Doyle-Schechtman: Interpreting the Vt. constitution

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(HOST) On a recent rare sunny day, commentator Deborah Doyle-Schechtman took herself out to the dock for a little summer reading.

(DOYLE-SCHECHTMAN) It wasn’t anything from the Best Sellers List that held my attention.  The well-chosen words framing my thoughts on that warm afternoon were, believe it or not, those of the July 8, 1777 Vermont Constitution.

I had downloaded the official copy of said document, because I was determined to root out the basis of a statement I had just come across in a manuscript I was reviewing about the Irish in Vermont. The author had made what I considered to be a bold, albeit carefully sourced assertion that our original constitution prohibited the Irish from serving in the legislature.

"How can that be?" I thought. "Prejudice in a document we Vermonters take great pride in as the first of its kind to ‘prohibit slavery and promote universal manhood suffrage without requirement of property ownership or specific income’? Could this possibly be true?"

Well, apparently it was – until the document was amended in 1786.

The first indication of this bias comes in Chapter 1, Article III, where – quote – "those who abide by the precepts of the Protestant religion shall not be deprived of any of their civil rights." But it’s the wording of Chapter 2, Section IX, that’s most clearly to the point at hand. It requires each member of the House of Representatives to take an oath of office that includes these words: "I do believe in one god, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the Protestant religion."

Many Irish immigrants to Vermont – and most French and Italian too for that matter – were Roman Catholic. And for at least nine years, they were denied basic constitutional rights.

To be fair, all of the 13 original colonies followed the Old World practice of requiring religious belief or affiliation as a pre-requisite for holding public office, and most had a decidedly Protestant preference. Still, this discovery left me wondering if our forefathers were really as radical as we like to believe, or were they simply catering to the Continental Congress so Vermont could become a state?

Thanks to the internet, I’ve got the entire text, but not much in the way of interpretation. So to look for more answers, I may pay a visit this summer to one of our most important state-owned historic sites.

The Old Constitution House in Windsor is the very place where the charter was drafted and signed. Due to state fiscal constraints, their hours have been very much reduced this year, but every weekend now through mid-October visitors can see the document on display, accompanied by information on events surrounding its creation. The exhibit also compares it with other state constitutions, and provides a context for better understanding the document that is the very bedrock of our identity as Vermonters.

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