The Two Vermonts

The politics of Uphill and Downhill

| examines the ideas of Paul Searls, a Vermont historian who has an interesting framework for understanding his state's politics (with some obvious analogs, though they aren't explored here, for politics elsewhere in the world):

The flag of a radical militia

Searls, a professor at Lyndon State College, calls the two sides of the divide "Uphillers" and "Downhillers," terms he borrowed from historian Robert Shalhope. Searls ran into them years ago while writing his dissertation and found they neatly described the opposing factions he was seeing in his research….The Uphillers arrived in Vermont first and settled hillside farms to be safe from valley floods. After the Revolution, another wave of settlers arrived in the state. These newer arrivals, the Downhillers, tended to be from the professional class—lawyers, merchants, craftspeople and the like—and they settled in the valleys.

The differences between Uphillers and Downhillers were clear from the beginning. In the 1790s, Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon, a staunch defender of Uphill interests, bemoaned the fact that Downhillers were trying to change how Vermonters governed themselves. Lyon criticized this "new set of gentry who are interested in keeping the government at a distance from, and out of the sight of the people who support it." Indeed, that is one of the main characteristics that Searls ascribes to Downhillers.

Searls described the differences between Uphillers and Downhillers in his book "Two Vermonts: Geography and Identity, 1865-1910." Uphillers, he wrote, preferred "localized, informal, (and) cooperative communities," whereas Downhillers were inclined toward "competitiveness, formality, contractual relationships, and comfort with the concentration of power in increasingly large institutions."

Downhillers fought for eugenics, school consolidation, hunting and fishing regulations, and "a federal government effort to move 13,000 Vermonters off farmland it deemed 'submarginal,'" among other intrusive and centralizing policies. They pushed through prohibition over Uphill objections; later, the two groups' attitudes toward alcohol flipped, with Downhillers trying to ease the rules while Uphillers held firm. (That is the one place in the article where Downhillers take the more libertarian position.) And then there's this conflict, whose details may be specific to Vermont but bring battles all over the nation to mind:

Downhillers looked at the condition of Uphill communities and decided the state was suffering through a period of malaise. Their remedy was to promote the state as a tourist destination, starting in the late 1800s. But Downhillers recognized that the state's charm was its very backwardness, Searls says, so they advertised Vermont as a pre-modern society, while simultaneously attempting to modernize it. Searls sees those contradictory impulses still at work today. "Downhillers want the state to look like Uphill, but they want Vermonters to be Downhill," he explains.

The rest of the article is here. Searls' book, which I have not read, can be acquired here.

[Hat tip: Bryan Alexander, who says the argument reminds him of James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed.]

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  1. These newer arrivals, the Downhillers, tended to be from the professional class?lawyers, merchants, craftspeople and the like?and they settled in the valleys.

    Attorneys are the worst. They love the system they can game. They are of the body.

  2. And this dichotomy in Vermont, as far as I can see, remains today. Even states like NH have to deal with the ‘downhillers’ coming from Massachusetts.

    When we looked for land to buy a few years ago we inquired about state, property and school taxes. Much to our surprise they were very low. You wouldn’t expect this given the socialism of Vermont. Not only that, they have liberal gun laws from what I hear.

    Very strange place to understand.

    ‘The agrarian poor now meets the hipsters’ as my friend from there described it years ago.

  3. Are we even sure Vermont exists? I thought the land was still technically disputed between New Hampshire, New York, and Quebec.

    1. Ever watch a Vermont political debate on TV?

      Not even MadTV could come up with the characters.

  4. I am proud to have Matthew Lyon as a distant ancestor.

    He brawled on the House floor. And was jailed for violating the Sedition Act. He is the only person to win election from inside of jail.

    Packed up from Vermont and moved to Kentucky where he was elected to Congress again, and then moved to Arkansas Territory and got elected one more time.

  5. Jesse, have you ever read Albion’s Seed? This Uphiller/Downhiller thing sounds more or less the same as the Scots-Irish vs. Puritan and later hillbilly vs. Yankee conflicts that make up a lot of American history.

    1. Yup.

    2. Yeah, I’m an Albion’s Seed fan. Though I’m not sure how well Fischer’s argument about the British settlement of America maps onto the settlement of Vermont.

      1. Maybe see it this way: it explains the uplanders — but not the flatlanders, who were not part of the immigration Hackett detailed. The flatlanders are post-Albion, and trying to change the culture, etc., from what the uplanders created.

    3. Heck, the hx of “Yankee” as a term is itself funny & confusing.

  6. “Are we even sure Vermont exists? I thought the land was still technically disputed between New Hampshire, New York, and Quebec.”

    Why do you think Vermont has no gun laws?(1) We gotta protect ourselves from the friggin’ flatlanders and those insufferable French speakers.


    (1) Vermont does have one gun law: It’s illegal to have a loaded long gun in a moving vehicle. This was enacted to try to keep yahoos from drive-by hunting. It didn’t work..

  7. Progressive love the idea of quaint simple cultures, and see the people who sctually practice that culture as beneath contempt.

  8. Where is Auric? I need to know what millennial Vermonters think.

    1. I was out to lunch catching up with a former coworker who just started at Lincoln Labs.

      1. And, by the way, I think the term flatlander works just fine without digging up something from Pro Lib’s days.

  9. Uphillers? Downhillers?

    You’re talking about the transplanted flatlanders like Sanders who think they own Vermont when you say ‘downhillers’.

    Why do we need new terms?

    1. Ayup. Flatlandahs afear’d of naychah.

  10. Jesus, ‘murcans can’t even get the terms correct – it’s “highlander” and “lowlander”, ya dinny bastards!

    /Scottish descent

  11. You can always address and request them to write your dissertation. Good luck!

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