Vermont's Radical Imperative

Few Americans realize that Vermont is hands down the most radical state in the Union in terms of its commitment to human solidarity, sustainability, direct democracy, and political independence, and it’s been that way for a very long time. With its 237 or so annual town meetings, the Green Mountain state is by far the most democratic state in America, ranking a close second behind Switzerland internationally.

Vermont’s radicalism can be traced back to 1777 when it first became an independent republic prior to joining the Union fourteen years later. Vermont was the only American state which truly invented itself before becoming a part of the United States. Unlike other New England states, Vermont was never an English colony, or any other kind of colony, thus avoiding a period of aristocratic oligarchy. Influenced by some of its earlier Iroquois and Yankee inhabitants, Vermont established an almost casteless society never to be replicated elsewhere in America.

Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery in its constitution in 1777 and also the first to require universal manhood suffrage. By the 1830s, Vermont had the strongest abolitionist sentiment of any state in America. Vermonters were active participants in the “Underground Railroad” which helped runaway slaves find refuge in Canada. In 1858, in defiance of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, Vermont freed all blacks who had been brought into the state.

As early as July 2, 1777, the Constitution of Vermont presciently anticipated the risks of the future military-industrial complex: “As standing armies in time of peace are dangers to liberty, they ought not be kept up; and the military should be kept under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.” No major battle between European invaders and Native Americans ever took place in Vermont territory. Although Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys had no love for New Yorkers or the British, both they and Allen himself managed to avoid ever killing anyone at Fort Ticonderoga or elsewhere – so the story goes. Only one minor skirmish occurred on Vermont soil during the American Revolution. The lone Civil War engagement fought in Vermont on October 18, 1864 in St. Albans was more like a Jesse James-style bank robbery carried out by a handful of Confederate soldiers. However, Vermont was the first state to send troops to fight in the Civil War. Half of the eligible men in Vermont served in the Union Army.

Even though Vermont has no death penalty and virtually no gun control laws, it is one of the least violent states in the Union. It also has no military bases, no strategic resources, and few military contractors. All three members of its Congressional delegation voted against the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq.

Vermont has the highest percentage of unpaved roads in the nation and was the first state to ban billboards alongside highways. It’s unique environmental law regulating real estate development, Act 250, was the first in the nation and remains one of the toughest.Vermont was the first state to pass a “bottle bill.” It kept Wal-Mart at bay longer than any other state, and Montpelier remains the only state capital in America without a McDonald’s restaurant.

Vermont always ranks near the top of the list of states who treat women and children well. Its Civil Union law was the first in the nation. Thanks to Mayor Peter Clavelle, employees of the City of Burlington will soon be able to purchase prescription drugs from Canada in spite of opposition from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Ultimately, secession represents the most radical form of peaceful rejection of the policies of the U.S. Government. Vermont is home to one of the most sophisticated political independence movements in the country today. But there is nothing new about Vermont’s secession movement. As far back as January 5, 1815, Vermont joined other New England states in signing the report of the so-called Hartford Convention in opposition to the proposal of the U.S. Secretary of War to implement a military draft for continuing the mismanaged War of 1812 with England. This report was, in fact, a declaration of secession.

In 1973, Chicago-based economist David Hale, who grew up in St. Johnsbury, called for Vermont independence in a provocative piece in The Stowe Reporter entitled “The Republic of Vermont: A Modest Proposal.” University of Vermont Professor Frank Bryan and State Representative Bill Mares dubbed Hale “the patron saint of Vermont secession,” in their 1987 book Out! The Vermont Secession Book. Then in a January 6, 2004 piece in The Burlington Free Press Hale proposed that Vermont rejoin the British Commonwealth.

As part of Vermont’s bicentennial celebration in 1990, Frank Bryan and Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley debated the pros and cons of Vermont leaving the Union in seven different Vermont towns. After each debate a vote was taken and all seven towns voted in favor of secession. A few years earlier when Ronald Reagan was still president, over 180 Vermont towns voted to defy him and demanded a nuclear freeze. According to Frank Bryan, whose most recent book is the widely acclaimed Real Democracy, “Vermont is just obstinate. We’ll do anything to be on the wrong side.” But is Vermont or the rest of America on the wrong side?

More recently David Hale, Frank Bryan and several hundred other Vermonters have joined the Second Vermont Republic—a peaceful, democratic, grassroots solidarity movement opposed to the tyranny of the U.S. Government, Corporate America, and globalization and committed to the return of Vermont to its rightful status as an independent republic as it once was between 1777 and 1791.

Consistent with Vermont’s radical imperative, the Second Vermont Republic embraces libertarian populism, sustainability, direct democracy, and political independence. In so doing, it hopes to provide a kinder, gentler, more communitarian alternative to a nation obsessed with money, power, size, speed, greed, and fear of terrorism.

Thomas H. Naylor
December 1, 2004

Thomas Naylor is author of The Vermont Manifesto and one of the founders of the Second Vermont Republic. For information visit www.vermontrepublic.org.