Our Divided Nation
A history of the presidency from the point of view of Vermont
My basic premise in this essay is that geographic voting patterns in the United States are far more consistent over time than the positions of the major parties. The parties are always in competition to achieve a 50% majority, so their positions will shift over time in pursuit of one or another voting group, but geographic regions are more likely to have a consistent ideology over time.

The state of Vermont is perhaps the most liberal-libertarian in the union and the least traditional, and it has an interesting history of voting in presidential elections. It will be the primary focus of the essay, and I believe it provides a way to help understand not only the history of presidential elections, but also the current political polarization of the country.

Political allegiances are often driven by self interest, and group self interest, and this may divide people by race or wealth for example. However, sometimes underlying ethical ideas and principles guide political affiliation and voting patterns. In ethics many things are fairly self-evident, and it is easy to reach consensus. However, where there are disagreements, I find it useful to divide ethical thinking into three different “poles” that people may blend to different degrees. 

The first pole is the “Egotist” pole. This finds political expression in Libertarianism. Its guiding principle is maximum liberty consistent with the same liberty for others. A second pole is the “Utilitarian” view. Its guiding principle is “the most good for the greatest number”, and it finds political expression in Socialism. Finally, there is the “Traditionalist” pole. Its guiding principle is traditional social norms, often codified in unchanging scripture or other documents. It finds political expression in Nationalism.

Here I argue that Vermont’s historical voting pattern is consistent with primarily Libertarian and to a lesser extent Utilitarian thinking, while in contrast, Alabama’s voting pattern can be seen as reflecting primarily Traditionalist thinking.

A useful diagram is


Prior to becoming a state, in 1777, Vermont was the first modern government to outlaw slavery, thus establishing its liberty credentials early on.

The first election in which Vermont was a state, and cast its electoral votes for president, was the re-election of George Washington in
1792. This was prior to the emergence of the first political parties, and there was a national consensus for the re-election of Washington.

1796 two parties had emerged, the Federalists and the Jeffersonians  Vermont voted Federalist in 1796 and in 1800. With its libertarian leanings it was very skeptical of pure democratic majority (or legislative majority) rule, favored by the Jeffersonians. But in 1804 it changed sides and voted for the Jeffersonians. It would continue to vote for Virginians through the re-election of Monroe in 1820, although through-out much of this period its fellow New England states continued to vote Federalist. (For example in 1812).

One thing that had changed during this time is that the Federalists had become safely ensconced in the Supreme Court. In 1803 John Marshall authored Marbury vs. Madison, and his leadership transformed the Court from the weakest of the three branches into the strongest of the three. While the Jeffersonians would win a string of elections, the Federalists controlled the Court. With liberties now guaranteed by the constitution, and protected by Marshall’s Supreme Court, Vermont’s libertarian streak turned against the idea of a strong central government. This helps explain its switch in position from Federalist to Jeffersonian.
1820 was the last consensus year. Monroe won every state in his re-election. This was also the first year Alabama voted for president. Vermont and Alabama both voted to re-elect Monroe. They would not willingly vote for the same presidential candidate again until the re-election of Nixon in 1972. I say “willingly” because in 1868 and 1872 the reconstruction government of Alabama would vote for Grant. With the exception of reconstruction it was 152 years from consensus to consensus.

1824 the party fragmented, with many individual candidates vying for the presidency. John Quincy Adams received the votes of Vermont. The South voted for Andrew Jackson. In 1828 Jackson was elected president, in spite of Vermont’s vote against him. Jackson drew his power directly from the agrarian population, and popular democracy.

Jackson removed civilized tribes of Indians from Georgia in the trail of tears. This uprooted tribes with farms, banks, churches, and even slaves from the East and left them in the wilderness of Oklahoma with nothing. Many died along the way, during the forced march. The Supreme Court under Marshall had ruled that Jackson could not do this, but he did it anyway. Jackson also transformed the Court. Taney replaced Marshall as chief justice. Taney later wrote the Dread Scott decision that effectively legalized slavery everywhere including the North, depriving blacks of any form of citizenship.

