On July 8, 1777, the first Constitution of the "Free and Independent State of Vermont" was adopted at the Windsor Tavern owned by Elijah West. West's tavern, the location of many of the deliberations charting the future of Vermont, is now preserved as a historic site and called "The Old Constitution House."
Old Constitution House in Windsor, originally a tavern, marks the site where the constitution of the “Free and Independent State of Vermont” was adopted on July 8, 1777. It was the first constitution in the country to prohibit adult slavery and establish universal “manhood” suffrage without the requirements of property ownership or specific income for voting rights. It was also the first to establish a system of public schools.
In January 1777, representatives of the Grants held a convention at Westminster and declared their independence. They called their new state "New Connecticut." On June 4, 1777, a group of 72 delegates from New Connecticut met at Windsor where a letter was read from Dr. Thomas Young of Philadelphia. Young was a strong supporter of the settlers and advised them of the necessary steps for statehood. He also suggested that the Republic change its name to "Vermont." The new name, derived from the French, meant "Green Mountain," one of the chief features of the region. "A grand convention . . . to form a constitution for the state of Vermont" convened at Windsor on July 2nd. (This is why Windsor and the Old Constitution House are now called The Birthplace of Vermont.)
In the following days, British forces under the command of Lieutenant General John Burgoyne captured the fort complex of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. The British pursued the retreating American forces and met American General Arthur St. Clair's rear guard at Hubbardton on July 7th. Although the Americans successfully delayed the British advance, the nearby proximity of the British forced many of the inhabitants on the west side of the Green Mountains to flee.
Ira Allen provides one of the few eyewitness accounts of the Windsor Convention in his Natural and Political History of Vermont, published in 1798. The news of the British invasion arrived in Windsor on July 8th. According to Allen, this intelligence threw the delegates into an uproar. He wrote: “The business (of ratifying a constitution) being new, and of great consequence, required serious deliberation. The Convention had it under consideration when news of the evacuation of Ticonderoga arrived, which alarmed them very much, as thereby the frontiers of the State were exposed to the inroads of the enemy. The family of the President of the Convention, as well as those of many other members, were exposed to the foe. In this awful crisis the Convention was for leaving Windsor, but a severe thunderstorm came on, and gave them time to reflect, while other members, less alarmed at the news, called the attention of the whole to finish the Constitution….. This was done and the Convention then appointed a Council of Safety to act during recess, and the Convention adjourned".
Vermont existed as a Republic, for fourteen years, until 1791 when it was admitted to the Union as the 14th state, the first after the original 13 states.
Elijah West's tavern was originally located on Main Street in the center of Windsor village. The building functioned as a tavern until 1848 when it was converted and used for retail merchandising and small manufacturing shops. Later, around 1870, the building was moved to a side street and converted into a tenament house. The building was turned into a warehouse around 1890. The original location of the Old Constitution House is now a small park.
The building fell on hard times. Efforts to preserve it began in 1901, and in 1911 the Old Constitution House Association was formed. The Association received title to the building via a donation from the Fay family. The land for the new location was donated by the family of William M. Evarts, a Windsor resident who had been the chief counsel for the defense in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson and had served as Secretary of State for President Rutherford B. Hayes. By 1914 sufficient funds had been raised for the building’s restoration. Lewis Sheldon Newton of Hartford was appointed the architect for the project.
The Old Constitution House Association maintained the building as a museum and public tea room until 1961, when the Association transferred ownership of the house and its collections to the State of Vermont. It is now part of a state-wide system of historic sites maintained and operated by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.
The Old Constitution House features period rooms that reflect its use as an early tavern. A large interpretive area in the early 20th century tea room examines the events surrounding the signing of the Vermont Constitution. The collection at the Old Constitution House contains many pieces donated by area residents and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.