Tag Archives: Second Vermont Republic

Book Review: Back to the Land by Dona Brown

When most people think of the “Back to the Land” movement, the image that generally comes to mind is of hippies retreating to rural communes in the early 1970s. However, in her new book entitled Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, Dona Brown effectively shows how those back-to-the-landers were simply the latest manifestation of a very old American cultural tradition. As she powerfully demonstrates, the impulse to return to the land can be traced to the era when Americans first began to leave it for life in industrial cities.

A professor of history at the University of Vermont, Dr. Brown buttresses her narrative with numerous examples drawn from her extensive knowledge of the primary sources, beginning with the very first back to the land book. Published in response to the economic crisis of 1857, Ten Acres is Enough initiated a pattern that would continue for more than a century. In moments of crisis when unemployment became rife in the cities, many people came to see owning a farm as a powerful buffer against the vagaries of the market economy (in particular, the movement seems to have appealed to the higher echelons of blue collar workers and the lower middle class). In the time from the panic of 1893 to the First World War, the back to the land impulse became an actual movement, with powerful backers, several magazines, and an extensive number of published books.

The War and the prosperity of the 1920s moderated the movement’s goals and vision, but its radical side reemerged with a vengeance in the 1930s, when some aspects of it were incorporated into the New Deal. Partially in response to that institutionalization, a decentralist, alternative back to the land movement, which was very suspicious of the central government, also emerged during this period, centering in Vermont. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for Vermont to be one of the main stops for the subsequent generation’s own back to the landers.

Outlining in great detail the projects and personalities that characterized the back to the land movement over the course of the past century and a half, Dr. Brown’s book is not only a rich source of information about the past, but also casts many of the projects of the present in a new light. As her work demonstrates, things like food sovereignty and the local food movement exist are not wholly new developments, but descend from a long and venerable lineage. Even Vermont secession, which most contemporary advocates trace back to Frank Bryan’s work in the late 1980s, is shown to have reared its head in previous iterations (Vrest Orton, the founder of the still extant Vermont Country Store, was advocating a second Vermont republic as early as 1928). As such, this book is not only of great interest to those with an affinity for the history of social movements or of Vermont, but it is also essential reading for anyone involved in contemporary projects inspired by the back to the land spirit. Understanding the motivations and experiences of one’s intellectual ancestors is essential to fully comprehending the meaning of one’s own work, and Dr. Brown’s book is the best tool I’ve encountered for cultivating that consciousness. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Back to the Land!

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Dennis Steele Confronts the Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates on Bringing Home the National Guard

Dennis’ question sparked a quite interesting discussion; check out the podcast on Radio Free Vermont!

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Accusations of Racism towards SVR

Dr. Naylor addresses the accusations of racism that have been thrown his way since the Second Vermont Republic temporarily associated with the League of the South in 2007.

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An older essay.

A really excellent discussion on the Green Mountain Daily reminded me that I’d written this essay a while ago when I was thinking a lot about the role of history (and listening to a lot of Utah Phillips) in peoples’ identities.

*NOTE: This essay reflects my thinking a few months ago, and my own present beliefs are likely slightly different than those expressed by the self who wrote this essay.  It’s mostly me, though ;)*

*Fixed some typos and changed a bit of wording on 7/27/2009*

The Long Memory and the Philadelphia System

By Matthew Cropp

The late Wobbly folk musician U. Utah Phillips often commented that “the long memory is the most radical idea in America.” If, according to Phillips, we view history as one long stream rather than a series of independent crises, the way the world of the present appears profoundly shifts. The atrocities, movements, and swindles of the past cease to be isolated events to learn the “facts” of, and instead become integral pieces of our perception of the world we live in today. This view of our past fosters in people a sense of agency, as history becomes what is happening now rather than just what was happening then. History becomes something that people make happen, rather than something that happens to people.

