Then Again: How Vermont politics’ Mountain Rule crumbled

Mortimer Proctor addresses a radio audience in Schenectady, New York, in 1945 as Vermont’s newly elected governor. Proctor had previously served as speaker of the Vermont House, president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, and lieutenant governor. Photo courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society

Mortimer Proctor took an audacious step in 1940: he announced he would run for lieutenant governor. It wasn’t so much his decision to run that surprised political insiders. It was his timing.

Proctor came from what was then arguably Vermont’s leading political family — his father, grandfather and uncle each served as Vermont governor, Republicans all. He himself had served as speaker of the Vermont House, and just the year before had become president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate.

Proctor was clearly a qualified candidate. But the thing was, it wasn’t his turn to run. In fact, it wasn’t the turn for anyone from the West side of Vermont to seek the office, which included Proctor who was from the town of Proctor in Rutland County. By running, Proctor was breaking the age-old, though unwritten, “Mountain Rule,” a power-sharing agreement designed to foster party cohesion.

Although Republicans had thrived by employing the Mountain Rule beginning in the mid-1850s, the practice can be traced back to Vermont’s founding, long before there was a Republican Party. The rule called for the East and West sides of the state to alternate who would hold statewide offices.

In 1778, Vermont’s first elections yielded a governor from the West side and a lieutenant governor from the East. Elections would respect that precedent, with Western Vermont claiming the top job and the East contenting itself with electing the understudy, until 1826. Beginning that year, however, the two sides would take turns holding the offices. It was all very gentlemanly, or today some would say “old boys’ club”-y.

The Mountain Rule extended to other offices as well. It decided everything from who could be Speaker of the House to who could be a U.S. senator. Between 1791 and the mid-1900s, Vermont gave one of its U.S. Senate seats to an East-sider and the other to a West-sider. The only exception was during the early 1850s, when the fractious sectional politics of the years leading up to the Civil War briefly broke the pattern.

Initially, the state Legislature even alternated on which side of the Green Mountains it held its sessions. Then in 1805, it ended its nomadic ways by placing the capitol in Montpelier, a location that was equally inconvenient to both sides.

This East-West division was the fault of mountains, waterways, and politics.

Through a quirk of history, the early settlers on the East side of the state owed the titles to their land, and therefore their loyalty, to the colony of New York, while those on the West side of the state were similarly tied to New Hampshire. The reason for this strange situation is that the two colonies were vying for the right to control the territory between them, which is today’s Vermont. Each colony sought to maximize its size by claiming land farthest from its own established border.

The Green Mountains, which divide Vermont vertically, only reinforced these political divisions. So did various waterways. The Connecticut River and its tributaries made East-siders feel more connected with New Hampshire, Massachusetts and the rest of Southern New England. Lake Champlain, which flows north, made West-siders look to Canada for trade. And beginning in 1823, when the Champlain Canal opened to connect the lake with the Hudson River, Western Vermonters could also look to New York.

The Mountain Rule only really worked when one party dominated Vermont politics, but that has been true for much of the state’s history. Beginning in the 1840s, the Whigs rotated their gubernatorial nominees to prevent any one person from dominating the party. Governors would serve two one-year terms before stepping aside for someone from the other side of the Green Mountains.

When the Republican Party formed in 1854, with the help of many Whigs, it operated under the same Mountain Rule. The practice helped the party avoid nasty internal fights over who would gain the nomination. It also bolstered the strength of party insiders by squelching the efforts of mavericks, according to Sam Hand, the late professor of history from the University of Vermont who wrote extensively on the topic. 

For more than a century, the Mountain Rule essentially dictated who would hold statewide office. For most of that period, the Republicans were so dominant in Vermont that to be nominated by the party was as good as getting elected.

Rarely did a politician dare to violate the unwritten rule. In those few cases, politicians found an excuse for doing so. The first incident occurred in the run-up to the election of 1872. The state constitution had recently been amended to change the length of the governor’s term from one year to two. The amendment raised the question of whether the Mountain Rule called for a rotation of power after two terms or two years. 

Like all unwritten rules, this one was open to interpretation. The sitting governor, John Stewart of Middlebury, who was finishing the first two-year term ever served by a Vermont governor, apparently liked his job. He interpreted the Mountain Rule to allow a governor to serve two terms, not years.

The Republican establishment felt differently. Party leaders wanted an East-sider. After much debate, Julius Converse of Woodstock prevailed at the party convention over fellow Woodstock resident Frederick Billings, who would have to wait four years, until 1876, for it to be an East-sider’s turn again.

In the late 1920s, a Republican managed to break the Mountain Rule. John Weeks was

serving his first two-year term as governor when a flood devastated Vermont in 1927. Newspapers editorialized that it might be time to bend the rules and give a governor a second term.  

Weeks seized the opportunity and announced that he was “ready to assume the responsibilities and carry on the work.” His statement came the day after Vermonters learned that the state had received federal flood relief. The timing of Weeks’ announcement was hardly coincidental. Republicans agreed to re-nominate Weeks and he won the general election with 74 percent of the vote. 

Weeks’ move settled the question that Stewart had raised. Republican governors, if they wished, could now serve for four years in a row. By rewriting one part of the Mountain Rule, Weeks had made the whole idea seem antiquated. In an editorial supporting Weeks’ second term, the Burlington Free Press called the rule among the worst of “effete political traditions.”

For decades, the Mountain Rule had served Republicans well, lessening intra-party

tensions and calming sectional rivalries. But by 1940, the rule seemed so outdated that Mortimer Proctor felt free to ignore it by running for lieutenant governor when it was an East-sider’s turn. 

Proctor won the election, and two years later was re-elected. Then he jumped the line again in 1944 when he ran for governor. By winning that election too and winning it easily, he proved once and for all that the Mountain Rule was indeed a thing of the past.