Vermont presidential candidate was ahead of U.S. political winds


Vermont has had more than one person run for President. The first one that may come to mind is Bernie Sanders. He's lived in Vermont a long time, but he wasn't born here. Calvin Coolidge was born in Vermont, but didn't become President until he had moved to Massachusetts. There's a debate as to where Chester A. Arthur was born, but he didn't become President until he moved to New York. Stephen A. Douglas ran for President against Abraham Lincoln on the Democratic ticket in 1860, but he had moved to Illinois more than 25 years earlier. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination, but was not successful. Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican President in 1877, was probably conceived in Brattleboro, but wasn't born until his mom had moved to Ohio.

Former General John Phelps is the only person we know who was born in Vermont, and was still living in Vermont, when he ran for President. In 1880 he was the American Party candidate for President of the United States. Phelps was born in Guilford in 1813 and was living in Brattleboro when he ran on the third party ticket.

John Phelps was an interesting person. He came from a family full of judges, lawyers and sheriffs. His great grandfather was thought to be the first lawyer in Vermont. Phelps went to schools in Guilford and Brattleboro and eventually graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating in 1836, Phelps served in the military for the next 23 years. He fought in the Seminole Wars in Florida, the Mexican-American War, and was stationed in the Southwest. There he fought outlaws who did not want to follow government rules. His job was to tame the lawlessness of the early western settlers.

During his military service he traveled throughout the South and West of our country. He developed a strong hatred of slavery and a strong sympathy for Native Americans. As his career progressed, he had become a U.S. Army captain, but felt it would be hard to earn more promotions because his beliefs against slavery, and in support of Native Americans, were not popular with many in the military.

In 1859 he resigned from the Army and returned to Vermont. He moved into a home near Brattleboro's present Municipal Center. Phelps' stepmother was a very successful author of textbooks and he took up writing when he returned to Brattleboro as well. The articles he wrote were in opposition to slavery, and the overpowering economic influence it had throughout the country.

At the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to enlist for three months. Their goal was to confront the southern states' secession from the Union and bring the country back together. At the beginning of the war, there was little talk of the evils of slavery. It seemed the federal government was hoping to preserve the Union and sidestep the cause of the conflict.

John Phelps was called from retirement and asked to lead the 1st Vermont Regiment. He was made Colonel of the regiment and they were sent to serve in Virginia. In 1861, Lincoln's professed goal was the reunification of the United States; Phelps had other goals in mind, the outlawing of slavery and freedom for all Africans. When the three-month enlistment was over, Phelps was promoted to General and asked to remain in service. Roswell Farnham was a lieutenant who served under Phelps. Farnham was from Bradford, Vermont and later became Vermont's Governor. He wrote this about Phelps' leadership saying, "After two months service under him, there was not a man who would not have risked his own life to save that of Colonel Phelps."

Phelps was then stationed in Mississippi and there took command of many regiments, including the 7th and 8th Vermont Regiments. As General of a large force in the heart of the Confederacy, he thought he should share his beliefs with the southern citizens he was confronting. This is an excerpt from the letter he wrote, "To the loyal Citizens of the Southwest We believe that every state that has been admitted as a slave state into the Union since the adoption of the Constitution has been admitted in direct violation of that Constitution The Constitution was made for free men, not for slaves." The letter went on to explain that slavery could not exist in the United States because the country was based on freedom for all people, especially those who worked. Phelps argued that the only way the U.S. would continue to exist would be if those who labored were paid fairly and guaranteed rights.

This entire letter, later known to some as Phelps' Emancipation Proclamation, was published on the front page of the Vermont Phoenix, December 21, 1861. It was introduced this way, "This absurd and ill-considered document General Phelps is a sincere and persistent opponent of slavery, but he has given expression to his views on an occasion and in a manner ill-timed and peculiarly unfortunate." The editor went on to say, "The unnecessary and foolish proclamation of General Phelps is a source of mortification to the many admirers of his military skill and talent in this State, and to none more than his personal friends who have known him intimately from his early youth Upon the subject of Slavery he is an Abolitionist in the ordinary acceptation of that term. Of the wrongs, outrages, and barbaric character and tendencies of the peculiar institution he has thought much, and he has never hesitated to avow his sentiments thereon. While in the army he suffered both in his intercourse with his brother officers and in professional promotion by a too free utterance of his sentiments on this subject "

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would come more than a year later.

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Meanwhile, General Phelps found himself in a predicament. Over 300 escaped slaves had arrived at his military camp and he wanted to form them into regiments, arm them and train them to fight in the war. He asked for permission to do this and was denied by his commander. The Union position on slavery did not yet include freeing slaves and allowing them to fight. Phelps couldn't believe it. He wrote to Lincoln and asked for permission. Lincoln denied the request.

Here's what Phelps wrote during that time, "I found myself in the midst of slave region, where the institution existed in all its pride and gloom, and where its victims needed no inducement from me to seek the protection of our flag Fugitives began to throng to our lines in large numbers. Some came loaded with chains and barbarous irons; some bleeding from birdshot wounds; many had been deeply scored with lashes, and all complained of the extinction of their moral rights." When Lincoln denied Phelps' request, General John Phelps of Brattleboro and Guilford, resigned his commission in the US Army and went home. If the war wasn't about ending slavery and treating Africans like humans, then he didn't want to participate.

Moving to 1880, John Phelps found himself the Presidential candidate of one of four parties contending for the Presidency. The American Party platform included justice for Native Americans, the end of the Electoral College, prohibition of alcohol, and voting rights for women. Across the nation Phelps received 1,045 votes in the general election. Once again John Phelps found himself ahead of the U.S. political winds.

Brattleboro Historical Society: 802-258-4957,

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