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OPINION: Learn from the Past: Many Cases When Governor’s Race Had No Majority Lieutenant Governor Silas Jenison Named Acting Governor


by Sen. Bill Doyle

From the 1830s until the Civil War, there was a high degree of political instability in Vermont. There were many cases during this period when no candidate for governor was able to gain a statewide majority and the decision fell to the legislature. The ultimate of political instability was reached in 1835, when no candidate for governor was able to gain a majority, and, after three days of wrangling and 65 ballots, the unicameral legislature was incapable of choosing a governor. As a last resort it was decided that Lieutenant Governor Silas Jenison should also become acting governor.

This debacle was an important factor in the adoption of a constitutional amendment in 1836 that abolished the Governor’s Council and created a Vermont State Senate, which was based upon population. But there was also disappointment that the Legislature couldn’t make a decision with regard to electing a Governor in 1835.

Jenison was elected Governor in 1836 and served until 1841. Jenison’s address to the Legislature in 1838 called for the abolition of the death penalty and opened up an era of reform of the Vermont penal system. He wrote that imprisonment and rehabilitation could better deter crime than capital punishment.

In his address to the Legislature in 1838 he said “experience shows that crime is not increased but diminished if the criminal laws of the country become less barbarous and vindictive. Retaliatory punishment has in a measure ceased and sound and substantial reasons for infliction of punishment are based upon the reformation of the criminal and security of the public. That is evidently the policy of our laws in all cases except in the infliction of the punishment of death.”

Jenison is one of the first governors to have become politically attuned since the War of 1812. This was an era of idealism, optimism, and reform, and his generation had no memory of the days of the American Revolution and the uncertainty that followed. The political agenda during this period was dominated by the antislavery movement and the temperance crusade. In 1852 the Legislature enacted a prohibition law.

Jenison was born in Shoreham in 1791. His father died when he was only one. Much of his success was attributed to the strength of character of his mother. He worked on the farm in his early youth and could only attend school a few weeks each year. His education consisted of extensive reading and devoting his nights to study, which became a habit of his life.