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Vermont Vs. New Hampshire

June 2024
13min read

They border each other, they look alike, and most outsiders have a hard time separating the two. Yet residents know the differences are enormous.

They’re like brothers who, as only the family knows, couldn’t be more different. With a landscape of open, rolling farmland and small villages with white-steepled churches, Vermont is the most rural state in the Union, according to Census Bureau statistics. From an environmental point of view, it’s also the most politically liberal. New Hampshire, so heavily forested that it was once described by Vermont’s Richard Ketchum as looking “like a summer camp that’s been closed for the winter,” is the nation’s fourth most industrialized state and as politically conservative as any you can name.

Geographically separated by the Connecticut River, they lie next to each other in reverse, with each calling the other an upside-down version of itself. New Hampshire, the forty-fourth largest state in area, with about a million in population, is fattest at its bottom, which borders Massachusetts and, for eighteen miles, the sea. Land-bound Vermont, half as big in population but slightly larger in area (ranking forty-third), is fattest at its top, which borders Canada. Surely no two brothers could grow up the same with such different hereditary characteristics.

Most people who know the two states well like one or the other—but not both.

“She’s one of the two best states in the Union,” wrote Robert Frost of New Hampshire, then added, “Vermont’s the other.” Frost can be excused for liking both states; after all, he was originally from California. Most people who know them well like one or the other. Not both.

New Hampshire seems to make people either proud (that number would consist exclusively of the state’s residents) or angry (everyone else). Vermont, on the other hand, has a tendency to make people (particularly “flatlanders"—i.e., outsiders) either nostalgic or a little sick to their stomachs. The latter group consists of New Hampshire residents plus those few cynical Americans to whom the so-called New England image is vaguely repugnant.

There’s little question that Vermont (particularly Vermont), Maine, Boston, and Cape Cod are, together, responsible for the New England image. New Hampshire just doesn’t fit in. Former U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota once said, “All New Hampshire is divided into three parts: Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont.” Putting aside the misconceptions inherent in that statement, it does demonstrate New Hampshire’s lack of image. This, I submit, is unfair. New Hampshire is part of the New England image. It’s just the part that people don’t like.

For instance, consider how Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a writer and a Vermont summer person, described what she called “the Vermont tradition.” She said it was “like the tang of an upland October morning, the taste of a drink from a cold mountain spring.” Along the same lines, another writer, Craig Storti, found that “Vermont was the smell of grass after an April rain.”

In contrast, there’s a New Hampshire story (one of darned few, most New England stories being about Vermont or Maine) about a farmer (yes, just under one percent of New Hampshirites still farm) who was relaxing in his home with the evening newspaper. Finally, finding the soft April air, the sound of peepers, and the vapors of the damp, freshly plowed earth irresistible, he rose and headed for the front door. “Bessie,” he called to his wife, “it’s just too beautiful outside to stay in here. I’m going out and slaughter a hog.”

If that doesn’t help clarify the difference, contemplate for a moment a few of the things of which each state is proudest. Vermont points to its law banning highway billboards, its Act 250, which severely restricts real estate development, its generous aid to education and social services, and its basic general philosophy, written into the state constitution, that “private property ought to be subservient to public uses when necessity requires it.” It is hardly insignificant that that document was based on the Quaker-influenced constitution of Pennsylvania.

New Hampshire would no more adopt the above measures or endorse that philosophy than it would elect Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s recent foreignborn, Jewish, Democratic woman governor, to the office of fence viewer—or any office involving the spending of money. New Hampshire glories in its frugality, rabidly protected by a four-hundred-member General Court (the largest state legislature in the country) and the Governor’s Council, a holdover from the Royal Governor’s Council, dedicated to keeping the governor from doing anything foolish.

Like, for example, violating “The Pledge.” Political candidates in New Hampshire, if they want a reasonable chance of being elected, are expected to pledge they’ll not support anything faintly resembling a broad-based state income tax. New Hampshire’s original bill of rights (taken from the business-minded Puritans, except for religious and property requirements) includes the right of revolution “whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered.” The words subservient to public uses, as found in Vermont’s constitution, don’t appear anywhere in New Hampshire’s.

Excluding legislators themselves, New Hampshirites like the fact that the state has retained its nineteenth-century pay scale for legislators too: mileage, plus two hundred dollars every other year. (Vermont pays its nearly two hundred legislators four hundred dollars for each week they’re in session.)

