A recent Facebook posting reported a Burlington city councilman summarily dismissing Vermont's Constitution. Frustrated that a proposed gun control ordinance might violate that document, he quipped: "Who cares about the Constitution?!?! It's just a piece of paper, isn't it?" Could someone in a position of authority really be so blatantly callous about the document that binds us together as a state?
The men who designed Vermont's Constitution in July 1777 understood that passion could easily run roughshod over careful, deliberate thought. They'd gathered as delegates from the so-called "New Hampshire Grants" in a tavern in Windsor that still exists. After declaring their own independence from states laying claim to the land upon which they'd built their homes, they appointed Ira Allen (Ethan's little brother) to draft a constitution.
Ira was just putting the finishing touches on that document when news arrived that the British were marching down the Champlain Valley to attack Bennington. Their homes and families threatened by an army bent on their destruction, anxious delegates were about to gallop away on their horses when a violent thunderstorm suddenly appeared. They decided to wait out the storm by completing their work. Thus Vermont was born in a thunderstorm.
They created a system of checks and balances under a government with executive, legislative and judicial branches. Interestingly, they also installed a fourth branch of government called the Council of Censors. This unusual group met once every seven years with two responsibilities. First, they reviewed all taxes imposed to see if they were excessive. Second, they reviewed all legislation to determine whether any law violated the spirit and intent of constitutional prescriptions. They'd "censure" violations by recommending repeal. Sometimes they'd also recommend legislative changes. Many times they'd chastise legislative overreach by saying that body had "assumed upon themselves, and exercised greater powers, than they are entitled to by the Constitution."
Oh how I wish the Council still existed. Perhaps they were too advanced for their time, like when they recommended granting women the right to vote a full 50 years before that happened. A frugal legislature terminated the Council when it decided the judicial branch could fulfill their function. Still, over 200 years later our Constitution remains as the rudder on our ship of state. It allows us to keep government in check whenever passion threatens to lead it astray, like when a frustrated official might exclaim: "Who cares about the Constitution?!?! It's just a piece of paper, isn't it?"
A decade after Ira Allen drafted the Vermont Constitution, another quill pen scratched out a different constitution in a second floor library at a Virginia estate called, coincidentally enough, "Montpelier." Visitors today can still see the room where James Madison drafted the Constitution that continues to bind us as a nation. As we debate the President's authority to use our military against a nation which is no direct threat to us, let us hope our federal representatives carefully consider that document. It is not "just a piece of paper" either.
Sen. Joe Benning is an attorney living in Lyndonville. He serves in the Vermont Senate.