However, this view of history is not embraced by modern American culture. Rather, as Phillips put it in a 2004 interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, “that long memory has been taken away from us…You haven’t got it in you schools. You’re not getting it on your television. You’re not getting it anywhere. You’re being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next…you can’t remember what happened last week, because you’re locked into this week’s crisis.”

One result of this process is that many people in our society have lost touch with the meaning of our political traditions. In today’s history classrooms, the objective lies in students’ ability to regurgitate predetermined rote facts, rather than in constructing ideas and forming insights. Thus, when our kids learn about the American government in school (a process that I experienced in the not too distant past), it becomes simply one more structure about which they must learn a list of facts. Just as this mindset applied universally alienates people from the historical process as a whole, applied specifically to our political traditions it alienates people from our government and civic institutions. It allows people to lose sight of the fact that they are structures which were created by real actors making profoundly historically impactful choices, whose intentions must be investigated and understood if we are to fully grasp the meaning of the world our ancestors built and we inhabit.

The American system (ultimately codified in the U.S. Constitution) was not crafted in a vacuum, but was profoundly influenced by the experiences and beliefs of its makers. These were worldly men who, looking to Europe, were profoundly aware of the many forms tyranny could take, and had put their lives on the line to gain independence in the Revolutionary War. It has become fashionable recently in “radical” historical circles to emphasize the conservative sides of the Revolution, including the retention of slavery, the restriction of the franchise, and the fortunes made by the founders. All these critiques are valid, but they do not negate the incredibly radical parts of the Revolution. In Emma Goldman’s early 20th century magazine Mother Earth, Voltarine de Cleyre described this radical side: “the real Revolution was a change in political institutions which should make government not a thing apart…but a serviceable agent, responsible, economical, and trustworthy (but never so much trusted as not to be continuously watched), for the transaction of such business as was the common concern, and to set the limits of the common concern at the line where one man’s liberty would encroach upon another’s.”

The founders had seen tyranny and wanted to craft a system that would preserve liberty. Not grant liberty, which they believed was inherent to the very nature of the human being, but prevent the development of tyrannical systems that would restrict peoples’ natural state of freedom. The Constitution and the American system must be interpreted with that intention in mind, and when it is, the call for Vermont’s independence transforms from a seemingly radical departure from the “American Way” into a rare gesture of deep respect to the intentions of America’s founders that have been increasingly forgotten as our people have been “leapfrogged from one crisis to the next.”

My own understanding of the intentions of the founders of the United States has been profoundly deepened by my recent chance encounter with an article entitled, “The Philadelphian system: sovereignty, arms control, and balance of power in the American states-union, circa 1787-1861”, by Daniel H. Deudney, while visiting a friend in New Haven, Connecticut. The article is as dense as its title is wordy, but after wading through it I emerged clutching a vital new concept, “negarchy”. Deudney defines negarchy as “the arrangement of institutions necessary to prevent simultaneously the emergence of hierarchy and anarchy”, and if this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. That’s because we were taught about this concept in American Government all those years ago, albeit with an incredibly important omission and a different name. It was termed “checks and balances”, and we learned of it as a horizontal division of power between the three branches of the Federal Government. Because of this, we were told, no one branch could gain supremacy over the other two, and as a result America was safe from tyranny.

Alas, that’s only half the story, according to Deudney: the intended checks and balances were not only horizontal but vertical. In addition to the tension between the branches of the Federal government, a system of tension was implemented between the Federal Government, the sovereign States, and the armed people. This network of vertically and horizontally distributed power was intended to create a system that could draw upon the whole network to defend itself from external threats, but would become horribly snarled up should any piece of it try to become internally hegemonic and tyrannical.

Deudney’s study ends appropriately in 1861; the year the Civil War began. The Civil War spelled the beginning of the end of the American experiment in negarchy as the sovereignty of the States was nullified by the Federal government through force of arms. By expropriating the States’ right the leave the Union, the Federal Government transformed the status of the State from equal to subservient to the Federal Government, and power and responsibility have been continuously flowing from State capitals to Washington ever since.

