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History of Ryegate, Vermont
Chapter XXII



RYEGATE has never been a center of state politics. A purely agri cultural community containing no large village, inhabited by industrious farmers, with no families of wealth and leisure to form a political aristocracy, is no field for an aspiring politician. Therefore, although citizens of this town have occasionally held county offices, such have been rather incidental than the results of ambition. In the whole history of the town only one name, that of James Whitelaw, stands out prominently in the annals of the state, and his, not as a politician or office-holder, but because of his remarkable ability in a single field of usefulness. It must also be remembered that a large and highly intelligent portion of the citizens have, from conscientious scruples, declined to mingle in the politics of the state by exercising the suffrage, or holding office. Consequently the town has been deprived of the public services of a large body of its most substantial citizens, and, in this respect, has been much like communities in other states where a large portion of the inhabitants are members of the Society of Friends. But the Covenanters, although refraining from political strife, were, and are still, a most influential body, with very decided convictions, and their moral influence has been a power to be reckoned with where questions of right or wrong were concerned.

Mr. Mason says that in the earlier part of the last century the town was about equally divided between Democrats and Federalists. The former, of whose opinions Thomas Jefferson was the exponent, and of which he was the leader, held to universal suffrage, short terms of office, and state rights. The Federalists, of whom Alexander Hamilton was the exponent and John Adams the leader, believed in a suffrage with a property qualification, centralization of power in the Federal government, and internal improvements under the direction of Congress. Other questions some of which were of present or future importance, and others of so little consequence as to have been long forgotten, divided the people. James Whitelaw was the leader of the Federalists in this town; his clear and decided opinions concisely and forcibly expressed, together with the weight which his high character and position gave him made his influence very great. But he cared little for politics as such, while James Henderson was a shrewd and sagacious politician. John Cameron, the leader of the other party, was a ready and fluent speaker, well-informed as to all the political questions of the day, and willing at any time to give well grounded reasons for his political faith. When he was in the legislature he was considered one of the best speakers in that body, and although his broad Scotch accent was new and unfamiliar to his audience, they were compelled to give closer attention to his speeches.

The list of representatives shows that Cameron represented the town for fourteen years between 1797 and 1832; at two elections there was no representative chosen, and in the remaining years the Federalists elected their candidates. Mr. Mason says that in 1819, Cameron and James Henderson were the Opposing candidates, when the people were so evenly divided that balloting continued till midnight, when the clerk and constable left the house, leaving the town without a representative.

We must understand that in those days people were influenced politically in other ways than they are now. Personal influence was everything. Jefferson, Jackson, Clay and Webster represented certain principles and people followed their leaders without hesitation. In those days there was not probably a daily paper taken in this state; now every intelligent family has its daily paper. In those days a Boston paper was several days old when it got here; now the morning papers are in our hands before noon. There were several short lived attempts at newspaper publication in eastern Vermont, but none lasted long or had much influence till 1806, when Ebenezer Eaton began at Danville the publication of the North Star. Mr. Eaton was a most worthy man, personally, but a bitter partisan who believed that the welfare of the country depended entirely on the success of his particular party. He was honest and fearless, and when he believed a thing was wrong he fought it with all his might, without calculating the effect upon his subscription list, an example generally avoided by country editors at the present time. Danville, from which diverged several lines of stages, was then the County seat, and the center of considerable trade. For many years, between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, north of Windsor, there was no other permanent paper, except at Montpelier, and the North Star had pretty much to itself, a field comprising a population of twenty-flve thousand, two-thirds of which was in Caledonia County, Orleans and Essex supplying the rest. Almost every family of any consequence took it. The late Merrill Goodwin learned to read from the Star, and other children did the same. But Mr. Eaton, although an able editor, was not a good business man; he never owned the printing office where the work was done, he was negligent in money matters, and always in debt. A man in Danville took the Star from the first issue for forty years without having paid for it. One day Mr. Eaton met the man and told him he was out of money and reminded him that he had never paid a subscription. The man went home, sold a yoke of oxen, and brought the proceeds to the printer, which exactly paid the debt.

