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Secession We Can Believe In

Thomas Naylor, a retired Duke economics professor, ascended the podium at an anti-war rally at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont, shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq. His speech was filled with the usual leftist rhetoric about the evils of the Bush administration. His solution, however, was far from traditional. It was an idea that he had been developing for about ten years, but had never spoken about in public. “They were shocked, bug-eyed,” he tells me, reflecting on the speech. His idea was the peaceful dissolution of empire, beginning with the secession of Vermont from the United States of America.

Five years later, 11.5 percent of Vermonters agree with him, according to the 2008 poll conducted by the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies. One out of ten might not seem overwhelming, but Naylor is quick to point out that only about 25 percent of Americans supported secession from England. In the face of much derision and mockery, Naylor has remained resolute that his idea is possible. His organization, the Second Vermont Republic (SVR), has been joined by frustrated ’60s activists, bohemian radicals, organic yak farmers, bartenders, college professors, and possibilitarianist puppeteers, all saying the same thing: Vermont would be better on its own.

While many may be looking to the election of Barack Obama to right eight years of wrongs, Naylor and his supporters see the new president’s hope-mongering as just the latest palliative to try to convince Americans that they have a system worth saving; in the face of economic meltdown, imperialist foreign policy, and environmental catastrophe, the federal government is not just in need of reform--it is in need of destruction. But while Naylor may be the founder of modern Vermont secessionism, a new generation of Obama-esque activists is threatening to take over his separatist movement--and actually accomplish something.

A southerner by birth, Thomas Naylor fled for Vermont from Virginia after having trouble convincing his Polish wife to stay in America following a trip across Europe. “We had to find a proxy for an alpine village in the U.S.,” he says.

They found Charlotte, Vermont, about 20 minutes south from Burlington. The inside of his house is oddly nice for someone whose job title seems to be “secessionist.” In a sunken den, there are two soft leather chairs next to a shiny black piano, a Thai painting, and a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s apocalyptic World Made By Hand on the coffee table. His soft, cracking voice almost masks the fiery manifestoes he espouses. Long white hair, round glasses, and revolutionary rhetoric bring to mind a Ralph Lauren-wearing Ben Franklin.

Vermont, he tells me over a bitter but delicious brandy Manhattan, “is like a tiny foreign country.” It is the state that brings us not only the peerless Shelburne Farms cheddar, but also the red-faced rants of Howard Dean. In Vermont, you can pick up a shotgun without a waiting period on your way to entering into a civil union with your gay lover. The capital, Montpelier, is the only state capital without a McDonald’s. This is where the libertarian right of fifth-generation dairy farmers meets the libertarian left of back-to-the-earth hippies that moved here sometime after the 1960s. The resultant mix harbors a potent distrust in the federal government. There’s a reason Bill O’Reilly calls Vermont a “hopeless, hopeless state.”

Naylor likes to remind skeptics that Vermont was one of four states to begin its life as an independent republic, from 1777 to 1791. Before it became the 14th star on the American flag, it was the territory of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain boys, the alternately famous and infamous paramilitary group that formed the army of the first Vermont Republic. The Second Vermont Republic uses their green flag as its own.

On that bright, sunny morning when Vermont actually secedes, Naylor imagines it will happen similarly to the way the eleven southern states did before the Civil War. The first step is to convince the legislature to call a statewide convention to consider the articles of Vermont’s secession. In order to get the national and international credibility they want, they’ll need at least a two-thirds majority, Naylor estimates. With the articles signed by the state legislature, they’d take them down to DC and present them to any member of the federal government that would accept them. “At that point,” Naylor says, “we pray a lot.”

One of the first goals of an independent Vermont would be to get as recognized by as many embassies as possible--ensuring that any kind of military action on the part of the United States would come at a severe cost to their international reputation. Armed conflict would spell instantaneous defeat for Vermont, but the secessionists are banking on the absurdity of the David-and-Goliath situation to stay the United States’ heavy hand. A much more likely retaliation would likely be in the form of economic sanctions, cutting Vermont off from the economy that it depends on. “Thank God for Canada,” is Naylor’s reply.

Very little escapes Naylor’s savage tongue: For example, he has gone on record calling Vermont senator Patrick Leahy a “world-class prostitute.” Naylor’s drunk-with-a-broken-bottle style of public relations may be abrasive, but it certainly makes a splash--Fox News, the Washington Post and The New York Times have all taken notice. Vermonters are coming around to the cause as well--every single person I talked to in Burlington had heard of the secessionists, and about 125 people attended their secession convention just three days after the presidential election.

But Naylor’s rag-tag coalition began to crumble last year when a local blogger discovered that two members of SVR’s advisory board were affiliated with of the neo- confederate League of the South (LOS), which has been pushing a rightist brand of separatism for nearly 14 years. LOS claims not to be racist, but the Southern Poverty Law Center has them on their watch list for hate groups. Founder and president J. Michael Hill has been quoted as saying, “Let us not flinch when our enemies call us, 'Racists;' rather, just reply with, 'So, what's your point?'”

