Tuesday May 1, 2012
MARK E. RONDEAU
County News Editor
BENNINGTON -- A combination of inadequate and biased local newspaper coverage of the 1840 Whig convention at Stratton, at which the great U.S. Senator and orator Daniel Webster addressed 15,000 people, led a short time later to the creation of what became the Bennington Banner.
This was the thesis advanced by Tyler Resch, research librarian and a former Banner editor, at a talk to the Bennington Historical Society at the museum on April 15.
"A strong case can be made for the proposition that newspaper response to Webster’s famous appearance in Stratton had an important role in launching the new newspaper in Bennington called the ‘Vermont State Banner,’ the direct ancestor to today’s ‘Bennington Banner,’" he said. "What Daniel Webster actually said in his oration was not covered by any newspaper at the time."
The July 7 district convention was of Vermont Whigs, the party formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party.
"Hiland Hall, of North Bennington, was a Whig. He served four terms representing Vermont’s first Congressional District. And he was easily re-elected in 1840," Resch said. "He would later be a state supreme court justice and held two federal positions. One of them was second comptroller of the currency and the other was federal land commissioner of California."
Hall served two one-year terms as Vermont governor in 1858 and 1859. "Hall was an historian passionately interested in the origins of his own state and in 1868 published what’s called ‘The Early History of Vermont,’ a 500-page history," Resch said.
Adding spice to the convention was the upcoming 1840 presidential election featuring incumbent President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, facing the Whig candidate, war hero William Henry Harrison -- "Old Tippecanoe" -- and his "log cabin and hard cider campaign." For this reason the Stratton convention featured numerous log cabins brought to the site for the occasion.
One written account of the convention comes from Ira K. Batchelder of Peru, who wrote it in 1902, 62 years after the event.
"The Whig party of Vermont conceived the idea of having a grand rally high on the Green Mountains in Vermont. The invitation was spread broadcast north, south, east and west to all citizens in Vermont and adjacent states to gather on top of the Green Mountains ... to hear an address to be delivered by Daniel Webster, United States Senator from Massachusetts, on the politics of the country.
"A log cabin built on the grounds of long spruce trees was said to be one hundred feet in length with good width and divided off into apartments, it being a huge cabin. A large cabin was drawn from the west side of the mountain with four horses driven by James Hicks, one from Westminster, on the east, driven by Mr. Church, with six white horses," Batchelder wrote. "Plenty of smaller cabins were in attendance. It was said hard cider was aboard the cabins; I did not see any, or the effects of any."
A.L. Tyler of Charlemont, Mass., wrote in 1904: "I remember being on Stratton Mountain in 1840, and hearing the Hon. Daniel Webster make his great speech, for ‘Old Tippecanoe and Tyler too,’ and I know I thought it was a great talk being then a boy 16 years of age, it sounded big to me. Mr. Webster had a loud heavy voice, seemed to me at the time; he might have been heard in Bennington. Mr. Webster wore a blue swallow tail coat with bright buttons, and a buff vest."
Surprisingly, state newspapers also confined their accounts to the colorful atmosphere, not what Webster had to say. Before the event the weekly "Brattleboro Phoenix" announced that "if his Congressional duties permitted, the gathering would be addressed by Mr. Webster who would be escorted by a committee from Barre, Mass., where the senator had an appointment."
"So people were well-aware that a major political event was in the offing. The convention site itself along the Stratton Turnpike was offered by the owner of the land, one Phineas White, of Putney, who was a very prominent political figure in Windham County at the time," Resch said. "He was a member of the Legislature and held numerous other posts and offices, and he was also the largest land owner in the town of Stratton."
The July 10 edition of the "Phoenix" briefly reported on the Stratton convention. "We have... to say that it was the largest convention ever held in this part of the state. The Hon. Daniel Webster addressed the assembly in a speech of nearly two hours in length. The crowd was immense and the lowest estimate numbered 10,000. We shall endeavor to give our readers a full account of this convention next week."
