CHAPTER 1. - NEW ENGLAND.
The early days of the Revolution found the New Hampshire Grants, as the section later known as Vermont was then called, under the nominal jurisdiction of New York. The majority of the people were opposed to the authority of that State, had denied its right to govern them, and had carried on their affairs by local Committees of Safety and central conventions. Until the fall of 1777 a remnant of New Yorks jurisdiction remained in the Committees of Safety of Cumberland and Gloucester counties appointed under the authority of New York, which tried to hold their districts for that state. They were a great hindrance to the authority of Vermont, but as that government grew in popularity and power, they gradually lost adherents, until they were unable to find sufficient support to hold their sessions, and in spite of protests and appeals from New York, the counties passed out of their control.
A Convention of the New Hampshire Grants, representing the different towns, met January, 1777, and declared the district a free and independent State. In June another Convention was held in which a committee was appointed to prepare a constitution to be referred for adoption to a Convention to meet in July. This July Convention adopted the constitution and before adjournment appointed a Council of Safety of twelve members to act until the new government went into operation in December of that year.
The Council of Safety thus chosen was given a temporary position of absolute independence. The Convention that appointed it had separated with no intention of meeting again. The new Assembly would not come together until December. The Council therefore was controlled by no power outside itself that could direct its movements or call it to account. The people had not chosen and could not dismiss it. It was chosen for a definite period and no fear for re-election put the members under restraint. No official records of the July Convention have been preserved, so that it is impossible to tell the exact character of the authority conferred on it, but it is certain from the records of its acts that it actually exercised supreme and absolute power in the State, and transacted all its civil and military business.
Some difficulties lay in the way of making its position good. It was in the first place a novel one. Vermont had never known a settled government of her own. The conventions of the local Committees of Safety and later of the representatives of the towns, called for special purposes and soon dismissed, were the only substitutes she had to offer for the long years of training in provincial government of such colonies as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Even the people of New Hampshire, though allowed little influence in the administration of the State, had yet been represented in assemblies and had been accustomed during a long period of years to a settled government and to rendering obedience to it. To Vermont all this was new. The settlers were used to the government of the little towns which during the pre-revolutionary period had lived like small republics, but they had no knowledge of the management of the affairs of a whole province and no experience of a central government of their own that should command their obedience. Such a central government had now been created and put in the hands of the Council of Safety, in trust, till more complete organs of government could take it in charge. The men who composed the Council had but slight education. They were farmers, called from the field to take charge of a State and given the task of controlling a people unused to discipline. They were supported by no written constitution to serve as guide and as justification of their acts. It was then no light task that the Council had in hand.
In addition, the situation of the new State at the time of the appointment of the Council was most disheartening. New York still claimed jurisdiction, and still found adherents in disputed districts. New York officials and committees were yet busy in attempting to enforce authority and New York delegates in Congress were able to keep back any recognition of Vermont as a separate state. Still darker hung the dread of British invasion. Ticonderoga had fallen and Burgoynes victorious army threatened the defenseless State. Nearly three-fourths of the people to the west of the Green Mountains had fled in terror to the east, leaving the frontiers unprotected. Large numbers of the settlers joined the enemy intending to return to their farms under the protection of Burgoynes next victory.
No money or revenue was at the command of the Council, and troops must be raised at once, equipped and supported. The members of the Council spent a long day discussing ways and means. Even if the people were willing to respond to a requisition for the purpose, too long a time would elapse before the money could be collected and put in the hands of the State. Some other plan must be devised. A majority of the Council felt that the State could only afford two companies, but Ira Allen, the secretary, insisted on nothing less than a regiment. It was therefore decided to put on his shoulders the task of devising means for their support. The next morning Allen recommended the confiscation and sale of the land of refugees to the enemy and his plan was adopted.
The money obtained in this way was found sufficient for all the expenses of the State so that no taxes were imposed during the existence of the Council, a fact which without doubt earned them popular support and obedience. Commissioners of Sequestration were appointed at once, and were directed to seize the land and goods of any person going over to the enemy. Those articles that were serviceable for the troops were to be sent to the army contractors. All other movables were to be sold at auction (except such as were necessary for the support of the dependent members of the family) and the money sent to the Council. The land was to be leased for a term of not over two years to any person that wished it, preference being given to those who had been driven from their homes by the war.
The necessary funds being thus provided a regiment of rangers was raised, to be under the direction of the Council or the Commander in-chief of the army east of the Hudson, and Samuel Herrick was commissioned as Lieutenant-colonel. A call was issued to the settlers who had fled from their homes to return and protect their crops. Posts were sent to different militia officers to send all the troops possible to Manchester where the attack was expected and earnest requests for aid were dispatched to Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Not long after, a regiment from Massachusetts arrived in the State. General Schuyler, a citizen of New York, and commander of the northern army, at once ordered the Massachusetts troops and Herricks rangers to Saratoga. The Massachusetts troops were under the regulations of the Continental Congress and its officers, and were obliged to comply. But the Council of Safety felt for once the advantage of its independence and isolation, and determining to defend its own frontier, superseded Schuylers orders, and directed Herrick to remain in Vermont. This led to several irascible letters from Schuyler, but the Council remained unmoved, not unwilling doubtless to thwart a representative of their old enemy.
New Hampshire responded to Vermonts appeal with a brigade of militia commanded by General Stark, who put himself under the direction of the Council of Safety. The two co-operated in active preparations for the battle, the Council rendering great service in giving word of the enemys movements, in supplying arms and ammunition, and sending requests to the nearest militia officers for aid.
