(A sorta-followup to Peter Lamborn Wilson’s piece in Arthur Vol. 1 No. 16….)
The Once and Future Republic of Vermont
By Ian Baldwin and Frank Bryan
Sunday, April 1, 2007; B01
The winds of secession are blowing in the Green Mountain State.
Vermont was once an independent republic, and it can be one again. We think the time to make that happen is now. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. government has grown too big, too corrupt and too aggressive toward the world, toward its own citizens and toward local democratic institutions. It has abandoned the democratic vision of its founders and eroded Americans’ fundamental freedoms.
Vermont did not join the Union to become part of an empire.
Some of us therefore seek permission to leave.
A decade before the War of Independence, Vermont became New England’s first frontier, settled by pioneers escaping colonial bondage who hewed settlements across a lush region whose spine is the Green Mountains. These independent folk brought with them what Henry David Thoreau called the “true American Congress” — the New England town meeting, which is still the legislature for nearly all of Vermont’s 237 towns. Here every citizen is a legislator who helps fashion the rules that govern the locality.
Today, however, Vermont no longer controls even its own National Guard, a domestic emergency force that is now employed in an imperial war 6,000 miles away. The 9/11 commission report says that “the American homeland is the planet.” To defend this “homeland,” the United States spends six times as much on its military as China, the next highest-spending nation, funding more than 730 military bases in more than 130 countries, abetted by more than 100 military space satellites and more than 100,000 seaborne battle-ready forces. This is the greatest military colossus ever forged.
Few heed George Washington’s Farewell Address, which warned against the danger of a permanent large standing army that “can be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Or that of a later general-become-president: “We must never let the weight of [the military-industrial complex] endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” Dwight D. Eisenhower pointedly included the word “congressional” after “military-industrial” but allowed his advisers to excise it. That word completes a true description of the hidden threat to democracy in the United States.
The two of us are typical of the diversity of Vermont’s secessionist movement: one descended from old Vermonter stock, the other a more recent arrival — a “flatlander” from down country. Our Vermont homeland remains economically conservative and socially liberal. And the love of freedom runs deep in its psyche.
Vermont seceded from the British Empire in 1777 and stood free for 14 years, until 1791. Its constitution — which preceded the U.S. Constitution by more than a decade — was the first to prohibit slavery in the New World and to guarantee universal manhood suffrage. Vermont issued its own currency, ran its own postal service, developed its own foreign relations, grew its own food, made its own roads and paid for its own militia. No other state, not even Texas, governed itself more thoroughly or longer before giving up its nationhood and joining the Union.
But the seeds of disunion have been growing since the beginning. Vermont more or less sat out the War of 1812, and its governor ordered troops fighting the British to disengage and come home. Vermont fought the Civil War primarily to end slavery; Abraham Lincoln did so primarily to save the Union. Vermont’s record on the slavery issue was so strong that Georgia’s legislature resolved that a ditch be dug around the “pestiferous” state and it be floated out to sea.
After the Great Flood of 1927, the worst natural disaster in the state’s history, President Calvin Coolidge (a Vermonter) offered help. Vermont’s governor replied, “Vermont will take care of its own.” In 1936, town meetings rejected a huge federal highway referendum that would have blacktopped the Green Mountain crest line from Massachusetts to Canada.
Nor did Vermont sign on when imperial Washington demanded that the state raise its drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1985. The federal government thereupon resorted to its favored tactic, blackmail. Raise your drinking age, said Ronald Reagan, or we’ll take away the money you need to keep the interstates paved. Vermont took its case for state control to the Supreme Court — and lost.
It’s quite simple. The United States has destroyed the 10th Amendment, which says that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The present movement for secession has been gathering steam for a decade and a half. In preparation for Vermont’s bicentennial in 1991, public debates — moderated by then-Lt. Gov. Howard Dean — were held in seven towns before crowds that averaged 230 citizens. At the end of each, Dean asked all those in favor of Vermont’s seceding from the Union to stand and be counted. In town after town, solid majorities stood. The final count: 999 (62 percent) for secession and 608 opposed.
In early 2003, transplanted Southerner and retired Duke University economics professor Thomas Naylor gave a speech at Johnson State College opposing the Iraq war. When he pitched the idea of secession to the crowd, he saw many eyes “light up,” he said. Later that year, he and several others started a loosely organized movement (now a think tank) called the Second Vermont Republic, which has an independent quarterly journal, Vermont Commons, and a Web site.
In October 2005, about 300 Vermonters attended a statewide convention on the question of secession. Six months later, the annual Vermont Poll of the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies found that about 8 percent of respondents replied “yes” to peaceful secession, arguably making Vermont foremost among the many states with secessionist movements (including Alaska, California, Hawaii, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas).
We secessionists believe that the 350-year swing of history’s pendulum toward large, centralized imperial states is once again reversing itself.
Why? First, the cost of oil and gas. According to urban planner James Howard Kunstler, “Anything organized on a gigantic scale . . . will probably falter in the energy-scarce future.” Second, third-wave technology is as inherently democratic and decentralist as second-wave technology was authoritarian and centralist. Gov. Jim Douglas wants Vermont to be the first “e-state,” making broadband Internet access available to every household and business in the state by 2010. Vermont will soon be fully wired into the global social commons.
Against this backdrop, secessionists from all over the state will gather in June to plan a grass-roots campaign to get at least 200 towns to vote by 2012 on independence. We believe that one outcome of this meeting will be dialogues among different communities of Vermonters committed to achieving local economic vitality, be they farmers, entrepreneurs, bankers, merchants, lawyers, independent media providers, construction workers, manufacturers, artists, entertainers or anyone else with a stake in Vermont’s future — anyone for whom freedom is not just a slogan.
If Vermonters succeed in once again inventing vibrant local economies, these in turn may reinvigorate the small-scale democratic town meeting tradition, the true American Congress, and re-create the rudiments of a republic once again able to make its own way in the world. The once and future republic of Vermont.
Ian Baldwin is publisher of Vermont Commons. Frank Bryan, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, is author of “Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works.”