Thinking About Law

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I wrote about our recent vacation in Washington, DC. As a result of that trip, I’ve been thinking about law.

Our system of government is based on the rule of law: all people are “equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.” All are bound by rules that are fixed and announced beforehand. The rule of law is a constraint on individual behavior, but more importantly it is a constraint on the coercive power of government. Government is intended to be predictable and limited, not arbitrary and boundless. John Adams famously wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution the phrase: “a government of laws and not of men.” (Part the First, Article XXX)

The Massachusetts Constitution was adopted in 1780 and it influenced the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787. Both constitutions sought to create a government based on the rule of law by creating three separate branches of government, with different functions relative to law:

  • Legislative branch – writes laws
  • Executive branch – prosecutes lawbreakers
  • Judicial branch – decides if alleged lawbreakers are guilty (if they claim innocence)

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The Lease Lands of Cambridge

Suppose you are researching the chain of title for land you own in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, and you find this language in an old deed:

“All of the above described and herein conveyed land is lease-land, subject to an annual rental to the Town of Cambridge.”

What does it mean? Should you care?

Yes, you should care. A title insurance company may consider this language to be a title defect, and as a result you may not be able to sell your property or borrow money using the property as collateral.

Lease lands are an “unusual Vermont institution” (quoting the Vermont Supreme Court). They were created when towns were chartered in the 1700s. Lease lands were public lands that were leased out for private use. The lease was perpetual. The lease could be traded, but the lessee did not own the land. The lessee paid an annual rent that was earmarked for public uses related to church and school. The purpose of lease lands was to create self-sustaining towns with support for church and school. Approximately 5% of the area of most Vermont towns was designated as lease land.

Lease land is sometimes called glebe land, but the two terms are not strictly synonymous. Glebe land is one category of lease land.

Over time people forgot about lease lands, in part because the annual rents were never increased and they became a pittance in today’s dollars. But the topic is relevant today because of the concerns of title insurance companies and banks mentioned above, and also because of a new (2018) state law discussed below.

How did lease lands come to my attention? The Town of Cambridge, where I am on the selectboard, was recently asked to quitclaim its interest in a parcel of lease land where the chain of title included old deeds with the language quoted above. Like most people, I had never heard of lease land. So I started researching it, together with Joel Page, president of the Cambridge Historical Society.

This is a fascinating subject! Joel and I are indebted to many people for helping with our research, and we did a presentation about what we learned:

The Lease Lands of Cambridge (PDF, 7 MB)

In our research, we learned about a recent (2018) state law that directly affects lease lands. Act 152 says that towns may take affirmative action to retain their ownership interest in lease lands, but if they do not do so prior to January 1, 2020, then fee simple title to the land will vest in the current lessee. What should the town of Cambridge do about its lease lands before the end of 2019? That question is considered in our presentation.

Vermont lease lands originated with Benning Wentworth (pictured), the colonial governor of New Hampshire for 25 years from 1741 to 1766. That is, before the American Revolution and prior to Vermont becoming an independent state. The presentation at the link above explains further.

Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain.

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Statutory Boards in Cambridge

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

The 2018 annual report for the Town of Cambridge lists three “statutory boards” (page 18): Board of Civil Authority, Board of Abatement, and Board of Health. What are these boards?

Each of these boards consists of individuals who are elected or appointed to other positions, and who are combined into a particular board by statute. Justices of the peace, for example, are automatically members of the Board of Civil Authority and the Board of Abatement. Members of the selectboard are on each of the boards described in this post.

This post provides an overview of these three statutory boards, with links to detailed information for those who want to know more.

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Voting Methods at Town Meeting

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

This post is about voting methods at town meeting.

See the earlier post About Town Meeting for an introduction to this topic.

To review and summarize that earlier post:

  • There are two methods of voting at town meeting: floor vote and Australian ballot.
  • There are three categories of issues decided at town meeting: officers, budgets, and public questions.
  • The general rule in Vermont is that most issues are decided by floor vote. But a town can vote to change to the Australian ballot for some or all issues. And a town can vote to change back to a floor vote.