But the Star was, in its best days, a power in Caledonia county, indeed the conditions of society have so much changed that we cannot quite comprehend its remarkable influence. Mr. Eaton possessed a dignified style, clear and concise, and never condescended to vulgarity or insinuations. He was a hard fighter, but he fought fairly, and his blows told. Consequently when in 1827, he espoused the cause of Anti-masonry, he made Caledonia county the center of the conflict in New England. To this we shall presently advert.

The North Star was published at Danville for eighty-five years. George Eaton succeeded his father as proprietor, but sold the paper to Anson B. Hoyt and W. O. Caswell, and removed to Troy, N. Y. While the latter were proprietors, Col. George Harvey, now editor of Harper’s Weekly, began his literary work in that office and wrote political editorials for them when about sixteen years of age, and can barely remember old Mr. Eaton setting type there. In 1891 the subscription list was purchased by Arthur F. Stone, the paper was merged into the Caledonian and the old North Star ceased to exist. A complete file of it was burned in a house in Danville about twenty years ago, and it is doubtful if another could be made up from all the numbers in existence. Two or three bound volumes are in the State library, and occasional copies are found elsewhere. An examination of a volume of the Star is chiefly interesting for its contrast to modern country papers. The news of all the world is given, except that of Caledonia county. It employed no correspondents, and the only local events, otherwise than political, which are chronicled, were when some one took the trouble to write an item for the printer. Consequently the advertisements are the most interesting part of the paper, and we learn from them more about Caledonia county in its day than from the paper itself. The history of Ryegate would not be complete without mention of the North Star and its influence.

The Anti-Masonic controversy was one of the strangest episodes in the whole history of American politics. In its sudden rise, its violence while it lasted, and its sudden termination, it resembled nothing so much as a tropical tornado. There had always been those who disapproved of secret societies in general, and Masonry in particular, considering them a menace to free institutions. They claimed, and in some instances with reason, that by means of their connection with the order bad men got into office; that if a criminal was a Mason he would escape punishment if there was a Mason on the jury; and that while Masonry included many excellent men, they were so far influenced by their association with it as to place allegiance to the Order as their chief duty. They went still further and denounced all secret societies indiscriminately. If they lived in our day they would probably consider that societies which give their officers such titles as "High Exalted Rulers," or "Most Supreme Potentates," were not likely to do any particular harm.

There were those who went about the country denouncing Masonry, without attracting any particular attention, till in 1826 an event in western New York produced an explosion. A man named Morgan renounced Masonry and published a book which claimed to reveal the secrets of the Order. A few days later Morgan disappeared, and it was claimed that he had been murdered by the Masons. It is impossible to conceive the excitement which followed, and which continued for years. Masonry was assailed and defended in every hamlet in the country. The Order was denounced as the source and refuge of all evil and its members were held up to public scorn as participants in its infamy. Certain adroit politicians seized the opportunity to advance their interests, pretended confessions of Morgan’s abductors were printed, and their number and contradictions should have silenced the clamor. But the public was in no mood to listen to reason of any kind, and sensible people who went about their business without joining the outcry were denounced as equally guilty. For a short time the country was divided into two parties apparently, Masons and Anti-Masons, and reading the newspapers of the time, it is hard to say which party excelled in vindictiveness. The controversy invaded families, entered churches, upset all political calculations, and "dissolved friendships which had stood the strain of a life time." A few instances maybe adduced to show the bitterness which was engendered. At a funeral held in Danville in 1830, the relatives who were Masons and their sympathizers occupied one room, and their opponents another, while at the burial one party stood one side of the grave, and the others ranged themselves on the other side of it, the brothers and sisters of one party not exchanging a word with their sisters and brothers of the other. In Bristol, Vt., a gristmill was owned jointly by a Mason, and by the widow of an Anti-Mason. Mutual hatred was such that it was decided that Masons should use the mill on one week and their opponents the next. [North Star, Aug. 26, 1828] In Bradford, Rev. Silas McKeen, who was a Mason, found it best to accept a call to another state, as so many would not go to hear him preach. When the excitement was all over they were glad to recall him. He spent the rest of his long and useful life in Bradford where his name is held in veneration, his pastorate extending over forty-three years.

