The Once and Fu­ture Repub­lic of Ver­mont

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Ian Bald­win and Frank Bryan

BURLING­TON, Vt. he 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

Tto 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

Tplanet.” To de­fend this “home­land,” the United States spends six times as much on its mil­i­tary as China, the next high­est­spend­ing 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 mil­i­taryin­dus­trial 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. he 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 aWeb 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 350year 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.


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