Many Americans justify their pride in our country by claiming that we have the best, freest system in the world. However, when looking at that system through the lens of the “long memory”, we must acknowledge that it has been slowly degenerating and is now far from what its founders intended. While people quarrel over whether or not the checks and balances within the Federal Government are deteriorating, they are usually blind to the very existence of the vertical checks, which have degraded to the point where any assertion of State sovereignty to counter Federal tyranny is considered either treasonous or absurd.

The degeneration of the American system is both discouraging and tragic, but for those of us with long memories, I believe working to help others to “remember” its intended role is a vital task. To do so would revive peoples’ sense of themselves as actors in the stream of history, and would bring legitimacy to the cause of utilizing Vermont’s state sovereignty as a method with which to resist our government’s economic and foreign policy shortsightedness and irrationality. A population with long memories would transform the independence movement from a fringe of the disaffected into a political and social force to be reckoned with. To accomplish this, I see a few ways forward. These tactics are by no means exhaustive, and many more can be found in the pages of the Vermont Commons.

In journalism and politics, we should endeavor to frame State/Federal relations as oppositional. When questioning candidates for State office, we should ask them what important powers the State of Vermont has and what they will do in their prospective roles as elected officials to prevent the Federal Government from encroaching upon them. If independence minded Vermonters decide to run for office, they should make the preservation and reclamation of State power from the Federal Government a cornerstone of their campaigns. At the moment people have been trained to view the relationship between the Federal Government and the States as that of master to servant; the Federal Government gives block grants to the States and the States administer them, changing their laws to conform to the various strings attached. The result is that all most people hear about is the two entities working together, and thus perceive that relationship to be the natural order of things. If an oppositional rather than cooperative relationship is regularly introduced into public discourse, the question of State versus Federal power might be reopened in many minds.

Such strategies might bring somewhat greater legitimacy to the independence platform in the short term by helping people to identify an erstwhile forgotten dynamic of the American system, but it will not, in and of itself, lay the foundation for a long-term shift in attitudes. What is needed to effect that is a wholesale revival of the Long Memory in the people of Vermont. The immediate gratification of working towards this might not be apparent for independence activists, as it will not instantly create roving bands of hard-line secessionists. Instead, it will foster individuals who can engage meaningfully with our past and see themselves as actors rather than as passive objects within the stream of history. As the number of people seeing history as a forward- rather than backward-looking process grows into a critical mass, the number of people willing to engage with the idea of secession within both the contexts past and present will expand concurrently. The task of convincing them that independence is the right answer for the present circumstances would remain, but folks with long memories would be able to listen to and consider the arguments rather than simply regurgitating the “fact” that the Civil War answered the question of secession and calling anyone who disputes that crazy. Until we can overcome the (all too common) latter mindset, the secession movement can never grow beyond a fringe because only a fringe of people are willing to honestly engage with the subject.

It’s easy to abstractly call for a revival of historical consciousness in the whole population of a State, but how might we accomplish it? Most people don’t have the time or resources to become professional historians, and those who identify as historians seem to spend far more time uncovering esoteric historical minutiae and debating amongst themselves than they do spreading an appreciation of history to the larger society. As such, people who want to see a revival of the long memory shouldn’t look for much guidance from on high in the ivory tower, but should instead begin the process of reconstructing the pasts of the institutions of their daily lives.

A brief example of what I mean can be found in my workplace, which was unionized at some point in the 1980s. Our contract came up for negotiation this year, and we realized that, as a group, we couldn’t even remember the nature of our proposals to management from when the previous contract was negotiated a mere three years ago. We did a bit of digging and talked to the old representative, and gradually got a sense for what has transpired in previous negotiations. In the process, we as a group got a feel for where the organization has been, what how it has changed over time, and what sorts of struggles have emerged again and again. As a result of this process, our perception of our union deepened, and our negotiations were re-framed from a wrangle over the conditions of the moment to one more event in a long historical continuum that has many past parallels. The difference between this mindset and the mindset which can engage with the call for independence is merely one of scale; the processes are virtually identical.

