Even though 77 percent of the eligible voters in Vermont believe the U.S. government has lost its moral authority and 49 percent think the United States has become unsustainable (politically, economically, militarily, and environmentally), only 11.5 percent are in favor of Vermont seceding from the Union and becoming an independent republic.
Secession is one of the few subjects about which liberals and conservatives agree. It is an anathema to be avoided like the plague. So ill informed are most Vermonters about secession that many of them neither know how to pronounce the word nor how to spell it. Very often it is pronounced and spelled incorrectly as s-u-c-c-e-s-s-i-o-n. Why?
1. The Myth of Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln really did a number on us a century and a half ago. Most Americans believe he was our greatest president because he freed the slaves. They also believe that he proved once and for all that secession is illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As I point out in more detail in chapter 3 of my book Secession (Feral House, 2008), the tenth amendment to the Constitution; the history of nullification; and the contingencies under which Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island acceded to the Union all support the proposition that it is indeed legal for a state to leave the Union.
Few Americans are aware that Lincoln once said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save the Union by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slaves, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps save the Union.” The Civil War was fought primarily to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves.
According to Thomas DiLorenzo in his provocative book, The Real Lincoln, President Lincoln invaded the Confederate States without the consent of Congress, suspended habeas corpus, imprisoned thousands of American citizens without a trial for opposing his policies, censored all telegraph communications, imprisoned dozens of opposition newspaper publishers, nationalized the railroads, used Federal troops to interfere with elections, confiscated firearms, and deported an opposition member of Congress. All in the name of freedom and democracy.
First and foremost, Lincoln was an empire builder and a world class manipulator.
2. Civil War Redux
The knee-jerk reaction of most Americans to secession is, “We’ve been there, done that, and it didn’t work out very well.” Secession immediately brings to mind images of the Civil War, slavery, racism, violence, and preservation of the Southern way of life. Secession is often equated with Southern, redneck, Christian, fundamentalist racism. Anyone who is a secessionist must also be a racist.
Many Vermonters and other Northerners view the Civil War through rose-colored glasses remembering their beloved ancestors who fought to free the slaves.
The case for secession could not have been made more clearly than it was by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence when he said, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
Ultimately, as was the case in the American revolution, whether or not a state is allowed to secede is neither a legal question nor a constitutional question, but rather a matter of political will. The ultimate test of sovereignty lies with the people themselves: How strong is the will of the departing state to be free and independent of the control of the larger nation it was a part of?
4. Economic Unfeasibility
One of the questions asked most often about Vermont independence is whether a tiny state like Vermont with a population of only 625,000 could possibly survive economically as an independent republic? We believe that the answer is decidedly yes: not only would Vermont survive, but would thrive.
With a gross state product of around $25 billion, Vermont has the smallest economy of any of the fifty states. Its per capita income of approximately $35,000 places it right in the middle of the American states. Only Wyoming has a smaller population.
Vermont’s size does not itself pose an economic problem. Few people realize that of the 200 or so countries in the world, nearly fifty of these have populations that are smaller than Vermont’s. Some of them include Andorra, Aruba, The Bahamas, Belize, Brunei, Grenada, Kiribati, Malta, Qatar, St. Lucia, and Tonga.
Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Bermuda, and Iceland, four of the ten richest countries in the world, each has a smaller population than Vermont and a higher per capita income. San Marino and Monaco are two other wealthy countries that are smaller than Vermont yet have comparable income levels.
5. Political Impossibility
Because secession has been viewed as a political impossibility by most Americans since the Civil War, no mechanism exists in our government to deal with this subject. Constitutional though it may be for a state to take leave of the Union, there are no guidelines to facilitate negotiations between separating states and the federal government with regard to government property, relocation costs, federal debt, and net worth. The unofficial policy of the U.S. government concerning secession is complete denial.
Thus, in order to achieve its objective of breaking away from the United States, the Second Vermont Republic would need to invent its own rules for secession, giving attention to four different constituencies: (1) the people of Vermont, (2) the U.S. government, (3) people in other American states, and (4) global public opinion.
With these constituencies in mind, the Second Vermont Republic conceives of the act of secession itself involving three very important steps:
1. Approval of articles of secession by a statewide convention by a two-thirds vote.
2. Recognition by the U.S. government and other states.
3. Diplomatic recognition abroad.
6. Risk of Violence
Another frequently asked question about Vermont secession is, “How would the United States respond to an attempt by Vermont to secede from the Union?” The implied question behind the question is, “Would the world’s only superpower send troops to Vermont?”
