Vermont once offered a ‘major’ in Congress

The University of Vermont is one of the nation’s smaller flagship state universities, with fewer than 14,000 students. That barely enables UVM to break the top 400 in terms of enrollment among US schools.

So, one might think that the Burlington-based institution would make every effort to play up the role of the school’s significant alumni in our nation’s history. However, a glance at the university’s website shows that either UVM doesn’t fully know its history, or doesn’t seem to care about it.

Under a section titled “History and Traditions,” UVM’s highlights are far and few between, relatively speaking:

  • The school was chartered the same year Vermont became the nation’s 14th state, in 1791;
  • It was established as the fifth college in New England, after Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Brown; and
  • The initials UVM stand for the Latin words Universitas Viridis Montis, or University of the Green Mountains. The phrase appears on the university’s official seal as Universitas V. Montis.

In addition, a few other points are emphasized, such as much of the initial funding and planning for the university was undertaken by Ira Allen, who is honored as UVM‘s founder; citizens of Burlington helped fund the university’s first building; and Lafayette laid the cornerstone for the Old Mill which still stands on University Row.

Also, Vermont was the first American college or university with a charter plainly declaring that the “rules, regulations, and by-laws shall not tend to give preference to any religious sect or denomination whatsoever.” In addition, the university was an early advocate of both women’s and African-Americans’ participation in higher education.

So what’s missing? How about the fact that between the classes of 1837 and 1843, no fewer than 10 future Congressmen were graduated from the University of Vermont.

Charles T. Morrissey in his 1981 book Vermont: A History details the remarkable number of public servants turned out by the school during this early stage of the school’s history.

“From around the nation they came to Washington, these Vermonters, and served in the House of Representatives in numbers much beyond much beyond what such a small state might be expected to provide,” Morrissey writes.

These University of Vermont products served not just the Green Mountain State in Congress, but other states near and far, as well.

Dudley Denison (Class of 1840), Frederick Woodbridge (1841) and Worthington Smith (1843) all represented Vermont districts; while William Higby (1840) represented California’s Calaveras County;  John Kasson (1843) represented the district that included Des Moines, Iowa; and Henry Raymond (1840); Robert Hale (1842); and William Wheeler (1842) all represented New York districts. 

Thomas Childs Jr. (1838) was also elected to represent a New York district but illness kept him taking his seat. In addition, Jason Niles (1837) represented a Mississippi District in the 1870s during Reconstruction.

Another UVM product, Orange Ferris, Class of 1838, went on to represent a New York district. However, he didn’t attend the school for all four years. And John G. Smith (1838) went on to be governor of Vermont, while Wheeler also served as vice president under Rutherford B. Hayes.

What makes the above all the more amazing is that the seven classes contained a grand total of 142 degree recipients. That means individuals who enrolled in those seven class had about a one in 13 chance of going on to serve in Congress.

It would be difficult to fathom another school that, during such a short period, turned out as many individuals who would go on to serve their country in public office, particularly one as small as the University of Vermont in the generation before the Civil War.

2 thoughts on “Vermont once offered a ‘major’ in Congress

  1. It’s a fascinating item, but casts no particular credit on Vermont. It was a function of demographics. There was no West in the US, to speak of, then. Thus a small state on the eastern seaboard could wild that sort of disproportionate influence.

  2. I don’t know, Waldo. When you only graduate 142 students over seven classes, and 10 of those go on to be elected to the House of Representatives, I think that’s rather amazing.

    I don’t know how big the House was then in terms of members. If it was substantially smaller, it would make the above even more curious. If it was anywhere near as large as it is now, less so.

    Perhaps one of the keys was the fact that Vermont as a state had so little to offer, relatively speaking, in terms of opportunity compared to other states, that its best and brightest often pulled up and went elsewhere.

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