However, the July 17 "Phoenix" only provided a minimal report. "The headline was: ‘Vermont to the rescue, big turnout of people,’" Resch said, "and while it reports the broader scheme of things and enthusiasm, there was never any account of what the great man had said."
In general, Webster’s oratory was most known for "his strong defense of the constitution, particularly the Union, and defense of Whiggery," Resch said.
The only other newspaper in the first congressional district was the weekly "Vermont Gazette," published in Bennington, which contained only ridicule and sarcasm about the event, with no substantive coverage.
"The Gazette had had a distinguished past, having been founded in Bennington in 1783 by Anthony Haswell, who had answered an ad and came up from Massachusetts, an ad from the legislature of the new state of Vermont -- they called it a state even though it wasn’t a state yet -- they were advertising for a printer," Resch said. "Haswell became Vermont’s first postmaster and also printed many books and broadsides. He gained fame in 1800 by being convicted and jailed for allegedly violating and contested the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Then he continued to edit his weekly newspaper until his death in 1816."
By 1840, the paper was in the hands of his son, John Haswell, who was not a chip off the old block. Not only had the paper "degenerated into little more than kind of a partisan Democratic scandal sheet," Resch said, but Haswell was removed from office as Bennington postmaster in 1848 for gross neglect of his duties. Haswell later went to California, attracted by the Gold Rush.
In its July 7 issue, the "Gazette" offered this snide and sarcastic item about the Stratton convention: "Cheap! Hiram Hall received from $100 to $250 in public money, money contributed by farmers and mechanics, for deserting his seat in Washington to attend the Stratton farce. Such a disinterested and faithful public servant certainly deserves re-election."
After the convention, the "Gazette" editorialized, with numerous typographical errors and misspellings: "Crowds poured forth to Stratton to derive light from this great federal luminary and returned disappointed, vexed and chagrined at their waste of time and labor. All felt and most all admitted that this advent of the god-like Daniel among the Green Mountains was a total failure. The remark is frequent. Why, Little Hall (Hiland Hall) made a better speech than Webster. The performance of Mr. Webster is spoken of as a disgraceful tirade of coarse billingsgate and barroom ribaldry. "
It added, "To hear Daniel Webster attempt to preach democracy must have presented a ludicrous burlesque that even Diogenes would have laughed at."
Said Resch, "one can only imagine Hiland Hall’s disgust and embarrassment that the only newspaper in his hometown ridiculed him and Webster and printed such demeaning comments about his triumphant Whig convention."
Hall gathered together a group of Whig investors from Bennington with names like Norton and Dewey, and the first issue of the new weekly newspaper called "The Vermont State Banner" was published in early February 1841. "This group had engaged an editor named Enoch Davis who formerly worked for the daily ‘Troy Post’ and the ‘Troy Times.’ He was described by Henry Clay Denning as one of the largest-hearted fellows Vermont ever raised," Resch said.
The new paper proclaimed its principles, which included a single term for president, a frugal and honest administration of government within strict constitutional limits and no large standing army in times of peace. For the first 24 issues or so, Hiland Hall wrote an unbylined history of the Green Mountain Boys.
"The Banner was clearly pleased to report in detail on the inauguration the new president, their own candidate, and they reported his inaugural statement in great detail," Resch said. A month later, after Harrison had died, the newspaper draped its news columns with black borders, which were made by turning the piece of lead over that separated the columns.
"Editor Enoch Davis stayed in the background and did not use his position to write a column of personal opinion, nor did he last very long, for in another year there was a new editor, a new owner," Resch said. "And in fact the rest of the history of the Banner throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, it changed hands with great frequency."
Though Hiland Hall and his Whigs were no longer directly involved, Hall had the last word in 1858 when the "Vermont Gazette" ceased publication, Resch said. The "Banner" continued on -- in 1858, its name changed to "The Bennington Banner," and in 1903 it became a daily.