermonts: Geography and Identity, 1865-1910 (University of New Hampshire Press, 2006).

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