1841: A year to remember for Vt. Legislature
The legislative session of 1841 in Vermont was one that would make this year’s session jealous. It convened about mid-October and finished up just before the middle of November.
Charles Paine was governor, Waitstill Ranney was lieutenant governor and John Spalding was treasurer. Carlos Coolidge, member from Windsor, was elected House speaker. While the three state officers each had won more votes than the other candidates, they were not given a complete majority, so the Legislature had to meet in a joint session and officially declare them elected.
A couple of international situations called for legislative attention, and some issues taken up would sound familiar today. But one unique feature of this particular session was that the House voted for what amounted to a form of income tax. That was decades before such a tax was authorized on the national level.
With a single member from each town, most of the House members were either farmers or from communities dominated by farmers. And the town taxes came almost entirely from property taxes.
But by 1841 the state contained many professional people — doctors, lawyers and the like — as well as industrial foremen and independent mechanics, many of whom were believed to make a considerable amount of money but who paid few taxes because they didn’t own property.
So the House introduced a bill entitled “an act relating to the grand list.” They discussed it while the House was meeting as what was called “a committee of the whole,” which meant that the subject was not recorded in the official House journal.
The only record came when the Senate rejected that part of the bill and sent it back for reconsideration. Apparently what the House majority sought was to place the professional people on the town grand lists, as if they were themselves actually real estate and thus subject to property taxes. The relevant paragraph read as follows:
“All practicing attorneys, and all practitioners of physic and surgery, within this state, shall be assessed in the lists of the respective towns where they reside, at a sum not less than one dollar, and not exceeding $30, each according to their respective gains. And all mechanics and manufacturers in this state shall be assessed and set in the lists in the several towns in which they belong, in proportion to their several gains, in a sum not exceeding $10 nor less than one dollar, according to the best discretion and judgment of the listers.”
It seems obvious that there were enough lawyers in the Senate to look upon this proposal with little favor, but enough House members were stubborn about the issue and refused to eliminate that paragraph. The roll-call vote was 79-70 in favor of keeping it. However, all other business was nearing an end and so as not to delay adjournment the House finally acceded to the Senate demand and the paragraph was eliminated.
Francis Slason was the member from Rutland, and was important enough to be put on the Ways and Means Committee. Bennington was represented by Asa Doty, Brattleboro by Cyril Martin, Rockingham by Samuel Billings, Ludlow by Sewall Fullam Jr., Springfield by Ormus M. Whipple, and Woodstock by Oliver B. Chandler. There was even a member from Glastenbury, Asa G. Hewes.
The member from Middletown Springs had an odd first name and a familiar last name. He was Eliakim Paul. I thought the first name was unique, but discovered that the member from Waterbury was Eliakim Allen, so the first name probably had some sort of biblical reference.
The two international issues had to do with relations with Canada. A year or two before, a native of New York state named James Grogan had been sleeping in a home in Alburg when Canadian militia crossed the border and seized him at gunpoint, carrying him off to prison in Montreal.
The Vermont governor at the time, S.H. Jenison of Shoreham, protested to the acting governor of Canada. That individual found that the militia had indeed violated the border. He ordered Grogan’s release and sent a very handsome apology to Gov. Jenison. By the time of the 1841 session all that remained of that issue was to have a House committee give a formal report on the matter, listing the facts and the correspondence.
The other Canadian matter dealt with the recurring disputes over the border between Maine and Canada. The Vermont Legislature supported Maine’s position in the following bellicose statement:
“Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives, that whilst we deprecate a war with Great Britain as a great national evil, to be resorted to only in case of stern necessity, and whilst we recommend to the government of the United States a conciliatory yet firm and decided course on this subject, if such course fail we pledge ourselves to sustain the authorities of the Union in sustaining their rights, with all the resources in our power.”
It was only a year or two later that Daniel Webster as national secretary of state reached an agreement with British authorities over the border issues.
The 1841 session also got a petition to divide Windsor County into two counties, and rejected the idea. Citizens also petitioned for an end to the war against the Seminole Indians in Florida, and to eliminate slavery in the District of Columbia. Both suggestions were forwarded to the federal government without comment.
Kendall Wild is a former editor of The Rutland Herald.