Vive le Vermont Libre Photograph by Bill Jeffries.

Vive le Vermont Libre

Could the most left-wing state in America survive as an independent country? A growing movement of secessionists thinks so.

By Kelly Ebbels April 19, 2013

Last winter, I rented a room in a 150-year-old farmhouse in the Green Mountains, the range that gives Vermont—les monts verts—its name. My landlord and housemate, Mark Doughty, was a selectman—an elected town official—in Stockbridge. It was he who, without radios, coordinated the town’s relief effort in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, which isolated the town for three days in 2011. So I was surprised when Doughty told me he was a Vermont secessionist. But as I got to know him, and Vermont, I began to see that there was room for this combination of home-state loyalty and independent thinking here. When reporters asked Doughty why Stockbridge allowed residents to return to their homes during the flood, he told them, “Around here, we believe in individual sovereignty.”

With a total population of less than 650,000, the entire state has fewer people than the city of Winnipeg. Its capital, Montpelier, is the only seat of government in the US without a McDonald’s. You know you’ve crossed into Vermont because you stop seeing roadside billboards—they were outlawed in 1968. Though you do not need a permit to own or carry a gun here, the state has one of the lowest gun-violence rates in the country.

Vermont is also home to a vibrant movement of people who, like Doughty, want to secede from the United States of America. Though they hold a wide range of political views, Vermont’s secessionists seem to agree that the country—“the empire,” as some call it—is overactive in world affairs and incompetent in curing its own ailments, with a democratic process largely meaningless to citizens. Their solution? Expel the rest of the States from their own borders. They even have T-shirts that say so: “US Out of VT.”

Vermont has a long history of freewheeling politics. It entered the War of 1812 only reluctantly, and many residents illegally continued to sell goods and livestock to British Canada. Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery, and it refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Later, it became a haven for hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, especially those following the “back to the land” movement.

For his part, Doughty moved with his family to Vermont some thirteen years ago. They set up camp in sleepy Stockbridge—population 650, with no gas station or general store within its 46 square miles. Doughty is an environmental hygienist by trade, a Taoist who went to military college, a home-school parent to his five children. He listens to the Grateful Dead a lot—he’s seen them live more than a hundred times—and, yes, there is often a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia in his freezer.

Hanging around Doughty’s wood stove through the cold winter, we would talk over coffee or his home brew, depending on the hour of the day. There was a lot to discuss, from energy innovation to local food—the state has a burgeoning farm-to-plate program that encourages sustainable production and consumption. Doughty was a scholar of military history and knew a lot about the Civil War; we’d talk about that, too.

In the end, though, he tended to take a dismissive view of current American politics and policies, all the way down to Federal Emergency Management Agency aid for Irene. “They were more of a pain in the ass than a help,” he said of the FEMA representatives who finally made it to Stockbridge to assess the damage. Before FEMA even arrived, the townspeople had begun to rebuild roads and bridges. Indeed, there may simply be something in the Vermont air that stirs a uniquely independent spirit. In 1770, Ethan Allen, the leader of the Green Mountain Boys militia, which defended the territory against New York surveyors, reportedly told one such interloper, “Sir, the gods of the hills are not the gods of the valleys.”  

Vermont is no progressive utopia. In 2011, Patrick Leahy, Vermont’s first elected Democratic senator, introduced the unpopular Protect IP bill, which was later withdrawn amid protests that it would limit online freedom. A proposal to host at least one F-35 stealth bomber just south of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, has received strong support from Bernie Sanders, the state’s self-proclaimed “socialist” senator. Vermont leans heavily on IBM and tourism for job creation, but its economy is among the smallest in the country, and the gap between rich and poor is widening.

Still, there is optimism and humour in the secessionist movement, which may trace its roots to the writings of University of Vermont professor Frank Bryan, a leading pro-independence figure. In his very funny 1987 book OUT!: The Vermont Secession Book, co-written with Bill Mares, Bryan imagines a revolution occurring in 1991, on the two-hundred-year anniversary of Vermont joining the Union. The book’s secessionist militias blow up bridges to New Hampshire, release herds of cows onto the interstates to stop traffic and pour maple syrup into the gas tanks of US Army trucks. In this satire, the militants declare that the United States has proven itself unable to uphold Vermont’s standards of democracy.