Vermont, of course, could not stand Jackson. They formed the first third party in American history, and had the first nominating convention. The Anti-Masonic party (Jackson was a Mason), elected a governor of Vermont, and in
1832 cast its electoral votes for the anti-Masonic presidential candidate. This party was absorbed into a lager coalition party that became known as the Wigs. In England the anti-Royalists had been known as the Wigs, so it made sense for those opposed to “King Andrew” to call themselves Wigs. Vermont would vote Wig in every election it could, from 1836 – the first election with a Wig candidate, to 1852 – the last election with a Wig candidate. The Wigs only ever succeeded in electing two presidents (1840 and 1848), both of whom died in office before completing two full years of service.

1844 saw the election of the Democrat Polk. Polk took the nation to war with Mexico in pursuit of America's "manifest destiny", in spite of strong objections by the North.

1856 the Republican Party had formed, in part from the remains of the old Wig party. The Republicans claimed to favor a constitutional Republic over direct Democracy. They were officially against the expansion of slavery into the territories. But the radical Republicans also wanted to abolish slavery completely. One such radical, Thaddeus Stevens, who became chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, hated Southern planters with a white-hot passion. He wanted to confiscate not only all of the slaves, but also all of the other property of the slave owners, which was to be turned over to the former slaves, leaving the former owners in complete poverty. Thaddeus Stevens was from Vermont. Vermont voted Republican in 1856, and then in 1860 voted for Lincoln by the largest margin of any state. Lincoln took more than 70% of the popular vote in Vermont.

Vermont would continue to vote Republican for 104 solid years, the longest unbroken Republican streak of any state. (It was 132 years with only a single break.) Not until Barry
Goldwater’s campaign of 1964, would Vermont vote for a Democrat. This election did not break the streak of Vermont and Alabama voting for different candidates however, since in 1964 Alabama voted for the Republican Goldwater.

In order to accomplish its 104-year streak, Vermont had to cross a couple of tough hurdles. In
1912, there was a three-way race between Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. Only two states, Vermont and Utah, voted for the Republican Taft. Then in the election of 1936, FDR won all but two small states, Maine and Vermont. In spite of winning the presidency 4 times, and winning by a sizeable majority each time, FDR never came within 10% of winning the popular vote in Vermont.

1896 the Democrat was Williams Jennings Bryan, the famous orator and agrarian populist. He was perhaps the talk radio of the day. He later defended a literal reading of genesis in the scopes monkey trial. The maps of the election of 1896 and 2000 are almost completely reversed. The parties have almost completely traded geographic and group loyalties over that period. Some New Englanders were so unhappy with Bryan as one choice and McKinley, who they saw as paternalistic, as the other choice, that they formed a new party, the NDP. (National Democratic Party). The platform endorsed the separation of
government and banking, but the NDP never followed up by proposing specific policies to legalize free banking and interstate branching. The nearly all-consuming hatred of Bryan pushed aside almost everything else.(
http://www.independent.org/tii/media/pdf/TIR44_Beito.pdf ) American politics underwent a significant
realignment. An often forgotten facet of that realignment was the disappearance of the old Democratic Party, which had upheld free trade, hard money, and minimalist government.

The progressive movement emerged in the 1890s and was looking for a home. It would eventually find a home in FDR’s Democratic Party, but prior to that it found a home with progressive Republicans. It might be better described as a loosely related group of movements that often shared some common traits. The progressives were influenced by the “social gospel” movement, an effort to build the kingdom of God on earth. Intellectually they were also influenced by the Darwinian revolution. They believed the world was in flux, and they rebelled against the fixed and the formal in every field. One of the philosophers of the movement, John Dewey wrote that ideas could become instruments for change. William James, in his philosophy of pragmatism, denied that there were knowable universal truths. Ideas should be judged by their usefulness. Most of the progressives were environmentalist, and they were convinced that the environment was far more important than heredity in shaping character. Thus building better schools and houses could make a more perfect society. The progressives would also fight agaist things like prostitution, and fight for prohibition.

William McKinley (elected
1896, 1900) was a friend to the union movement, but could not really be called a progressive. But in Teddy Roosevelt (elected 1904), the progressives found a receptive ear. Roosevelt did not satisfy all of their demands, but one thing he did do was preserve large areas of Western land. Roosevelt became more progressive after he left office, and in 1912 ran on a third party progressive platform. In 1912 Roosevelt argued that the government should be the steward of public welfare, and that the power of the federal government should be increased. Wilson emphasized the Jeffersonian tradition of limited government, with open competition. He said he feared a “government of experts” and warned that Roosevelt’s ideas might lead to collectivism.