When news broke about SVR's connection to LOS, many Vermont secessionists started slowly backing away. Naylor, however, refused to condemn the group. “After that,” says Professor Gary Flomenhoft, one of the University of Vermont’s most vocal supporters of seccession, “Thomas [Naylor] got rid of anyone who didn’t agree with him.”

Most gravitated toward Rob Williams, the editor of secessionist newspaper Vermont Commons, a sister organization of SVR. At 40, Williams is the youngest leading secessionist. His North Face jackets, ribbed hats, and sunglasses make him look as if he’s ready to ski off at any moment. He believes himself to be Vermont’s first yak farmer on modern record. He sees secession a little differently than Naylor. “Independence, broadly defined,” he says, is the idea behind Vermont Commons, which currently circulates around 12,000 copies.

His paper is less focused on taking on all comers than they are on painting a picture of what an independent Vermont could be capable of. They are not only committed to political secession, but also to energy independence, sustainable agriculture, and re-localization of the economy. “I would think people are more motivated to join something out of a sense of hope,” Williams says.

Vermont is already a national leader in localization. Town meetings are a fixture in cities across the state. The Intervale, a cooperative of 13 farms in the Burlington area, has reclaimed 350 acres for organic production and grows about 550,000 pounds of fresh produce annually. The Vermont Public Service Board, which manages all of Vermont's utilities, recently announced plans to build 16 new wind turbines around Sheffield, which will be able to power 15,000 homes.

Building on this movement, Vermont Commons could be called, “Secession we can believe in.” Among the articles in the winter 2008 issue are “Town Meeting: A Space for Communal Liberty,” “Vermont’s Energy Future: 10 reasons for hope,” and “Localvore Living.” Ron Miller, an instructor of American History at Champlain College, likes their focus on building local systems partially because it can co-exist with his staunch support for Barack Obama. He's inspired by the idea of secession, but he's just not ready to give up on America quite yet. "Obama shows that there's a chance here," he says.

Williams doesn't see himself in direct confrontation with Naylor's hard line--"People have different strategies," he says. "Live and let live." Naylor is characteristically less understanding, accusing Williams of trying to “lull people into Utopia.” “Secession,” he reminds people whenever he gets the chance, “is a radical act of rebellion, driven by anger and fear.”

The remnants of Naylor’s youth contingent are in a beer-littered house party at the University of Vermont, where Conor Casey ’09 is wearing a green t-shirt with a picture of a cow in between the words "Free Vermont." "We need the peaceful dissolution of U.S. empire," he tells me, quoting Naylor. Casey has been a member of SVR since he was a freshman. His coffee table is covered in unopened envelopes scrawled with green marker in Naylor's handwriting. They contain an assortment of his essays, on topics including peak oil, the economic crisis, commodity culture, and the U.S. government’s loss of moral authority. But Casey doesn’t read them much anymore. He was recently surprised to find out that he was actually a member of SVR’s advisory board. At a Naylor speech I attended with Casey, he ducked out early for a hockey game. In light of recent events, he's given up on Naylor's harsh worldview: "I'm done with SVR as of Obama's election," he says.

Naylor may have laid the intellectual groundwork for Vermont secessionism, but the movement has gotten away from his one-man think tank. Numbers and historical deconstruction don’t seem to be enough to inspire a mass movement, and anger and fear aren’t bringing Vermont any closer to secession. The next generation of separatists is banking on a more hopeful vision. Naylor would be repulsed by the comparison, but it’s the ethos that propelled Obama to victory.

In the same poll where 11.5 percent of Vermonters said they supported secession, 77.1 percent said they thought the U.S government had lost its moral authority, and 48.7 percent said they thought that the U.S. government had become either politically, economically, militarily, or environmentally unsustainable. They're not an anomaly: According to a Zogby poll conducted in July, one out of five U.S. adults believes that any state has the right to peaceably secede from the union. Eighteen percent "would support a secessionist movement in my state."

Williams and his supporters are pushing back against that fatalism. While Naylor remains married to secessionism as an end in itself, Williams sees it as just the next logical step: As we move towards energy independence, food independence, and economic independence, why not political independence as well? For Williams, the Wall Street crash, more than Obama's election, has emphasized the need for changing the way communities are organized. "The bottom line is that re-localization is the watchword," he says.

There’s an unspoken question that lies beneath every debate over different ways of attracting new supporters, economic strategies, the possible education system of a free Vermont, the historical imperative to revolution, or whatever else one can find to fill a symposium: Is Vermont ever actually going to secede?

Williams just smiles when confronted with the implausibility of seccession. “People laugh and ask, ‘Have you seceded yet?’” he says. “This is about changing hearts and minds.”

David Thier is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.


By David Thier