I therefore call upon all independence minded Vermonters to begin the process of reclaiming the past in their own lives. Start remembering where your work, union, church, school, and family have come from, and share that process with those with whom you share those institutions. In the short term, the benefits are great, as knowing the origins of the things in your life can profoundly deepen your understanding of both those things themselves, as well as your relationship to them. In the long term, however, the benefits are even greater. In the process of providing the opportunity for those around you to understand their history, you’ll be helping to rebuild a responsible, thoughtful citizenry who can honestly and competently engage with the deep crises facing our crumbling Republic.

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Vermont Secession: Beyond the Straw Men

Probably the biggest blow to the Vermont independence movement came in 2007 with the League of the South controversy. Sparked by a Southern Poverty Law Center report on Second Vermont Republic’s ties to the League of the South, and fanned by an anonymous blog and an assortment of Vermont bloggers, the controversy focused most of the Vermont political blogosphere discourse around whether or not SVR founder Thomas Naylor is a closet racist and whether SVR is a front for the a modern white supremacist/neo-confederate agenda.

This controversy has had the unfortunate (or intended?) effect of closing off discussion of the many important issues that Naylor and others in the independence camp have brought up. The accusation of racism is one of the most effective ways to delegitimize an individual or idea in modern American society, and in this case it has been utilized to effectively narrow the range of acceptable discourse around sustainability and decentralism among Vermont’s intellectuals. It’s okay to discuss buying local, and maybe even peak-oil; but heaven forfend one brings up the unsustainability of the Federal Government (both in terms of its scale and its fiscal policies). Only racists like Thomas Naylor talk about that stuff.

The thing that strikes me as most disappointing about this whole state of affairs is that it seems that some those most eagerly attacking SVR are actually folks who value decentralism. Therefore, I’d be curious to know what people (particularly the GMD crew) think of the independence question divorced from personality-based attacks on Naylor. For anti-Naylor folks who support it in principle, it seems to me that the intellectually honest thing to do is to start a rival organization that takes the critiques of the last few years into account; for those who oppose secession in principle, I urge you to argue the real meat of the issues at hand rather than fixating on a thoroughly beaten straw-man.

What I personally understand SVR and the Middlebury institute to be doing is working to build a sort of meta-secessionist movement with the purpose of legitimizing the idea of secession in America, divorced from any particular set of political values. Because of the Civil War, we have the knee-jerk reaction of associating secession with slavery, but anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of world history know that there have been countless example of justifiable and progressive political dissolution (the breakup of the Soviet Union being but one instance). This total association of the Civil War with secession in the American political consciousness has become a source of Federal Legitimacy which reifies the narrative of American History as a story of continuous centralization. As a result, Americans seem to have forgotten that, in our own case as in the case of other countries, governments and nations are merely structures created by human beings. The knowledge of this means that, when they become abusive or decadent, we have the responsibility to deal with those issues head on rather than retreating into the comfortable myths of nationhood. It’s really easy to play the guilt by association and character assassination games; it’s much harder to take on the immense problems we now face and attempt to determine through discourse what needs to be done.

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Vermont Secession discussed on Glenn Beck

Leader of the Second Vermont Republic, Thomas Naylor spoke with Glenn Beck tonight about murmurs of secession becoming louder over the past few weeks.

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A golden oldie…

An excerpt from our interview last fall with Thomas Naylor of the Second Vermont Republic.

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Second Vermont Republic Convention

So Miles, Kevin, and myself headed out to Montpelier last friday to go to the Vermont Secessionist convention in the Statehouse.  It was quite the day, with speakers addressing such diverse topics as local food, decentralized schooling, community media, and the political path towards independence.  I’ll try to get the video that we shot up and online asap, and Miles and I will be submitting a full account to Culture 11 soon.  Tune in on Sunday, when we’ll be showing some choice footage and discussing our impressions of the day on American Socialism for the Rich.