Taft may actually have been a more aggressive trust-buster than Roosevelt, but in general he did not follow Roosevelt’s progressive lead, and actually undid some of Roosevelt’s Western land preservation. Vermont’s libertarian streak would not have minded the break-up of powerful trusts, and in general would have liked some of the progressive ideas, but would not have been fond of many others. The non-traditional ideas of the progressives would have had general appeal, such as calls for "change", and the general anti-authoritarianism of the progressives. But calls for larger government would not have gone over so well, nor would ideas like prohibition. Of course, they certainly were not ready to vote for a traditional Southern Democrat. They voted for Roosevelt in
1908, in his less progressive days, and then voted for Taft in 1912. It is also interesting to note that Taft was a Unitarian, who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. Vermont has always had a strong liberal religious tradition, and in fact today Vermont has one of the highest percentages of its population identifying themselves as Unitarian-Universalist. The principle of individual freedom was important to Unitarians then, and it is important to them now. "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning" is one of their central purposes, and they have been critical of the Bush administration's restrictions on liberty. Also, Unitarian-Universalists have strongly supported freedom to marry for same-sex couples.

The fact that Wilson, once in office, adopted some of the progressive ideas would not have made him any more popular in Vermont. While Wilson had taught at Princeton, he was a Southerner by birth, and in his heart. A native of Georgia, as a 9 year old boy he saw Georgia burned by general Sherman. He personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations, and he segregated Washington D.C. In his religious ideas, he was a strict conservative Presbyterian. Wilson strongly advocated the entry of the U.S. into WWI, once American commercial interests were at risk. ( See two speeches opposing entry into the war here -
http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/doc19.htm )

Vermont disliked Wilson too, of course, just as it disliked other Southern presidents that pushed for the aggressive use of American military might In
1916 Wilson won the same states G.W. Bush would win in 2000 (plus a few more).

There are also some interesting parallels between John Ashcroft today, and the Democratic Attorney General after WW1. From:
In the aftermath of September 11, Ashcroft rounded up thousands (some say 8000) Arab-American and Muslim men, for secret trials and deportation. The dragnet eerily echoed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's overreaction to the threat of communism following World War I. Palmer, with his young assistant J. Edgar Hoover, rounded up 3000 "radicals" and "Bolsheviks."

Some details on Palmer here:

Between WWI and the depression, three Republican presidents were elected, including Vermont's own Calvin Coolidge in
1924. This was the second president from Vermont. The first was Chester Arthur who took office after James Garfield (elected 1880) was assassinated.

One of Vermont’s biggest problems with FDR was his war with the Supreme Court, and the “liberty of contract” issue. The Supreme Court had consistently upheld the liberty of contract, which made many labor regulations impossible. Roosevelt threatened to increase the size of the court with enough new appointees to get his way. The Court eventually yielded, pleasing Roosevelt, and annoying Vermont, which generally thought much of the New Deal was unconstitutional.

1948 Vermont voted for their native son, Thomas Dewey, over the Missouri Democrat, Harry Truman. Truman heightened tensions with the Soviets, and took the U.S. into Korea.Then Eisenhower won by 40%+ margins in Vermont. In 1960, Vermont did not vote for Kennedy, from neighboring Massachusetts, but they did give him a closer look. Kennedy only lost Vermont by 16%.

1964 featured a flipped election with Alabama voting for the Republican Goldwater, and Vermont voting for the other Southern candidate, Lyndon Johnson, Democrat from Texas. Then in 1968, Vermont voted Republican again, while Alabama voted for a third party candidate.

Finally in
1972, a period of “consensus” was reached. The last time Vermont had voted with the South was 1804-1820. This new period would span the same number of years 1972-1988. However, the agreement of the second period was broken by the post-Watergate election of 1976. In 1976 Alabama voted for Carter, and Vermont voted for Ford. But with that one exception, both states voted Republican from 1972-1988.