Questions discussed in this post: What are the pros and cons of voting by Australian ballot vs. floor vote? What should citizens think about when deciding how to vote? How does a town change its voting method?

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The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny is a novel of historical fiction about World War II by Herman Wouk. It was published, and won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1951.

The Caine Mutiny follows the life of Willie Keith from December 1942, one year after Pearl Harbor, to October 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Keith spent most of that time aboard the USS Caine, a World War I destroyer converted to minesweeping duty in the South Pacific.

I read this book in high school, and I just re-read it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book again, after so many years. It holds many more meanings for me now.

This book is about leadership. I now have more perspective about leadership than I did as a teenager. In the course of the novel, the USS Caine has six captains. Each has a different style. Many lines in the book resonate with me as I reflect on the bosses I’ve had, and on the kind of boss that I was. There are leadership lessons in this book that are applicable to our current era of political polarization. No, I’m not suggesting mutiny. Read the book.

This book is about love. I now have more perspective about love than I did as a teenager. There are many different kinds of love: in courtship; in marriage (not the same as courtship); within families, especially the bond between parent and child; and between people working together in a common enterprise. This book covers them all. Once I attended a leadership seminar where the speaker said that leadership is love. The speaker was ex-military.

This book is about death and chance, both of which I now have more perspective about than I did as a teenager.

This book is about growing up. Like the topics listed above, the depths of this topic will never be exhaustively plumbed by anyone, but now that I am in my 60s, a parent with grown children, I have more perspective about it than I did as a teenager. The USS Caine saw mostly minor combat action, but it did survive two kamikaze attacks. The second attack, some six months after the “mutiny,” nearly sank the ship. When the danger had passed, Keith lay alone on his bunk and smoked a cigar while he thought about things:

A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime. Willie Keith crushing the stub in the ashtray was not the Willie who had lit the cigar. That boy was gone for good.

The Caine Mutiny is about “The Greatest Generation.” That phrase had not been coined when the book was published in 1951, nor when I first read the book in the early 1970s. The Greatest Generation was the generation of my parents. I had two aunts whose beaus (and future husbands) served on ships in the South Pacific. I had an aunt who lost a beau in the Battle of the Bulge. (My parents had only sisters, no brothers.) One aunt joined the Navy herself. Those who stayed home, both men and women, also served their country. The government asked my father to work on the farm and produce food. They asked his best friend to fly gliders across the English Channel into occupied Europe; after the war he was the best man at my parents’ wedding and he ran a gas station and car repair shop in Cambridge, perhaps like the one that Carl Hess ran in Arlington. What made them The Greatest Generation? The accident of growing up during The Greatest War in history.

The Caine Mutiny is about Big History, as seen through the eyes of a junior naval officer. This book may not resonate with many modern readers, who seem uninterested in history. Social media fuels interest in the gossip of today. But if we fail to learn any lessons from history, we risk repeating its failures – not in exactly the same way, of course; advances in technology will see to that.

If, however, you should be interested in Big History, I also recommend Herman Wouk’s later novels which cover the full sweep of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. They are magisterial, and like The Caine Mutiny, riveting good reads.

There is a passage in The Caine Mutiny that made me smile when I read it a few days ago, as I made the connection with things I learned on our most recent travel adventure last fall (see my other blog The Switchel Traveler).

The “mutiny” on the USS Caine occurred in December 1944 during a typhoon when the executive officer believed the ship was in danger of sinking because of the captain’s orders. The executive officer relieved the captain of command. The ship survived, and two months later there was a court-martial. The executive officer was not charged with mutiny, but with “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline,” a serious charge carrying a 15 year prison term. After an emotional and dramatic 3-day trial, encapsulated by the image on the book cover above, the executive officer was acquitted.

