The member from Craftsbury
The start of the new session of the state Legislature reminded me about an earlier session in which my great-grandfather was the member of the House from Craftsbury. That was the session of 1872. Julius Converse of Woodstock was governor, and Franklin Fairbanks of St. Johnsbury — probably of the family of industrialists of that town — was named House speaker.
My great-grandfather, Edward Payson Wild, was a graduate of Middlebury College and a Congregational minister by trade. In fact, one of the things he did as a House member in 1872 was to promote a bill that set in motion the incorporation of the Congregational Church in Vermont. He was assigned to the Education Committee.
One of the bills that committee considered was introduced by Rep. Edward Crane of Concord. It called for every school district in the state to be required to purchase at least one copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. After a few days my great-grandfather reported the bill out of the Education Committee adversely, and the bill died. I thought it was odd that a person as educated as my great-grandfather would not approve of such a proposition. Then I looked at the biographical section of the journal and discovered that the member who proposed the bill was an agent of a company that printed dictionaries. There were a lot more individual school districts in the state then than there are now, so if the bill had become law, Rep. Crane stood to come by a windfall.
Curiously enough, considering the present talk about gun control these days, one of the measures introduced in the 1872 session was entitled “An act to prevent the careless use of firearms.” It actually had more to do with establishing penalties for careless usage, including how injured parties could claim recompense from the careless user, than with limiting the kinds of firearms available. The bill passed the House and the Senate and was sent to the governor, who signed it into law.
One of the big issues in that session harked back to the Civil War, which had ended only seven years previously. During the war there was a provision that if a person was drafted for armed service, he could buy his way out by paying a certain sum. While the amount needed for such a purchase might not seem large these days, it was only wealthy people who could afford it in those days.
By 1872 some of the people who had bought their way out wanted to try to get their money back. They got petitions signed and gave it to their town representatives to have the Legislature petition the federal government to reimburse them.
The petitions did not have merely the signatures of the person who wanted the refund. They usually contained a lot of other names of people claiming to be sympathetic to the request. Since the people who paid that sum were well off, many had a number of people dependent on them. A mill owner like Hapgood of Peru, for instance, got his employees to sign. Whatever their personal feelings, they felt constrained to sign in order to keep in the boss’s good graces.
Some town representatives indignantly refused to accept such petitions when a member of their town presented one. In that case, the petitioner usually approached the representative from a neighboring town to bring the case to Montpelier.
Feelings reached the point where the member from Plymouth, John Coolidge (Calvin’s father), introduced a resolution saying that if the other petitions were ever accepted, then everyone who had actually served in the armed services should get an equal amount.
As it turned out, the petitions all went into committee, and as far as I could tell, they never came out for the rest of the session. I have never been told how my great-grandfather felt about that subject, but judging from what else I’ve heard about his nature, I’d guess he was just as glad that the issue never got any further.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.