Perhaps in contemplating these questions Vermonters can learn a lot from Eastern Europe’s experience with Václav Havel’s idea of the “power of the powerless.” Within a matter of a few weeks in 1989 the iron-fisted communist regimes in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland were replaced by more democratic governments with little or no violence involved in the transition. Only Romania was a bloody exception to this rule.
Many American Sovietologists were surprised that the Soviet Union did not intervene militarily in Poland in the 1980s, as it had done in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. But Poland had a lot of influential friends and supporters, not the least of which were the United States and Western Europe. Certainly, the Soviets could have snuffed out Solidarity, but just as certainly that would not have played well in London, Paris, or Washington.
A secessionist Vermont could also find a lot of good friends, within the United States, in Canada, in Europe, and in the rest of the world. So it is certainly not a foregone conclusion that the United States government would intervene militarily in Vermont. Part of Vermont’s strength lies in the absurdity of its confronting the most powerful nation in the world. Vermont’s attempt to secede would undoubtedly attract sympathy from within the United States and abroad simply by virtue of its role as an underdog.
Conquering Vermont would be a lot like invading Liechtenstein or one of the more rural Swiss cantons. Besides the ridiculous power disparity, there is also Vermont’s complete lack of strategic and military importance. The United States would not have much to lose by letting Vermont go.
In 1775 Ethan Allen took Fort Ticonderoga without firing a single shot. If Vermont can succeed in undermining the moral authority of the United States and convince the rest of the world that the United States government is corrupt to the core, then it too may be able to escape from the Union without ever firing a shot. That is the essence of Vermont’s genteel revolution.
7. Association with Failure
In a world which believes bigger is always better whether it be big cities, big countries, big businesses, big schools, or big churches, then anything which shrinks constitutes failure. Therefore, secession is bad.
In the words of Leopold Kohr, “There seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big.” America is too big and should be peacefully dissolved.
8. Excessive Nationalism
Thanks to the heritage of Lincoln, most Americans are firmly committed to nationalism, regardless of their political orientation. Liberals certainly have never tried to hide their affection for the nationalist approach. They believe that only the federal government can solve most of our economic, social, and environmental problems. They want government to be even larger. While paleoconservatives give lip service to the Jeffersonian, decentralist model of government, most are also strong political nationalists, and therefore they behave more like centralists. Neoconservatives, who are unabashedly imperialistic, are, not surprisingly, blatantly nationalistic.
Although Ronald Reagan pretended to be a decentralist favoring less government, his nationalism always trumped his decentralist tendencies. He may have contributed more to the massive concentration of power in Washington than any previous president with his multi-trillion-dollar peacetime military build-up.
9. American Omnipotence
By far the most difficulty step in the process of deciding to embrace secession is the emotional one of letting go of one’s images of America as “the home of the free and the land of the brave,” “the greatest nation on earth,” and “the world’s only global superpower.” These images have been ingrained in most of us since early childhood. Reinforced by World War II, the Cold War, an uncritical education system, and our pro-American media, they are very difficult and painful to shake.
The decision to advocate secession involves reaching the point where you are unwilling to risk going down with the Titanic and must seek other options while there are still other options on the table.
10. Political Incorrectness
Few states are as politically correct as left-leaning Vermont, particularly the Democratic Party, the Progressive Party, and the state’s two best known colleges, Middlebury College and UVM. Although hundreds of Middlebury and UVM students support the idea of Vermont independence, their professors sit silently on the sidelines. There is a strict code of what constitutes politically correct behavior, and secession is nowhere to be found on the list.
I recently had lunch with a prominent Vermont businessman who claimed to be philosophically disposed towards Vermont independence. He then went on to say, “But I would never say this publicly, after all, what would people think?”
The ship of state is going down and neither our governor, our legislature, nor very many Vermonters seem to have even noticed. Whether the result of peak oil, climate change, imperial overstretch, aging infrastructure, an unstable dollar, skyrocketing health care costs, or a highly inequitable distribution of income and wealth, the endgame is near. Our nation has become ungovernable, unsustainable, and unfixable. Even though at least two-thirds of all Vermonters truly despise George W. Bush, most are prepared to do absolutely nothing to improve the plight of our nation other than support some mindless, liberal Democrat for president, which is tantamount to doing nothing at all.
Most Vermonters are too fat and happy to ever consider the possibility of actually confronting the American Empire. So ingrained in the Vermont psyche is the myth of Lincoln that our problems will have to become a lot worse before a majority of Vermonters will seriously consider secession as the ultimate form of rejection of a doomed nation. That day may be closer than most imagine.
When all is said and done, there is but one word to describe why secession is such a tough sell. That word is ignorance.
We are reminded in the book of Ecclesiastes that, “there is a time for everything, a time to be born and a time to die.” I believe the time for the Empire to die is now!
Thomas H. Naylor
June 15, 2008