Editor’s note: This essay by Greg Guma is from The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movements, a new study of the state’s evolution and influence slated for release in 2012. To find out more, visit The Vermont Way.
The 1840 Convention of the Vermont Whig Party was the largest ever staged in New England. Almost 20,000 people came to Burlington, attending an enormous parade in support of William Henry Harrison.
During the gathering Vermont Whig leader and US Congressman William Slade encouraged Party members to take a stronger stand on slavery. That January Slade had delivered the first abolitionist address ever made in Congress, calling for the immediate end of human slavery. Still, he felt that the country wasn’t ready for an abolitionist president.
Within two years, however, the growth of the anti-slavery Liberty Party convinced Slade to “abolitionize” Vermont’s Whigs. In 1842, therefore, the state Party’s platform called slavery a “moral and political evil” that should be removed.
When Henry Clay emerged as the Whig candidate for president in 1844, Vermonters were rightly suspicious about his position. Clay was equivocating on whether Texas should be annexed since it would eventually become another slave state. To compensate, the Whigs picked Slade to run for governor. Not only did he win, Clay carried the state. But Democrat James K. Polk became president.
As it worked out, annexation of the Lone Star State led to a war with Mexico, another decision Vermont Whigs opposed. In 1848, Green Mountains Whigs were again unhappy with their candidate. This time it was Zachary Taylor, a slave owner and hero of the Mexican War.
By this time Slade was fed up and decided to move on to the Free Soil Party. An outgrowth of the Liberty Party, it was strongly abolitionist — Free Soil for Free Men, it proclaimed — and drew its leadership from a coalition of Democrats, Whigs and former Liberty Party supporters. Although Carlos Coolidge, a Whig — and distant relative of future president Calvin Coolidge — defeated the new coalition in the governor’s race, the opposition of most Vermonters to slavery or its extension into new territories remained undiminished.
Political allegiances were shifting rapidly. Between 1849 and 1853, the state’s Democratic Party went into a steep decline. Joining forces with the Free Soilers had undermined their status as a credible alternative to the Whigs. In a desperate move, the Party’s leaders choose opposition to temperance as a cause. A temperance referendum had passed, but the vote was close and Democrats felt that it didn’t truly reflect public opinion. The real problem, though, was the Party’s unpopular position on slavery.
The turning point came in 1854 after a series of mass meetings was held across the state. The leaders at those spontaneous events weren’t the old political players but instead a group of insurgents. The state was at the edge of another political rebellion.
That summer the Whigs, split between realists and stalwarts, could only agree on a provisional slate to be headed by Stephen Royce, an abolitionist State Supreme Court Judge whose selling point as a gubernatorial candidate was that he had “never mingled in the slightest degree with party politics.” The Free Soilers, running this time under the “unionist” banner, looked to an elderly newspaperman, Ezekiel. P. Walton, who announced that he was ready to step aside for someone else.
The Democrats weren’t even in the running, further undermined by the nomination of Franklin Pierce for President. Pierce supported the return of runaway slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as the Nebraska Act, which made slavery a blatant state’s right issue. Ironically, the Act had been proposed by former Vermonter Stephen Douglas. Rather than helping Democrats, the Illinois senator’s return home for a political appearance in February had accelerated the Party’s collapse in the state.
The timing was perfect for a new party that could appeal to the many Vermonters disillusioned with the political establishment. In June, Ezekiel Walton called for a mass state convention, and on July 13 around 600 people showed up at the statehouse in Montpelier to form the second state Republican Party in the nation.
“Our rallying cry shall henceforth be the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law,” its platform announced, “the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the prohibition of slavery in all the Territories of the United States, and the admission of no more slave states into the Union.”
Provisional Whig candidate Royce became the new party’s nominee and went on to win in November with 62 percent of the vote. By the next year the Republican Party had spread across the northern states and installed one of its own as Speaker of the US House.
In Vermont there was a brief challenge from the American Party, electoral arm of a growing nativist movement known as the Know-Nothings. But the Republicans managed to attract enough nativist support by attacking the Know-Nothing penchant for secrecy while sympathizing with its dislike of Irish immigrants. In a diluted form nativist sentiment was absorbed by Republican Party, finding expression later in exceptionalist rhetoric.
The state’s political landscape had been transformed, with confusion replaced by unity. In 1856, John Charles Frémont, the Republican candidate for president, won about 80 percent of Vermont’s popular vote. Two years later Pennsylvania reformer Thaddeus Stevens, a native Vermonter, re-entered Congress as a Republican and rapidly assumed leadership of the House, where his strong abolitionist sentiments and legislative skills gave him tremendous power.
Two years after that, in 1860, Vermonters gave Abraham Lincoln the largest margin of victory of any state in the nation. The Green Mountains remained solid Republican territory for the next 100 years.