Rev. Soloman Sias, a Methodist minister of considerable note, whose health had become impaired by his labors, had retired to Danville, which had been his early home, for rest and recovery. Mr. Sias was a Mason of high degree, and was commander of the Knights Templars at the reception of Lafayette in Boston in 1825. On retiring to Danville, where he had before been held in honor, he found himself made the target of abuse. He was asked to preach a funeral sermon, but the officials of the local Methodist church would not allow him to enter the meeting-house, and the funeral services were held on the common in the open air. He was summoned before the Methodist Conference and was ordered to renounce Masonry or be expelled. He conceded so much as to promise to abstain from attendance at the lodge.

These instances might be multiplied and there was as much intemperate speech and action on the Masonic side as on the other. Masonry became a political issue, and in many of the northern states the Anti-Masons put up candidates for state officers.

To offset the influence of the Star the Masonic sympathizers in Caledonia County started a paper at St. Johnsbury called The Friend, whose attitude was apologetic rather than combative, and which was short lived. In 1828 Dr. Luther Jewett, who had been a member of Congress, began the publication of the Farmer’s Herald, at the same place. This paper was not permanent, however. Haverhill Corner at the time had two newspapers, both ably conducted and much read in Ryegate—the Democratic Republican, which was Masonic, and conducted by the Redings, and the Post and Intelligencer, whose proprietor was Sylvester T. Goss, which was Anti-Masonic. But the attacks and the defense of these papers were mild indeed compared with the savage onslaught of the North Star.

Very naturally Danville in 1830 furnished in Hon. William A. Palmer, an Anti-Masonic candidate for Governor. His vote was large enough to prevent any election by the people, and Governor Crafts was re-elected by the legislature. In 1831 Palmer and the Anti-Masons had the largest vote, but not a majority, and Palmer was elected by the legislature by a majority of one, and the same thing happened in 1832. In 1833 Palmer was elected by the people. In the following year the Whig party had become prominent, but Palmer was elected by the legislature. In 1835, Palmer still held the popular vote, but the Whigs led by Horatio Seymour were strong enough to defeat him in the legislature, but could not elect any one else, and after sixty-three ballots there was no choice and the effort was given up. Silas H. Jennison, who had been elected Lieutenant Governor on the ticket with Palmer, had to take the Governor’s chair. Vermont was the only state in the Union in which the Anti-Masons came into power.

In 1836 the Anti-Masonic party had gone to pieces, but the Star still continued its attacks on the order after all parties had wearied of the strife, and in 1837 a few influential men who disapproved of Mr. Eaton’s course induced A. G. Chadwick to come from Concord, N. H., and begin at St. Johnsbury in 1837, the publication of the Caledonian.

Ryegate, having no Masonic lodge was less affected by the controversy than some other towns, but could not be wholly insensible to the storm which raged around it. The Covenanters were, on principle, opposed to secret societies, and Rev. James Milligan delivered some powerful sermons against them. Rev. Mr. Goodwillie and Rev. Mr. Pringle are understood to have been Masons.

Only 27 votes were cast at the election in 1827. In 1828 Gov. Crafts had all the votes but one. In the next year 60 votes were cast, and in the same year or between Sept. 28, 1828, and Nov. 2, 1829, there were seven Freeman’s meetings held to vote for a Member of Congress. [Benjamin F. Deming of Danville, father of Franklin Deming at Wells River, was elected, but died during his term of office.] In 1830 when the Anti-Mason war was at its height, Wm. A. Palmer had 57 votes, S. C. Crafts 8, and Ezra Meech 13, showing that the Anti-Masonic party was in the majority. In the following year Palmer had 67, Meech 1, and Heman Allen 2. It must be remembered that there were some fifty or more who were Covenanters and did not vote.