Ronald Reagan, in his first election in
1980, only narrowly won both states, with Alabama giving solid support to Carter, from neighboring Georgia, and with Vermont being very skeptical of Reagan’s social conservatism, even while they admired his fiscal ideas. But even in this year of “consensus” it was clear that these two states were on different pages. The independent John Anderson ran very strong in Vermont, on a socially liberal, fiscally conservative platform. Anderson barely registered a blip in Alabama, however.

1992, Alabama and Vermont were back on opposite sides of the fence. Vermont voted for Clinton, although he did not receive a majority there. Perot got a strong vote from Vermont that year. In 1994 the Republicans took Congress, then in 1996 Vermont did give Clinton a majority, and in 2000 they went solidly for Gore.

Next, leading up to 2004, Vermont produced Howard Dean who ran, essentially, on an anti-Bush platform. As with Jackson, Polk, Wilson, Truman and Johnson before him, in Bush we have a Southern president favoring the aggressive use of American power. And as with Jackson and Roosevelt before him, strengthening the presidency relative to other branches of government, and threatening to remake the Supreme Court into a body less inclined to protect the liberties of individuals.

In May 2004, Bush had a job approval rating of 32% in Vermont, while he had a 51% approval rating nationwide. He went on to win re-election nationwide by 4% more than he had in 2000. However, while in 2000 he only lost in Vermont by 10%, he lost by 20% in
2004 This was his biggest set-back of any state.

Finally in
2008 Obama beat McCain. Vermont was Obama's 2nd strongest state. He won by over 35%. Only in Hawaii did he receive a larger percentage of the vote. And there Obama may have enjoyed some home-field advantage, given that he was born in Hawaii. Also, Hawaii has a very international environment, which also likely helped Obama. McCain's strongest state was Oklahoma, but Alabama was among the handful where he toped 60% of the popular vote. However, if we look only at the white vote, Alabama was McCain's strongest state. McCain won Alabama's white vote by 78%.

Also, of interest, New England’s Unitarian-Universalist streak shows up again.
Obama's grandparents, who were largely responsible for raising him, were Universalists.

Also in 2008, the Democrats also completed the domination of the congressional delegation from New England. Chris Shays lost his re-election bid, and as a result in 2008 there were no House Republican from any state in New England.

Finally, this
2008 news story indicates that, in Vermont, where liberty might conflict with other values like traditional patriotism, liberty still tends to trump these other values.

No majorities

It is interesting to note that almost none of these Southern presidents won with a majority of the popular vote. When the Southern party did win a majority of the popular vote, it was almost always with a Northern candidate. If we start with Jackson, who was from the South, and who won the Southern vote, and a majority of the popular vote, the next president that accomplishes that is Carter in 1976. Carter was from the moderate wing of his party, and was running shortly after the Republicans were damaged by Watergate, and still only won 50.1% of the popular vote.

Martin Van Buren who won in
1836 was from the North (New York), as was Franklin Pierce (from New Hampshire) who won in 1852. Tilden was from New York. He won a slim majority of the popular vote, but lost the election in 1876. Grover Cleveland did not win a majority in 1884 or 1892. Nor did Wilson in 1912 or 1916. FDR won majorities but he was from the North. Truman did not win a majority in 1948, nor did Kennedy in 1960. In 1964 Goldwater represented the Southern vote, and lost. Nixon and Regan and Bush Sr. were all able to win the South, but none of them were from the South. Clinton did not win the South or a majority in 1992 or 1996. Then, in 2000 G.W. was from the South, and won the South, but did not win a majority. His re-election in 2004, with 51% of the vote, represented the largest victory for a Southern candidate from the Southern party since Andrew Jackson.


We can look at are two separate issues that have served to divide Vermont from the South. To put it succinctly, the South is more willing to use the rule of law to impose the rules of the majority culture at home, and is more willing to use military force to try to spread its culture abroad.

For the first half of that, we can look at the role of the courts. Liberty and democracy are concepts in tension with each other. Both have deep roots in America. But Liberty, in any given case, means the individual has certain freedoms, regardless of the will of those in power (or the majority). The view of Northern liberatarians has been that the role of judges is to protect those freedoms. The South has tended to favor democratic majority rule.