This greatly pleased the rest of the officers on the Caine, who disliked the captain. Indeed, they had nicknamed the captain “Old Yellowstain” because of his cowardice in battle. One of the other officers, a novelist in civilian life, threw a dinner party to celebrate:

“Nothing but champagne will be served,” yelled the novelist. “Champagne to toast the Fifth Freedom. Freedom from Old Yellowstain!”

In high school I’m sure I had no idea what “the Fifth Freedom” meant. Now I know.

Do not conclude, however, from this little snippet that either the executive officer or the novelist was necessarily a hero. People are complicated. Read the book.

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Legacy of the Four Freedoms

The Four Freedoms are very much a force in our world today.

(For background about the Four Freedoms, see Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, and Freedom of Speech Painting.)

Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, just before the end of World War II (victory in Europe came in May 1945 and victory in Japan in August 1945). Nevertheless, he laid the groundwork for the creation of the United Nations which would govern post-war relations between countries. His widow Eleanor Roosevelt ensured that the United Nations recognized the Four Freedoms.

The United Nations began operations in October 1945. The challenges were huge. Much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins, devastated by World War II. Displaced refugees numbered in the tens of millions. Only after the war did the full horror of the Holocaust become apparent. And the war did not end the struggle between democracy and communism.

President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to be part of the first delegation from the United States to the United Nations. In June 1946 the UN General Assembly created the UN Commission on Human Rights and directed it to create an international bill of rights. Eleanor Roosevelt was elected to lead the effort. She chaired more than 3,000 hours of meetings, and was successful. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in December 1948. The photo below shows Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Spanish language version:

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Freedom of Speech Painting

Norman Rockwell’s 1942 painting Freedom of Speech was a huge success.

(This was one of four paintings he did to illustrate President Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. See Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and Rockwell’s Four Freedoms.)

Rockwell himself liked it the best of his Four Freedoms paintings, and it was popular with the public:

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech is among the most famous works of American art, arguably as well known as James McNeill Whistler’s portrait of his mother and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.

(source, p. 55)

Freedom of Speech was the only one of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings that was based on an actual event. This post is the story of the event and the painting.

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Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

Norman Rockwell’s famous paintings of the Four Freedoms are shown below:

These paintings illustrate the Four Freedoms that President Franklin Roosevelt introduced in a speech to Congress in January 1941:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from want
  • Freedom from fear

See the post Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms for more discussion of Roosevelt’s speech.

The White House asked writers and artists to promote the Four Freedoms. Rockwell, then living in the small town of Arlington, Vermont, was inspired by the Four Freedoms, but he struggled to conceive of a way to illustrate them. In early 1942 he had a flash of inspiration.

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Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms

The photo to the left shows President Franklin Roosevelt giving his annual Message to Congress (what we now call the State of the Union address) on January 6, 1941. This became known as the Four Freedoms speech.

Two months earlier, Roosevelt had won re-election to a third term as president. Most of his efforts in his first two terms had been directed at battling the Great Depression. But by now Roosevelt was turning his attention to the raging war in Europe.

In 1940 Germany had conquered nearly all of continental Europe. Britain was fighting for survival. President Roosevelt believed that the United States itself would be threatened if Germany defeated Britain, but much of the U.S. public was opposed to involvement in another European war after the costly experience of The Great War 1914-1918 (what we now call World War I). This speech was another step in President Roosevelt’s efforts to build support for U.S. assistance to Britain. Note the timing – January 1941 was eleven months before the U.S. entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

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Act 46 and Democracy

What does Act 46 mean for democracy?

Before considering that general question, let’s review a more specific question: What happened with Act 46 in Cambridge?

The short answer is that the town lost control of its elementary school. The photo shows the Cambridge Elementary School on November 30, 2018.

My town of Cambridge, Vermont, had its own high school until the 1960s when six towns in northern Lamoille county, including Cambridge, combined grades 7-12 into a single, new facility in Hyde Park: Lamoille Union Middle and High Schools. The towns retained their separate elementary schools.

Many towns in Vermont went through a similar process in the 1960s. Towns joined together to form union school districts to afford larger high schools, while retaining town school districts for smaller elementary schools.

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