Vermont has a few more heroes of which to be proud than does New Hampshire. Ironically, almost all of them—Ethan Alien, Calvin Coolidge, and the late Sen. George Aiken, for instance—personify that conservative, rock-ribbed Republican sort of image Vermont once basked in for years. And indeed, it used to be true. Vermont was the only state in the country to vote straight Republican from the time the Republican party began, in 1856, to 1962, when Vermonters first elected a Democratic governor. (Even New Hampshire voted for FDR in 1936,1940, and 1944.) When Senator Aiken advised President Johnson to declare victory in Vietnam and then bring the troops home, the nation smiled, not so much at his humor but more because he so perfectly personified the commonsense reputation of Vermonters.

“You can feel the difference the minute you cross the Connecticut River,” people say.

New Hampshire’s historical heroes are, for the most part, somewhat flawed or, worse, erroneously credited to Vermont. The only President to come from New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce, favored states’ rights at exactly the worst time in American history to do so. Daniel Webster is a Granite Stater to be proud of, but unfortunately he moved permanently to Massachusetts halfway through his life. New Hampshire’s Revolutionary War hero, John Stark, is known mainly for his victory at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont. He’s also credited with New Hampshire’s official motto, “Live Free or Die,” of which New Hampshirites are rather defiantly proud while Vermonters and the national media enjoy it as the butt of jokes. (New Hampshire doesn’t think much of Vermont’s motto, “Freedom and Unity,” either. How can you have both? they ask.)

John Stark’s wife, Molly, is even more famous than her husband, but not in New Hampshire. Vermonters, inexplicably, seem inclined to name just about everything after her. There is a Molly Stark Trail, and there are Molly Stark schools, parks, gift shops (galore), streets, restaurants, and motels.

Vermont is proud it invented the first ski tow for downhill skiing (in 1934), while New Hampshire counters with its invention of the ski-mobile (1937). New Hampshire brags it has two Fortune 500 companies. Vermont brags it has none. And on it goes—each state always true to its character.

From time to time Vermont enjoys some modest national attention when someone sees “Champ,” a Loch Ness-type monster in Lake Champlain, or perhaps one of the state’s often-sighted-but-never-caught panthers. And its maple sugar/covered bridge image appears year in and year out in literature, advertisements, and even Bob Newhart’s old television show. But New Hampshire eclipses all of that—briefly—every four years when it holds the nation’s first presidential primary. For the weeks prior to that, New Hampshire is the center of attention in the nation—maybe even the world. And justifiably so, in the opinion of residents. “The state [of New Hampshire] is a better proving ground than most for an office seeker,” wrote Nancy Coffey Heffernan and Ann Page Stecker in their 1986 book New Hampshire, “because...the voters there are not over-awed by politicians seeking public office.”

It infuriates many outsiders, however, particularly members of the national media. The problem, I submit, stems from the fact they all arrive in New Hampshire thinking they’re coming to Vermont. Then, since they never bother to learn the differences between the two states, the incongruities inherent in their basic misconceptions of New Hampshire make them angry. New Hampshire doesn’t fit the story they’ve unconsciously written in their minds all their professional lives.

“New Hampshire is a fraud,” wrote Henry Alien in February 1988 in the Washington Post National Weekly. He went on to rant about the nation being held hostage to a state made up of “souvenir hustlers, backwoods cranks, motorcycle racing fans...and tax-dodging Massachusetts suburbanites who have create an illusion of noble, upright, granite-charactered sentinels of liberty out of little more than a self-conscious collection of bad (if beautiful) land, summer people, second-growth woods full of junked cars and decaying aristocracy, lakes howling with speedboats, state liquor stores that are open on Sundays, and the most vicious state newspaper in America, the Manchester Union Leader.”

Poor fellow. Instead of finding Santa Claus in New Hampshire, as he was so sure he would, he found common, everyday reality. The covered bridges, maple syrup, Champ, and probably Santa Claus are over in Vermont, Mr. Allen.

Despite their contrasting natures, however, both New Hampshire and Vermont are proud of how they look. New Hampshire points to its seacoast, the Old Man of the Mountain (recently described by another irritated outside journalist as “possibly the least inspiring rock formation in America”), its lovely lakes, and the White Mountains, featuring Mount Washington. Vermont counters with its long shoreline on Lake Champlain, its Christmas-card countryside, and the Green Mountains, featuring Mount Mansfield. Vermonters hold Mount Mansfield in very hish regard. A few years ago I gave a speech in a church outside Burlington in which I admired a large stained-glass window showing Jesus Christ rising to heaven, accompanied by a host of beautiful angels. In the background—there’s no mistaking it—was Mount Mansfield.