In 1832, Palmer had 67 votes and there were 7 scattering. In 1833, politics ran high and Palmer had 101 votes and Meech 29. In 1834 Ryegate still adhered to Palmer with 67 votes, Wm. G. Bradley having 37 and Horatio Seymour 1. In 1835, while Anti-Masonry had passed its meridian, Ryegate still held to Palmer with 60 votes, Bradley having 47. In 1836 the Whig party came to the front, Bradley had 66 votes and Silas H. Jennison 32.

We have compared this controversy to a tropical storm, and, like a storm it cleared the air. The old Federal party passed away, and out of the strife emerged the Whig party; new leaders with more progressive ideas came to the front, and Anti-Masonry as a political issue was a thing of the past.

The effect of the conflict upon Masonry was disastrous. Some lodges dissolved, a few of which were revived in after years, others maintained an uncertain existence till better times came, while the larger and stronger ones gained by the desertion of men who had joined the order for selfish motives, and had been the first to abandon and vilify it.

At the presidential election of 1832, Addison, Caledonia and Windsor counties were the only ones carried by the Anti-Masons. In this county the vote for Wirt (Anti-Mason) was 1726; for Clay (Whig) 294; and for Jackson (Democrat) 367. In the state the Anti-Masons polled 13,106 against 18,910 for all others.

The presidential campaign of 1840—the "Log Cabin Campaign," the "Hard Cider Campaign"—was one of the most exciting and most picturesque in our political history. It was marked by great enthusiasm and immense political gatherings. Harrison, the Whig candidate was born in a log cabin, and miniature log cabins, each with a cider barrel hoisted up to the gable window were carried on floats in procession, and every true Whig fastened his coat with "log cabin buttons." In August a great political mass-meeting was held at Orford, with Daniel Webster as the orator. The late George Leslie told the writer that on that morning as early as five o’clock, the main street at Wells River was filled with teams as close together as they could go, all the north country headed for Orford to hear the great man. And they heard him, an event from which people dated the occurrences of years. "The year Daniel Webster spoke at Orford," was a common phrase forty years ago. In the election of that year a few Covenanters so far overcame their scruples as to vote. At the September election the town was equally divided between Paul Dillingham, Democratic, and Silas H. Jennison, the Whig candidate, each having 100 votes, one vote being cast for Isaac Fletcher. This was the highest vote cast in town to that date. Before the presidential election in November the enthusiasm appears to have cooled, as the Whig candidates for electors received 86 votes, and the Democratic 92.

In the presidential election of 1848 we note the rise of a new party— the Free Soil Party. The Whig leaders had opposed any agitation of the slavery question, but the issue could not be averted. Ryegate was one of the earliest seats of the anti-slavery movement in the state. Rev. James Milligan and the Covenanters in general were abolitionists. As we shall see later, the Milligan family was prominent in the movement for the abolition of slavery, Mr. Milligan being president of the Ryegate and Barnet Anti-Slavery Society, which was in existence as early as 1825, and is mentioned in the North Star at that time. In 1848 the electoral ticket for Cass (Democratic) received 60 votes; that for Taylor (Whig) 49, and for Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate 24.

Four years later, at the September election, Erastus Fairbanks, Whig, had 65 votes; John S. Robinson, Democratic 71, and Lawrence Brainerd, the Free Soil candidate 27.

In 1856 the Whig party had been dissolved and the Free Soilers were absorbed into the Republican party, Ryland Fletcher, Rep., having 107 votes, and Henry Keyes, Dem., receiving 50, the corresponding vote in November being about the same.

In the campaign of 1860 the slavery question was the overshadowing one. The town records do not give the vote at the presidential election, but at Freeman’s meeting the ballot was 88 for Erastus Fairbanks (Rep.) and 44 for John G. Saxe (Dem.)