Today, Vermont’s actual independence movement isn’t nearly ripe enough for such an uprising. Even if it were, the people on board, including Bryan, dream of a peaceful exit from the Union. Their slogan is “Imagine … a Free Vermont!” or simply “FV,” as Rob Williams, the co-founder, editor and publisher of Vermont Commons, an online publication, signs his emails. (Vermont Commons is the main hub of independence chatter in the state. Since its inception in 2005, it has grown to a cooperative with more than two dozen contributing writers.)

The secessionists’ strategies are distinctly non-violent: music, theatre, published articles and face-to-face conversations. The only symbol of militarism in the movement is its flag, which is green, except for, in the top left, a blue square speckled with thirteen stars; it was one of several flags flown by Ethan Allen’s militia, and it is now used as the regimental flag of the Vermont National Guard.

On September 14, 2012, the secessionists organized a display of their mission: the Third Statewide Convention on Vermont Self-Determination, which took place at the statehouse in Montpelier. Vermont Commons and the Second Vermont Republic—the two organizations that planned the conference—flew in several keynote speakers. In his speech, Morris Berman, an expatriate cultural critic and the author of Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline, questioned the social contract at the heart of the United States. “The Occupy movement, as far as I could make out, wanted to restore the American Dream,” Berman said, “when, in fact, the dream needs to be abolished once and for all.” He advocated for a patient approach to remaking our lives in the current era, which he considers the twilight of modern capitalism.

At the heart of the convention was the declaration of the Montpelier Manifesto, a document that lists the secessionists’ various grievances and asks people to “consider ways peaceably to withdraw from the American Empire.” The Manifesto was co-authored by Thomas Naylor, a coordinator of the conference. As the septuagenarian founder and head of the Second Vermont Republic, a pro-independence organization and think tank, Naylor has been sowing the seeds of rebellion for twenty years. [Editor's note: Thomas Naylor died on December 12, after this article went to print.]

I spent several hours with him at his spacious home in Charlotte, a town just south of Burlington on Lake Champlain. Originally from Mississippi, Naylor worked as an entrepreneur in the computer industry in the 1970s, taught economics at Duke University and travelled frequently to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Naylor claims to be one of the earliest predictors of the USSR’s collapse, and he is quick to draw parallels with the United States. Prone to hyperbole, Naylor frequently refers to America’s “technofascism,” which he defines by its “affluenza, technomania, e-mania, megalomania, robotism” and other words that spell check doesn’t much like. He and his wife moved to Vermont in 1993, and, later in that decade, he began a newsletter to discuss the possibility of Vermont’s independence. “For me, secession is the ultimate form of rebellion,” Naylor said. “It’s the most severe non-violent statement you can make.”

Naylor’s early newsletters caught the attention of Peter Schumann, the founder and director of Bread and Puppet Theater, a prominent artistic presence in the anti-nuclear and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s. When Naylor’s nascent secessionist movement began to operate out of Lake Parker Country Store, near Bread and Puppet’s base in a town called West Glover, Schumann’s puppeteers began to participate in pro-independence events. Naylor calls the Second Vermont Republic and Bread and Puppet “partners in crime.”

As we sat in the front room of the little wooden house that he shares with his wife, Schumann told me, in his thick German accent, why the idea of independence first struck a chord with him. “What made it so attractive was that there is all this despair, but we never come up with clear-cut, pragmatic ideas,” he said. “Here was a real, practical proposal for how to go about stepping out of the empire infrastructure.”

The Second Vermont Republic took its name in 2003, and, during the Bush years, it became organized enough to hold conventions. (The First Vermont Republic existed from 1777 to 1791.) In 2004, the Middlebury Institute was created to study various secessionist and sovereigntist movements around North America. (There are at least a dozen, perhaps more: Quebec, of course, plus Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, the bioregion of Cascadia, indigenous nations such as the Lakota and so on.)

