American history, mathematically speaking, has been a story of constant addition. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, there were 13 colonies wanting to break free of British domination. They eventually teamed up, and the sum of United States kept rising at a steady clip until 1912, when Arizona entered the union as the 48th. That was the final tally until 1958, when, in the midst of the Cold War, we added Russia's neighbor across the Bering Strait as number 49. The next year Hawaii joined to make a round 50.
Thomas H. Naylor, a retired Duke University economics professor and corporate consultant, thinks it's time for Americans to do some subtraction. At an antiwar rally last spring, he proposed that Vermont leave the United States, and he was surprised at the enthusiastic reaction. Since then he has spoken around the state, advocating that Vermont's citizens elect a special convention to explore the idea of establishing its own republic. "I am dead serious about this," he says, noting that Vermont was an independent nation with its own money, stamps, and legislature from 1777 to 1791. He outlines ideas for a Second Vermont Republic in The Vermont Manifesto (Xlibris), a surprisingly compelling argument for applying the small-is-beautiful philosophy to the United States itself.
Naylor doesn't believe he's being unpatriotic or subversive; indeed, he sees this emerging movement as a way to honor the true spirit of America. A Vermont Declaration of Independence, issued in September, opens with nearly the exact words Thomas Jefferson penned to make the case for American independence: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another . . ."
"America is no longer a sustainable nation-state, economically, politically, socially, militarily, or environmentally," Naylor writes in The Vermont Manifesto. "The only way America can possibly save itself is by becoming smaller, less centralized, less powerful, less intrusive, less materialistic, less high-tech, less globalized, less militarized . . . and more responsive to the needs of individual citizens and small communities."
And what better place to show us a different kind of future than Vermont? Naylor proudly asks. It already stands out as a unique corner of America. It is famous for the direct democracy of its town meetings (indeed, according to Naylor, citizens in seven towns voted to secede from the United States as early as 1990).Two of its three seats in Congress are held by independent legislators who don't belong to either major political party. It has no defense installations, and it was the last state to be invaded by Wal-Mart.
"If the majority of the people here had wanted to stop Wal-Mart, we couldn't under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution," Naylor notes. "But if we were an independent country we could.
"The benefits of independence," he adds, "are that we have more control of our destiny. We can stop sending our tax dollars to an empire that's corrupt. We can confront corporate America. We can be more honest and honorable."
That might sound attractive to many of us living through an American era characterized by corporate greed, military interventions, environmental destruction, and a president who took office despite getting a half-million fewer votes than his opponent. But isn't it impossible for Vermont to leave the union under the Constitution? Didn't we prove that in the Civil War?
Not at all, replies Naylor, who interestingly enough grew up Mississippi but harbors no love for the Confederacy. "I refused to stand up when the band played 'Dixie' at Ole Miss football games," he recalls.
While Abraham Lincoln asserted that the union must be preserved (contradicting views he expressed earlier as a congressman), there is plentiful historical evidence that it's perfectly constitutional for a state to go its own way. New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island explicitly claimed the right in state constitutions, Naylor notes. Indeed, even after the Civil War, six Southern states were forced to adopt state constitutions that forbid them to secede from the union again, according to Pepperdine University law professor H. Newcomb Morse. So if you live anywhere but South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, and Arkansas, it appears to be perfectly legal to launch your own independence movement.
Naylor has discovered more than 40 Web sites devoted to other independence movements across America. The Alaska Independence Party has more than 18,000 members, roughly 4 percent of all eligible voters, he notes, and various Indian tribes are claiming their lands as sovereign nations.
But even if a state seeking independence is constitutional, wouldn't it be a really stupid idea, economically, in this age of globalization? Hardly, replies Naylor, the emeritus economics professor who consulted for Fortune 500 companies and governments in more than 30 countries. He rattles off a list of the world's 10 richest countries in per capita income, five of which have less population than Vermont: Iceland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands. He finds further inspiration in other small, prosperous nations -- Denmark, Sweden, and especially Switzerland -- for economic, social, or environmental policies he proposes for an independent Vermont.
"We are not talking isolation," he emphasizes. "There are 600 firms in Vermont that engage in foreign trade. That will continue."
Noting that studies show a "Made in Vermont" label boosts a product's sales by 10 percent, he envisions a robust economy based on high-quality goods that appeal to discerning customers around the world. Naylor also muses about Vermont's initiating a European Union-like trade federation with nearby Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (especially if Quebec were to secede from Canada, cutting these provinces off geographically from the rest of the country) and perhaps an independent New Hampshire or Maine.
As radical as Naylor's idea of a Vermont republic sounds, he's found surprising pockets of support across the country. John Kenneth Galbraith, noted economist and former ambassador to India, has endorsed the plan, as has legendary diplomat George F. Kennan, architect of the Marshall Plan programs after World War II. More importantly, the idea has caught fire with some people in Vermont. The famous Bread and Puppet Theatre troupe is doing skits advocating independence, and alternative publications are promoting the idea.
"I have no illusion that Vermont will soon leave the union," Naylor concedes, but adds that in the 1980s few people in Eastern Europe dreamed that the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia would soon break apart, peaceably in most cases. Naylor, who is married to a Polish woman and once did a lot of business consulting in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, sees similarities between the centralized bureaucracies and militaristic leaders of the old Soviet empire and the huge corporations and militaristic leaders that now run America.
To avoid a sudden collapse like the Soviet Union's, he says, "it's time for the United States to begin planning its own peaceful, orderly disunion. States should be allowed to split without hassle from Washington. . . . Shouldn't tiny, idyllic Vermont lead the way?"