MONTPELIER, Vt. – At Riverwalk Records, the all-vinyl music store just down the street from the state Capitol, the black “US Out of Vt.!” T-shirts are among the hottest sellers.
But to some people in Vermont, the idea is bigger than a $20 novelty. They want Vermont to secede from the United States — peacefully, of course.
Disillusioned by what they call an empire about to fall, a small cadre of writers and academics hopes to put the question before citizens in March. Eventually, they want to persuade state lawmakers to declare independence, returning Vermont to the status it held from 1777 to 1791.
Neither the state nor the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids secession, but few people think it is politically viable.
“I always thought the Civil War settled that,” said Russell Wheeler, a constitutional law expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. If Vermont fought and won a war with the federal government, “then you could say Vermont proved the point. But that’s not going to happen.”
Still, the idea has found plenty of sympathetic ears in Vermont, a left-leaning state that said yes to civil unions, no to slavery (before any other) and last year elected a socialist to the U.S. Senate.
Supporters have published a “Green Mountain Manifesto” subtitled “Why and How Tiny Vermont Might Help Save America From Itself by Seceding from the Union.”
In 2005, about 300 people turned out for a secession convention in the Statehouse, and plans for a second one are in the works. A poll this year by the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies found that 13 percent of those surveyed support secession, up from 8 percent a year before.
“The argument for secession is that the U.S. has become an empire that is essentially ungovernable — it’s too big, it’s too corrupt and it no longer serves the needs of its citizens,” said Rob Williams, editor of Vermont Commons, a quarterly newspaper dedicated to secession.
“We have electoral fraud, rampant corporate corruption, a culture of militarism and war,” Williams said. “If you care about democracy and self-governance and any kind of representative system, the only constitutional way to preserve what’s left of the Republic is to peaceably take apart the empire.”
Vermont, which was historically conservative, has evolved into one of the nation’s most liberal states since the latter part of the 20th century, a tie-dyed bastion of countercultural dissent and New England self-reliance where folks wear their hearts — and their anti-war stickers — on their Subaru station wagon bumpers.
Secession movements have a long history. Key West, Fla., staged a mock secession from America in the 1980s. In Vermont, the town of Killington tried to break away and join New Hampshire in 2004, and Hawaii, Alaska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Texas all have some form of secession organizations today.
The Vermont movement has been simmering for years but gained new traction because of the
Iraq war, rising oil prices and the formation of several pro-secession groups.
Secession supporters hope to have the question considered in March on Town Meeting Day, when voters gather to discuss state and local issues.
Thomas Naylor, 70, a retired Duke University economics professor and author, wrote the manifesto and founded a secession group called Second Vermont Republic.
His 112-page manifesto contains little explanation of how Vermont would make do without federal aid for security, education and social programs. Some in the movement foresee a Vermont with its own currency and passports, for example, and some form of representative government formed once the secession has taken place.
Frank Bryan, a professor at the University of Vermont who has championed the cause for years, said the cachet of secession would make the new republic a magnet.
“People would obviously relish coming to the Republic of Vermont, the Switzerland of North America,” he said. “Christ, you couldn’t keep them away.”
The Middlebury Institute, a Cold Spring, N.Y., think tank, hosted a North American Separatist Convention last fall in Burlington that drew representatives from 16 organizations. The group is co-sponsoring another conference in October in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Of course, skeptics abound.
“It doesn’t make economic sense, it doesn’t make political sense, it doesn’t make historical sense. Other than that, it’s a good idea,” said Paul Gillies, a lawyer and Vermont historian.
For now, the would-be secessionists are hoping to draw enough support to get the question on Town Meeting Day agendas.
“We’re normal human beings,” said Williams, 39, a history professor at Champlain College. “But we’re serious about this. We want people in Vermont to think about the options going forward. Do you want to stay in an empire that’s in deep trouble?”