Today, the United States of America stands fifty strong. The creation of this union was no simple matter—not every colony embraced the opportunity to join the United States. Texas is a famous example, having existed as the Republic of Texas between 1836 and 1846 before joining the Union. Lesser known is the Hawaiian Kingdom, which existed for over 100 years before being annexed by the United States in 1898. However, the honor of being the first secessionist state in North America goes not to Hawaii or Texas, but Vermont.
The Vermont Republic arose from confused beginnings. King George III, the current monarch of the Kingdom of Great Britain, had issued land grants to nobles residing in the American colonies after defeating France in the Seven Years’ War (which actually lasted 9 years!) New Hampshire and New York had received such grants, and the local governments quickly dispatched families to settle the land.
It soon came to light that both New Hampshire and New York had claims to the same land. Settling families were forced into confrontation, and minor turmoil gripped the Green Mountains until January 15, 1777. At that time, Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys Militia and recipient of a New Hampshire land grant, founded the Vermont Republic in defiance of New York land claims. Allen’s brothers, Ira and Levi, were also heavily involved in the Green Mountain Boys and the founding of Vermont.
Initially called the Republic of New Connecticut and commonly known as the Republic of the Green Mountains, the Vermont Republic was founded with the intent to rejoin the Union after the matter of land rights had been settled. In the interim, the Constitution of Vermont was drafted with the help of Dr. Thomas Young, a member of the Sons of Liberty and involved organizer of the Boston Tea Party. It was markedly progressive for the time, taking inspiration from the Pennsylvania Constitution and allowing all men to vote regardless of property status. Additionally, the Vermont Constitution outlawed adult slavery, setting male slaves free at 21 and releasing female slaves at 18. Vermont’s progressive history can be seen today in Bernie Sanders, one of Vermont’s senators and an outspoken champion of progressive causes.
The Vermont Republic’s declaration of independence was largely ignored by the fledgling colonies. They had much more pressing issues at hand—the Revolutionary War was in full swing. The Green Mountain Boys had previously assisted colonial troops in the war effort, famously taking Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775 with soon-to-be turncoat Benedict Arnold.
As land conflicts with New York continued despite the war, the Vermont Republic’s opinion of the Union shifted from support to neutrality. Royalists and other supporters of the crown fled to Vermont for safe haven during the war, and even after the war’s conclusion in 1783, the Allen brothers continued to foster trade relationships with British Canada. In 1787, Ethan Allen, the once-hero of Fort Ticonderoga, presented a memorial to British subjects detailing Vermont’s willingness to become a subject of the British crown once more, asserting that Vermont had 15,000 armed men ready to resist any attempt made by the newly founded United States to subjugate Vermont.
In the end, British negotiations fell through and parley with New York began in its place. The negotiations between the Vermont Republic and New York were much more successful, and on October 7, 1790, an agreement was reached. Any claim to the present state of Vermont was ceded by New York in return for $30,000, which translates into slightly over $837,000 in today’s money. In present dollars, Vermont paid New York $87 per square mile. On March 4, 1791, Vermont was officially admitted to the Union as a free state opposing the slave state of Kentucky, officially ending the sovereign Vermont Republic.
Joshua Nichols is a Vermont Maturity contributing editor.