The Supreme Court is far removed from direct vote. They serve for life. Originally the people voted for electors and state legislators. Those groups voted for presidents and the senate. The senate and the president pick judges. This isolated body is best placed to protect constitutional liberties from the majority tyranny Tocqueville warned of.

Some quotes:
The truth is, that, even with the most secure tenure of office, during good behavior, the danger is not, that the judges will be too firm in resisting public opinion, and in defense of private rights or public liberties; but, that they will be too ready to yield themselves to the passions, and politics, and prejudices of the day"
- Joseph Story

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.
— Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

One important change to the constitution along the way was the 14th amendment. The 14th amendment was passed over the objections of the South. In some cases southern legislators literally had to be held in their seats to form a quorum in the reconstruction governments. Two clauses in particular have become very important to defenders of constitutional liberty. One is “equal protection” under the law, and the other is the “due process...liberty” clause ("nor shall any State deprive any person of...liberty...without due process of law.") The extent of the liberties guaranteed by the constitution, and protected by the Court, is still a key area of debate.

A second major political divide is over the use of military force. The South has always had a stronger martial and military tradition. The South has favored strong presidents, and the aggressive use of American power, tending to see the world in terms of individual competing states, or competing powers. Northern liberatarians have often resisted such an approach, tending to see the world more in terms of a global community, and in terms of complex interdependent international systems, with many institutions crossing national lines. Both views have some truth to them, so it is a question of the emphasis placed on each view.

The differences, of course, run deeper than the surface issues. There is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in the South. The South is more traditional and favors a greater role for majority rule (generally resulting in traditionalism), and a smaller role for the courts (and
intellectuals). Southern culture has also been called a “shame” culture, as opposed to the northern “guilt” culture, in that Southern society seems to favor more public punishment over more private punishment. Conformity to social norms, enforced by shame, tends to be valued over cultural diversity. In the religion of the South, God is often a strict Father figure to be feared and obeyed. God is the Supreme Lawmaker who enforces obedience to unchanging traditions. In Vermont, awe of God and general principles like the golden rule, and human freedom have been more important, while specifics of a literal reading of the bible have been de-emphasized. Historically the South has often seen America as God’s chosen people, while Vermont has been more likely to take from religion ideas like the equality of all people. And again, the South is more willing to use the rule of law, and military force to try to enforce its culture at home and spread its culture abroad. Religion in the South could be described as being like the "priestly" tradition of upholding law and tradition, while religion in Vermont could be described as more similiar to the "prophetic" tradition of advocating change and social conscience.

One final interesting note here - a recent
Rasmussen poll asked about belief in the literal truth of the bible. Alabama and Arkansas tied for the highest percentage of believers (75%), and Vermont and Mass. tied for the lowest percentage (22%).

Here is one
poll that shows the significance of these cultural issues in the 2004 election.

Surveys show that the South has a higher rate of divorce and more teenage and out-of-wedlock births than the rest of the country. Perhaps one could argue that part of the reason they feel a greater need to restrict liberty is because they have a larger problem with people abusing liberty.


Modern Vermont is still very liberal-libertarian. They were the first state to grant same-sex civil unions, and currently 70% of the state favors legal medical marijuana. A majority also favors legal physician assisted suicide. Also, Vermont, statewide, has no public nudity laws. (
See article here)

It is clear that tensions over the war in Iraq, and over the Supreme court and issues like the separation of church and state, abortion, and same sex marriage have reawakened the divide between libertarian Vermont, and the traditionalist South. Also, W's free-spending habits have not earned him any points with libertarians either. I think we probably have to go all the way back to Andrew Jackson to find a president that was as deeply unpopular with Vermont libertarians. Jackson was the last Southern president that not only waged an unpopular aggressive "war", but was also seen as a serious threat to the liberties protected by the Supreme Court. One could argue that FDR should be included here, but FDR was from the North, and I believe WWII was one of the few wars where almost everyone recognized the necessity involved. Liberals and conservatives may have had different reasons for supporting the war, but in general most did support it. One could also argue for Wilson, who was a Southern war president, who adopted progressive ideas, and who restricted certain liberties as a result of the war. But Wilson made no moves to reshape the court. In any case, one lesson we may be able to take from this brief survey of American history is that there really is very little new under the sun.

All maps from:

A useful diagram


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