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My Recent Journey and the *First* Vermont Republic

So I’ve been on vacation for the last week traveling up and down the eastern seaboard on trains and buses visiting my friends and relations. Mass transit travel generally takes quite a bit longer to get you to your destination than flying or driving, but I’ve come to really appreciate it. Besides the obvious benefits of not having to deal with traffic or fascist airport security, mass transit travel makes the journey actually a part of the holiday. Traveling by plane has an almost surgical feel: one enters an environment that is symbolically cut off from the rest of the world by an elaborate array of equipment, physical barriers, and uniformed staff. Once on the other side of the barrier, you have “voluntarily” surrendered the rights that are inherent to one’s existence in the normal civic sphere on the other side of the barrier (never mind the fact that there are no “alternative” airports from which you could obtain equivalent travel by sacrificing a little security for a bit ‘o liberty, to invert Franklin’s saying). This creates this bizarre sense of discontinuity between home and one’s destination, and makes the actual travel time seem irrelevant to the trip as a whole. Similarly, driving on a highway from one’s home to a destination puts a subjectively homogeneous environment around the driver, making the trip itself both otherworldly and eminently forgettable.

In train travel, on the other hand, one doesn’t (yet) experience the level of symbolic payload that one is bombarded with when flying, nor does one experience the hypnotic absorption of highway driving. The train trip fits into the experience of the whole day, and thus instead of being a period set aside for being “in transit”, it becomes usable, “real”, time.

Thus, since I felt the need to actually do something on my trip that applied to my life, I decided upon finishing the far too many books that I’ve started in the last few months. I’m heading home tomorrow, and feel like I’ve been generally successful in this regard. One text that I found particularly relevant and meaningful is The Reluctant Republic: Vermont 1724-1791 by Frederic Van de Water. After the Naylor interview and all of the research that I did for the secession article that I wrote for C11, I felt I should know something of the history of the first Vermont Republic to go along my now working familiarity with the second.

The book was written in the 1940’s, and certain bits of writing reveal its dated nature (e.g. references to the Abnaki as “Red Men” in the first chapter). However, the writing is extremely engaging (Van de Water was also a novelist, and his skills shine in the narrative he builds), and it brings to life many of the characters and names that one encounters in a decontextualized way if you reside in Vermont. Not only is the reader introduced to the Allen clan, Governor Chittenden, and many others, but Van de Water delves into their flaws and machinations as well as their exceptional moments, giving a well rounded sense of the characters who were instrumental in guiding Vermont along the path that it followed in the mid- to late-18th century.

As interesting and amusing as those characters are, however, I find the path itself to be, by far, the most fascinating part of the narrative. Vermont came into being by one of the most convoluted set of circumstance I’ve ever encountered. It’s a tale of greed, speculation, idealism, treacheries within treacheries, and the best laid plans of mice and men being buried beneath great blizzards of unintended consequences. You get the feeling that, if history had unfolded in an even slightly different manner at a countless number of critical junctures, Vermont would have never come into being. In fact, it is the product of such a towering mound of improbabilities that I finished the book feeling weirdly lucky to have the opportunity to live in the Green Mountain State, rather than in another county in upstate New York, an expanded New Hampshire, or a Canadian province.

There are a few problems with the book, particularly in terms of the amount of agency attributed to a very small group of primary actors, and the book’s attempt at determining a unique “Vermont” character determined heavily by geography. However, these problems are amply contextualized by the introduction to the 1974 edition, and don’t seriously detract from either the entertainment or educational value of the book. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of Vermont or the American colonial period; it certainly made my journey pass quickly, and has left me with a far greater appreciation of my adoptive home.

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9/28/2008 ASftR – Thomas Naylor Interview

The whole interview:

Naylor on Bush and the price of gold:

Naylor on Vermont secession and the ways it could be used to shield Vermonters from the National Debt:

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