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Secession -- a Revolutionary Idea

Elizabeth Mehren

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zed pumpkins, maple-flavored everything and, here at Heritage Days, a manifesto on why Vermont should secede from the United States.

At a card table outside the tavern where Vermont first declared its independence in 1777, delegates from the Second Vermont Republic — a.k.a. the secessionists — looked just as comfortable one recent Sunday as the vendors selling goat's milk soap. The "Free Vermont" flag fluttered as fairgoers stopped to discuss whether their state should pull out of the union.

"It's this cool revolutionary thing," said Nicole Fusca, 21, who grew up in this southern Vermont hamlet. "But there is no basis to it. It's something I can't take seriously. I'll joke about it, but it will never happen."

But Thomas Naylor — businessman, economics professor, author and Mississippi native — believes otherwise. "It's not a question of 'if,' " he said. "The question is: When?"

Though the movement for Vermont secession that Naylor helped launch nearly three years ago is little more than an intellectual exercise, it is entirely earnest.

Its members argue that the U.S. government has lost its concern for individual citizens and small communities. They worry about global warming, the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, unfair trade practices, and the "tyranny of multinational corporations."

At a presentation for Vermont legislators some months ago, Naylor said: "Do you go down with the Titanic, or do you consider other options while there are still other options on the table?"

State Rep. George Cross, a Democrat from the town of Winooski, responded: "Vermont should secede. I don't think it is probably a practical thing to do. But certainly there are principalities in the world that are a whole lot smaller than Vermont."

The 150 or so members of the Second Vermont Republic envision a country much like Switzerland — neutral and economically independent. They argue their cause at public gatherings and private events. Supporters march in parades and engage in political theater, sometimes reliving the early days when Vermont — like California — was its own republic.

Naylor was teaching at Duke University when he published his first article advocating Vermont's secession in 1990. Two years later, while researching a book called "The Search for Meaning," Naylor and his family spent time traveling in tiny Alpine villages in Austria and northern Italy.

When his wife suggested that they find "an American proxy for an Alpine village," Naylor said, the family moved to Charlotte, Vt., on the banks of Lake Champlain. With coauthor William Willimon, Naylor set to work on "Downsizing the U.S.A.," a book that called for the peaceful dissolution of the United States. Vermont would lead the way.

The book went nowhere.

"It was in the middle of a huge boom. No one wanted to downsize anything," said Naylor, who had become wealthy years earlier as a software pioneer.

But in secession, Naylor had found his mission.

Kindred political souls — and in Vermont, many are willing to entertain ideas that might be considered eccentric elsewhere — gravitated to the Second Vermont Republic.

"This really is a good-natured cult," said John McClaughry, head of the Ethan Allen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Vermont.

"Intellectually, they've got some horsepower," he said. "But mostly this is the whole left-wing litany, seen through an interesting prism."

Secession, said McClaughry, "is not going to happen, and no one believes it is going to happen. We are not going to isolate ourselves into a little cocoon where we all milk goats and a windmill runs whatever electrical appliances we are permitted to have. Being a 10th-generation American, I really don't want to let go."

Naylor, 70, concedes that the notion of Vermont striking out on its own may seem outlandish. "Part of why we are so optimistic is the absurdity of it all," he said. "What could be more absurd than tiny Vermont taking on the empire?"

Still, his fellow believers proceed with determination, lobbying for a special legislative session to debate the issue.

One obstacle the group acknowledges is the widely held belief that states cannot secede. After all, look what happened to the South in the Civil War.

"Lincoln persuaded the public that secession was unconstitutional and immoral," Naylor said. "It's one of the few things that the left and right agree on. We say it's constitutional — and ultimately it is a question of political will: the will of the people of Vermont versus the will of the government to stop us."

But the grass-roots secession campaign faces a major sales job. A recent study by the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont showed that only 8% of respondents thought Vermont should separate from the U.S.

Karen Wynkoop, owner of an egg roll business in Montpelier, said breaking away from the rest of the country seemed counterproductive.

"My feeling is we should be moving more toward unity," said Wynkoop, 56. "What would we be separating ourselves from?"

Democratic state Rep. Ira Trombley, from Grand Isle, likened the mystique of secession to the mystery of Champ, a creature of legend said to dwell in the depths of Lake Champlain.

"It's a lot of fun to talk about," Trombley said. And if the secession movement feeds into the image of oddball Vermont, "well, what's wrong with that?"