The marked differences between these two brother states are really not surprising when you consider how each was brought up. Unlike most of the original colonists, New Hampshire’s first settlers didn’t arrive with an original charter, strong religious convictions, or a strong-willed proprietor like John Winthrop or Roger Williams. They were simply English adventurers, fishermen, and opportunists looking to make some money. This attitude fitted well with the Puritans in the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony, who, after a number of New Hampshire coastal towns came under Massachusetts jurisdiction during the mid-1600s, mixed their stern, frugal, conscientious, and ambitious approach to life with the New Hampshire settlers’ self-reliance and independence.

New Hampshire today is still closeIy tied to Massachusetts in many ways. Tourists and second-homers in New Hampshire are principally Bay Staters. At the same time, New Hampshire abhors the very idea of “creeping Massachusettsism,” a New Hampshire term that implies an assortment of liberal horrors, including higher taxes.

Although “discovered” by Samuel de Champlain on July 4, 1609, Vermont was settled more than a century later. The first settlers, mostly from Connecticut, arrived in the Brattleboro area in 1724. (Their declaration of independence called the territory New Connecticut, a name that had it not been changed within months might well have destroyed the Vermont mystique before it began.) While New Hampshire was incorporating towns (60 percent of present-day New Hampshire towns were settled by 1775), clearing land, sending pine masts to England, and (aided by close proximity to the Boston market and ocean access) starting small industries that would grow into the major textile and shoe manufacturies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vermont was floundering and in chaos.

This was due to some double-dealing by King George III. In effect, King George handed over Vermont to both New Hampshire and New York. He granted New Hampshire’s governor, John Wentworth, all land to within thirty miles of the Hudson River and then turned around and gave New York the land all the way to the east bank of the Connecticut River. Massachusetts jumped in and claimed some of it too.

All this eventually led to Vermont’s thumbing its nose at all its neighbors and everyone else too. In 1777, with Ethan Alien and his “Bennington Mob” leading the way, Vermont declared itself an independent state, answerable to nobody. Vermont remained independent until 1791, when it paid New York thirty thousand dollars to settle all its land disputes and was admitted to the Union.

Many of the New Hampshire claims in Vermont had been settled earlier by individual landowners, but the two states continued battling over their common boundary well into this century. They simply couldn’t agree on making it the middle of the Connecticut River, as most neighboring states would do. Like brothers arguing over who should have the bigger piece of cake, they insisted on trying to pick one bank of the river as the boundary. Finally, in 1934, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which chose the west bank. New Hampshire, awarded the entire breadth of the river, felt it had won a victory until someone pointed out that the state would thus be responsible for maintaining all the bridges over the river. Score one for Vermont.

With rolling farmland and small villages, Vermont is the most rural state in the Union.

There is something historic on which Vermont and New Hampshire actually agree. Both maintain that the American Revolution did not begin at Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. New Hampshire favors December 13, 1774, when Maj. John Sullivan of the Granite State Volunteers and four hundred patriots attacked the British-held Fort William and Mary, at New Castle, New Hampshire. Vermont finds that particular action of no significance in the war’s outcome and sees the Concord/Lexington fight as purely a defensive action. So it proudly points to Ethan Alien’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, as the first offensive action of the war. To be fair, I should say here that every New England state makes a case for having begun the American Revolution—with the exception of Maine, which ignores the Revolution and stoutly points out that it was settled well before the arrival of the Mayflower anyway.

Both states also claim to have played the primary roles in various battles that either strengthened or actually saved the Union. At Bunker Hill, New Hampshire’s troops outnumbered the combined totals of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and Washington himself said the “bravery and resolution” of New Hampshire soldiers “far surpassed the other colonies.” Vermont points to its role at Gettysburg almost ninety years later. Historians seem to agree that the actions of Stanhard’s Vermont brigade were critical in repulsing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Furthermore, Vermont can truthfully say it suffered more casualties in the Civil War, per capita, than any other state.

The most significant single reason for all the present-day differences between these two brother states, however, has nothing to do with political history. It has to do with the characteristics of the ground each inherited—the actual soil. Mark Twain said, “In the South, the people define the land and in the North, the land defines the people.” Vermont’s land has always been well suited for farming, while New Hampshire’s has not. With the exception of parts of the Connecticut and Merrimack river valleys, New Hampshire’s soil consists mainly of glacial hardpan strewn with rocks and boulders. Thus, when the rural populations of both states were lured West by the discovery of gold in California, easier farming, and just plain Yankee restlessness, New Hampshire’s lost population was more than made up for by immigrants, who, instead of battling with all those New Hampshire rocks, went to work in the growing factories and mills.