At the state election of 1861, the first year of the Civil war, Frederick Holbrook (Rep.) had 73 votes, and Andrew Tracy (Dem.) 40. In the next year the pressure of the war began to be felt, and the first "War Meeting" was held on the 2d of Sept., "For the purpose of encouraging "enlistments to complete the quota of said town of Ryegate of 300,000 "men recently called for by the President to serve in the army of the "United States for the term of three years. Also for the quota of said "town of 300,000 men to serve for nine months. To see if the town "will offer a bounty to all persons so enlisting, and if thought expedient, "to fix the amount and appropriate money." At this meeting, of which James White was moderator, the sum of $100 was voted to each volunteer who enlisted for three years before the 14th of August, previously, and $200 for each one enlisting since that date, also $100 for each volunteer for nine months.

At the state election, Frederick Holbrook received 94 votes. No other vote for Governor is given.

There seems to have been some irregularity about the meeting on the 2d of September, as on the 8th of December another meeting confirmed the previous vote as to bounties, and raised a tax of 70 cts. on the dollar of the grand list to pay them.

At the state election in 1863, J. G. Smith (Rep.) had 86 votes, and T. P. Redfield (Dem.) 42 votes. On the 2d of December in that year a town meeting was held to raise bounties for volunteers who should enlist under the last call for men. It was voted to pay a bounty of $300, to each volunteer, when mustered in, and the selectmen were instrusted to hire the money on the credit of the town.

NOTE. It is singular that the town records do not give the names of the candidates for town representatives, or the vote for each, only the name of the successful one.

On the 20th of Feb. 1864, another town meeting raised a tax of $1.20 on the dollar of the grand list to pay the bounties previously voted.

We hear a great deal in these days about the sacrifices of the men who went to the army; it is by cold figures like these that we comprehend the pressure of the war on those who remained at home.

On the 14th of June in the same year, a bounty of $300 was voted to all who would enlist under the last call for men to fill the town’s quota, the same amount to any drafted man or substitute. At a later meeting on the 27th of July, a further bounty of $400 was voted in addition to that previously promised to all who would enlist for three years, $200 additional for two years, and a bounty of $300 for enlistment of one year.

The pressure upon the country for men to serve in the army during the last year of the war is shown by the vote of the town on the 7th of September, to pay a bounty of $900 each to three men who enlisted under the last call. Under the stimulus of these high bounties there arose a despicable species of men called "bounty jumpers," who enlisted for the bounty and deserted at the earliest opportunity, to re-enlist in a new place under other names.

A class of men upon whom the exigencies of the time fell heavily were drafted men who could not leave their families or business, and were unable to pay the high price of substitutes, and for the aid of such several town meetings were held. The last of the eleven special war meetings which Mr. Miller records was held on Feb. 21, 1865, at which a tax of $2.50 on each dollar of the grand list to pay war indebtedness was voted, but an article relating to further enlistments was laid on the table, for the war was fast hastening to its close.

The town records do not give the amount paid by the town for soldier’s bounties, but a paper in the hand writing of Wm. J. Nelson gives the amount paid volunteers as $10,382.50, for substitutes $5,325.00, and for necessary expenses $522, making a total of $16,229.50.

Surely Ryegate paid its full share for the maintenance of the Union. But who can calculate the loss to the town of the young men who never returned, or came home only to die; who can measure the terror and dread of those four years of war to the parents, the wives and children of those who went to the army? "The pomp and circumstance of war" are very fine to read about, but the cost, the suffering, the irreparable loss are fearful to contemplate. Writers who discuss the decaying population of the hill towns of New England fail to consider that thousands of young men who might have reared families and grown old among them "gave their lives that the nation might live." We ought also to say that several citizens beyond the age of military service, provided substitutes at their own expense for the war. It is not possible to give their names, or the expense incurred by them.

The political history of the town, subsequent to the civil war, does not seem to be worthy of special mention.

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