On July 8, 1777, the first Constitution of the "Free and Independent State of Vermont" was adopted at the Windsor Tavern owned by Elijah West. West's tavern, the location of many of the deliberations charting the future of Vermont, is now preserved as a historic site and called "The Old Constitution House."
Birth of a Republic
The region now regarded as Vermont was claimed by its neighbors for much of the 18th century. New Hampshire had chartered 138 towns west of the Connecticut River by the early 1760s, and the territory became known as the "New Hampshire Grants." New York, also with early claims to the region, persuaded King George III to grant legal authority over the Grants in 1764. Led by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, many residents in the Grants opposed New York's jurisdiction because of the large fees involved in transferring title to their lands. Conflicts between New York and the settlers were to continue for the next 26 years. (Several period maps in the permanent exhibit help illustrate the region’s political changes during those years.)
In January 1777, representatives of the Grants held a convention at Westminster and declared their independence. They called their new state "New Connecticut." On June 4, 1777, a group of 72 delegates from New Connecticut met at Windsor where a letter was read from Dr. Thomas Young of Philadelphia. Young was a strong supporter of the settlers and advised them of the necessary steps for statehood. He also suggested that the Republic change its name to "Vermont." The new name, derived from the French, meant "Green Mountain," one of the chief features of the region. "A grand convention . . . to form a constitution for the state of Vermont" convened at Windsor on July 2nd. (This is why Windsor and the Old Constitution House are now called The Birthplace of Vermont.)
In the following days, British forces under the command of Lieutenant General John Burgoyne captured the fort complex of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. The British pursued the retreating American forces and met American General Arthur St. Clair's rear guard at Hubbardton on July 7th. Although the Americans successfully delayed the British advance, the nearby proximity of the British forced many of the inhabitants on the west side of the Green Mountains to flee.
Ira Allen provides one of the few eyewitness accounts of the Windsor Convention in his Natural and Political History of Vermont, published in 1798. The news of the British invasion arrived in Windsor on July 8th. According to Allen, this intelligence threw the delegates into an uproar. He wrote: “The business (of ratifying a constitution) being new, and of great consequence, required serious deliberation. The Convention had it under consideration when news of the evacuation of Ticonderoga arrived, which alarmed them very much, as thereby the frontiers of the State were exposed to the inroads of the enemy. The family of the President of the Convention, as well as those of many other members, were exposed to the foe. In this awful crisis the Convention was for leaving Windsor, but a severe thunderstorm came on, and gave them time to reflect, while other members, less alarmed at the news, called the attention of the whole to finish the Constitution….. This was done and the Convention then appointed a Council of Safety to act during recess, and the Convention adjourned".
Vermont existed as a Republic, for fourteen years, until 1791 when it was admitted to the Union as the 14th state, the first after the original 13 states.
From Tavern to Museum
Elijah West's tavern was originally located on Main Street in the center of Windsor village. The building functioned as a tavern until 1848 when it was converted and used for retail merchandising and small manufacturing shops. Later, around 1870, the building was moved to a side street and converted into a tenament house. The building was turned into a warehouse around 1890. The original location of the Old Constitution House is now a small park.
The building fell on hard times. Efforts to preserve it began in 1901, and in 1911 the "Old Constitution House Association" was formed. The Association received title to the building via a donation from the Fay family. The land for the new location was donated by the family of William M. Evarts, a Windsor resident who had been the chief counsel for the defense in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson and had served as Secretary of State for President Rutherford B. Hayes. By 1914 sufficient funds had been raised for the building’s restoration. Lewis Sheldon Newton of Hartford was appointed the architect for the project.
The Old Constitution House Association maintained the building as a museum and public tea room until 1961, when the Association transferred ownership of the house and its collections to the State of Vermont. It is now part of a state-wide system of historic sites maintained and operated by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.
The Old Constitution House features period rooms that reflect its use as an early tavern. A large interpretive area in the early 20th century tea room examines the events surrounding the signing of the Vermont Constitution. The collection at the Old Constitution House contains many pieces donated by area residents and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Modeled after Benjamin Franklin's Constitution for Pennsylvania, the Vermont Constitution contains a plan of government and a declaration of rights. The Vermonters, however, made some significant changes. Their constitution was the first in America to prohibit slavery and the first to establish universal manhood suffrage without the requirements of property ownership or specific income for voting rights. The Vermont Constitution was also the first to establish a system of public schools. Amended over the years, Vermont's Constitution continues to provide the framework of modern state government. View the Constitution at the Vermont State Archives.
Things to see when you visit:
According to historical records, Elijah West’s tavern had three rooms on the main floor. The tap room, or public bar, would have had its own entrance, so that the “public” could come and go without disturbing the diners or overnight guests. The tap room was where men gathered to drink, socialize, and discuss issues and events – it is said that more politics occurred in the tap room than at town meetings! Among the interesting artifacts in this room are the table believed to be the one around which the Windsor Convention delegates gathered, and the 1772 New York Charter for the town of Windsor that was granted by King George III.
This room was added when the building was restored in 1914. It served as a tea (lunch) room for visitors until the building was given to the State of Vermont in 1961. The exhibition here, “A Free and Independent State,” serves as an excellent introduction to the site. Artifacts include a rare copy of the sermon delivered at the 1777 Windsor Convention, cannon ball and grapeshot from Mount Independence, and a Revolutionary War period cartridge box.
This space is notable in that it lacks a hearth, the principal means of cooking in the 18th century. However, because the building served as a tavern until the 1840s, the kitchen would have had a much more efficient cook stove. This “Conant Stove,” made in Brandon, Vermont in 1819, illustrates the transformation that took place in the science of cooking during the 19th century. On the work table is a device, the identity of which is guaranteed to be the most asked question on a typical tour!
This room is set up to host a small dinner party. But, like many rooms in an early tavern, it could be converted to sleeping space if necessary. That might explain why the table appears low to the floor – the legs have lost a couple of inches because it was frequently moved back and forth. (You’ll see several chairs in the collection with the same type of wear.) The tall clock was made by Martin Cheney in Windsor, c. 1810. Because the dial and works were imported from England, tall clocks were among the most expensive household furnishings. Ask your guide why it is called a “tall clock.”
According to historical records, there was a formal sitting room on the main floor of the original tavern. The furnishings here are typical of a parlor around 1840. This room would have been used by visitors who wished a more private setting than the public bar. Meals would often be served. Guests could read by the fire or use the desk for writing letters or transacting business. The desk and bookcase was made locally, c. 1810, and is believed to have belonged to Jesse Lull, a prominent Windsor citizen. The piano was made by Jehiel Munson of Burlington, Vermont, c. 1845. What makes this “square” piano different from modern pianos? Can you guess what material was used to make the ornamental tree under the glass dome?
This was used both as a bedroom and as a meeting room. The bedstead is “grained painted” – a painting technique used to imitate more expensive wood. The framed allegorical on the wall is a fine example of American folk art, inspired by a well-known school text of the time.
In many early inns, the upper chambers could be used as bed chambers, dormitories, and for entertainment or as meeting rooms. Although there is some controversy concerning the details of the Windsor Convention, several reports indicate that the delegates reconvened in this upper chamber to adopt the Constitution. Exhibits in this room feature various aspects of the collection: ceramics, glass, iron, etc.