Except during the Civil War decade, New Hampshire’s overall population steadily increased during the nineteenth century. Vermont, the region of New England least touched by industry, not only remained rural and agriculturally oriented, but its population declined during most of the same period. Even today Vermont has legally chartered towns, like Avery’s Gore, Warner’s Grant, Lewis, and Ferdinand, that remain virtually uninhabited.

In 1911, concerned by this loss of people, Vermont began its now-famous tourist industry—currently the number-one money-maker in the state—by sending out the first state-sponsored tourist brochure. It was a profusely illustrated booklet of eighty pages entitled Vermont, Designed by the Creator for the Playground of the Continent.

Fourteen years later New Hampshire followed suit, although since the turn of the century it had been conducting Old Home Day celebrations designed to bring back Western wanderers for at least a day. Its first tourist brochure was more modestly entitled The Summer Playground of America. Apparently that was more effective than Vermont’s: the summer tourist business in the Granite State, luring people to huge hotels in the White Mountains and Lake Winnipesaukee region, grew by leaps and bounds while Vermont’s increased much more slowly. There are those residents of New Hampshire today who wish it could have been the other way around.

The two states remain different. “You can feel the difference the minute you cross the Connecticut River,” people say. But like brothers who tend to come together when threatened from outside, they face the future with similar concerns. The difference is in how they rank them. New Hampshire, alarmed by its recent economic slowdown after a decade of incredible growth fueled by its high-tech industries, is still afraid some political sleaze will eventually succeed in getting a state income tax passed. But economic and development pressures and the resulting changing character of many of its communities are growing concerns as well. Steady pressure to increase controls statewide , flies directly in the face of the historic home-rule philosophy, which placed the responsibility of decision making mostly in the hands of individual towns.

Frugal New Hampshire pays legislators two hundred dollars every other year, plus mileage.

Vermont is afraid of economic and development pressures too. In fact, that’s its primary concern. But it’s a concern that goes further than being apprehensive, as New Hampshire is, about the changing character of its individual communities. To most Vermonters, these pressures threaten, as they put it, “our way of life.” As the only New Englanders (with the possible exception of some in Maine) who actually live the New England image, they want to continue to do so.

However, there’s a new type of pressure growing steadily in Vermont these days, and it’s not without some irony. It is made up of Vermonters who adamantly oppose anything that could result in higher taxes and who want Vermont businesses (like IBM and the Digital Equipment Corporation up in the Burlington area, for instance) to expand. “Vermont is on the extreme end of environmental issues,” said Dick Tanch, former general manager of the Mount Mansfield ski area, recently, “and it’s detrimental to our economic health.”

So while there’s pressure in New Hampshire to be more like Vermont, there’s pressure in Vermont to be more like New Hampshire—just like brothers who’ve had their differences but who are getting along in years. I live in New Hampshire. Not “so I can get a better view of Vermont,” as Maxfield Parrish once said, but rather because it’s both where I work and where I want to be. Yes, it’s an exasperating sort of state. The New Hampshire state representative Deborah (“Arnie”) Arnesen of Orford describes it as having a “tax-free, self-serving, if-you-can-make-it-you-can-keep-it” economic philosophy, and there’s truth to that. As with most residents, New Hampshire makes me angry—and proud. I don’t like reading that only children under eighteen and adults “in pain” can receive Medicaid dental care. Or that New Hampshire remains the last state in the nation without mandated kindergarten. I’membarrassed that our state doesn’t recognize Martin Luther King Day specifically by name. I’m irritated at having to celebrate Memorial Day on a different day of the week from the rest of America. To tell you the truth, I’m amazed New Hampshire can see its way clear to go along with the international time zones.

But I’m proud to be a resident of a state that best exemplifies so many of the legendary characteristics of the mystical New Englander, even those not always considered by some to be attractive. I’m speaking of frugality, fierce independence, shrewd business sense, ingenuity—and not just a little pride. And to think it has all these New England qualities and more without ever being credited, as Vermont is in spades, with contributing to the New England image!

And Vermont? Well, up in West Glover I have relatives who have farm animals and tap their maple trees for the pure joy of it—and a few more in Woodstock, a town supported by (and, behind the scenes, run by) the Rockefellers. A few of my dearest New York friends have vacation homes outside Grafton, a town preserved by the Windham Foundation. A large part of the foundation’s money annually ear-marked for Grafton comes from a charitable trust established in 1962 by the family of a very caring New York society lady, a Mrs. Rodney Fiske, following her death. She summered in Grafton and was fond of describing the town as “the little village in the hills.”

Yes, Vermont is lovely. A lovely state to visit. Quaint too.


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