But the Second Vermont Republic attracted controversy when it brought onto its board of directors a representative from the League of the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a respected organization that tracks extremist movements, has called the League a neo-Confederate hate group. Naylor’s response, on a live radio broadcast, was vitriolic. He called the SPLC “a well-known McCarthy-style group of mercenaries who routinely engage in ideological smear campaigns on behalf of their wealthy techno-fascist clowns.”

Recently, though, Naylor said that the Second Vermont Republic was distancing itself from other independence movements. He told me, almost confessionally, that it was a “fundamental mistake” to affiliate with Southern secessionist groups. (The movement has even begun to back away from the word “secession” because of its Confederate connotations, now preferring terms like “independence” and “self-determination.”)

The Vermont independence movement has more palatable leaders in Rob Williams and Juliet Buck, the editors of Vermont Commons and the two opening speakers at the September 14 convention. Williams is an associate professor of media and history at the University of Vermont and Champlain College; he is also a musician, entrepreneur and yak farmer. Affable and organized, he avoids labeling the independence movement leftist or rightist, calling it simply “decentralist.” He also eschews overstatements; he told a Vermont alt-weekly that Naylor’s name-calling was “unproductive.”

Buck, a stay-at-home mother, is one of Vermont Commons’ most prolific writers. She first got hooked on the site during the 2008 financial crisis. “The national news publications weren’t explaining what I was seeing,” she said, so she turned to Vermont Commons. Today, she sees the movement’s mission as figuring out the “nuts and bolts” of what secession would look like, particularly the “three Fs”: finances, fuel and food.

One morning, over breakfast with Doughty, Williams and Buck, the conversation turned to economies of scale, and what they saw as a fundamental difference between economics and politics. “Democracy does not scale well,” Buck said simply. Williams echoed this sentiment. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s about opposing bigness in favor of smallness.”

For all its theorizing, writing, editing and theatrics, the Vermont independence movement still needs on-the-ground support. It has not yet reached the consciousness of all Vermonters. However, the state does boast a long-standing tradition of direct democracy, a point of pride for residents. Most local-level decisions are made at a citizen-led Town Meeting Day, held every March in every municipality in the state.

Stockbridge holds town meetings in a former church, across the commons from Doughty’s house. When I attended, in March 2012, roughly 130 people showed up, and they were vocal, thoughtful and fair in their decisions. Vermont made national headlines that day when more than sixty towns used their local meetings to denounce the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which granted corporations the right to unlimited spending on elections.

These town meetings fit well with another, more serious book of Frank Bryan’s, The Vermont Papers. Written in 1989, the book calls for “a postmodern, human-scale democracy—a sort of Yankee perestroika.” It advocates for the reorganization of Vermont state government into shires, a sort of county system that, in Bryan’s vision, would decentralize power and bring decision-making authority to the local level. (The book was co-written with former state senator John McClaughry, who is not a secessionist.)

Two years after the publication of The Vermont Papers, Bryan held a series of public debates on secession with Vermont Supreme Court justice John Dooley. At all six debates, held in various towns across the state, citizens voted for secession “nearly two-to-one,” Bryan recalled.

I spoke with Bryan at the University of Vermont campus on a crisp afternoon in March. His stance on independence is rather complex. As he wrote in Vermont Commons in 2005, “The moral underpinning of a secessionist movement is the hope that it will not, in the end, be needed.” His dream, he wrote, was for Vermont to pursue “sociopolitical experimentation”—new ways of organizing democracy. Still, he told me that secession’s “best argument” is that it is “moving in the direction in which history is running”: toward decentralized social organization.

Even if Vermont’s three Fs are solved, there is still one big reason why secessionism may not appeal to the majority of the state. When I chatted with Doughty on the phone recently, he noted that secession was a real option, but perhaps a frightening one, as you never truly know what’s waiting on the other side. “One of the fears, one of the things people often say, regarding secession,” he said, “is that at least we know what kind of a government we have now. Once you start to dismantle it, you don’t know who’s going to try to take power.”

Still, Doughty assured me that he is committed to the battle for self-determination in Vermont. “It’s going to be a long, hard row to hoe,” he said.