The decisive victory at Bennington over Baums detachment was the result, and the cloud that had hung over the frontier lifted. Stark, in a letter to the Hartford Courant, acknowledged the important part which the Council had played, and presented it with a Hessian broadsword in memory of the event, and in testimony of its aid. Burgoyne himself paid tribute to its energy when he wrote to Lord George Germaine, August 20: "Wherever the kings forces point, militia to the amount of three or four thousand assemble in twenty-four hours. The New Hampshire Grants in particular, a country unpeopled and almost unknown in the last war, now abounds in the most active and most rebellious race of the continent, and hang like a gathering storm on my left." It was due to the exertions of the Council that the military strength of the Province had been organized for effective resistance.
Aside from the refusal to obey General Schuyler, Vermont co-operated actively with the Continental Army. The Council was wise enough to see that the possibility of independence lay only in union of effort and that its State must stand or fall with the success or failure of the United States. In August the Council raised three hundred and twenty-five men for General Lincoln for the Continental service, voting them fifty shillings a month in addition to continental pay. A committee also was sent to assure him of every aid and assistance.
Its relations with Gates were equally cordial. September 18, it wrote him, "Nothing in the power of the Council will be neglected to prosecute your orders when called upon," and again a little later, "The Council are every moment Anxious to know your honors present Situation, your wants, (if any) and whether they be such as in their power to relieve." At his request militia were raised and sent him, and his consent obtained before they were dismissed. The news that the Council received of the movements of the enemy which its position on the frontier often made valuable, were forwarded to him at once. It also distributed for him his orders to the militia commanders of neighboring states. The Council entered heartily into the continental plan of invading Canada, orders were issued for the enlistment of three hundred men and bounties promised. The project was given up however, and Vermont retained her contingent as a guard for the frontier.
The Council was commander-in-chief of its forces within the State. It appointed and commissioned officers, super-intended the raising of troops, determined on their bounties and their pay, and issued orders and directions to the commanders. It relinquished this control, of necessity, when the troops were sent to join the Continental army outside the state.
In the trial of Tories the Council recommended the local committees to assist the central government by a preliminary trial of the disaffected in their district. If the accused could not satisfy them of his innocence he was to be sent to the Council of Safety for final trial. This was a limitation of the powers granted by the June Convention, whereby the localities were enabled to try and sentence Tories without reference to other authority, but was necessary to give system and harmony to the prosecution, and to save the Tories from the irresponsible tyranny of the localities. The Council also prevented a misunderstanding in regard to the ownership of the confiscated property, writing to the town of Clarendon that property of this kind was forfeited not to particular towns but to the State. The surrender of Burgoynes army gave the State a sense of security long unknown. The Council was not slow to find in the circumstance an opportunity for generosity toward its enemies. The town committees were recommended to liberate all persons confined on suspicion of being enemies to the cause, placing only the more dangerous under some restriction, such as confinement to their farms under the inspection of suitable persons.
In the absence of regular courts the Council of Safety acted as judges of both civil and criminal cases as they arose. The inhabitants were moreover directed to present any complaint they might have against the rangers to the Council for adjustment. There was little connection between the local committees and the central Council in the trial of ordinary cases. Both probably acted independently as courts of justice. The Council of Safety occasionally referred cases that were brought to it, to the local bodies for trial, sometimes recommending that two or three committees should consider the matter jointly.
The connection between the towns and the Council was not close. There was no fiscal or judicial machinery of the central government in the localities to bring them into dependence, and they stood like small semi-independent communities, managing their own affairs in their own way. The Council wisely refrained from attempting interference in purely local affairs. The directions which it issued to the towns were on matters pertaining to the whole State and were framed as requests and recommendations, rather than orders. For these reasons there seems to have been no resistance to its authority, but cordial cooperation. The Council was determined to hold all territory that the convention had claimed and to contest the authority of New York in the disputed counties. August 10, 1777, the Council arrested the chairman of the Committee of Cumberland County, which had been organized under New Yorks authority, and kept him in custody for a week. At the same time Ira Allen was busy in the same district, endeavoring to win the people to Vermont, and urging them to form new committees friendly to its interests. The sympathy of the people was in general with the new state and they soon prevented the New York committees from holding their meetings.
The Assembly under the constitution was to have met in December, 1777, but the war had so fully occupied the time of the Council that it had had no opportunity to print and distribute the constitution and arrange for elections. It therefore decided to summon the last Convention to meet again, to order the postponement of the Assembly, not deeming it advisable to take so important a step itself.
The Convention met December 24. It revised the constitution, postponed the elections until the following March, and the meeting of the Assembly until the second Thursday of the same month, and then separated. During its last months the Council besides its former duties was largely occupied in preparing business for the next legislature. It printed and distributed the constitution and the elections were carried on under its supervision. When the Assembly met, March 12, 1778, the members of the Committee laid down their authority, to find that the gratitude and confidence of the people had given a majority of their number a seat in the Governors Council. Within seven months every member of the Council of Safety, then living, had received an honorable position in the government.
The task of the Council of Safety had been difficult and without other remuneration than the successful issue of its labor. In an address to the people of Vermont it wrote, "Nothing but a real zeal for the future well-being of the inhabitants of the United States in General and this in particular could have induced this Council to have undertaken the arduous task of setting so many months successively, to provide for the Safety of the Inhabitants." There was little of the pleasure of power granted it, much of its danger. It found, Vermont a group of towns in peril from enemies without and within. These towns it kept together, aiding them against the intrigues of New York, and protecting them against the army of the British. It maintained Vermont as an independent state and gave it unimpaired and strengthened into the hands of an organized government.
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