Out Takes: The United States of New England

Edd Merritt

We gotta get out of this place
If it’ the last thing we e’er do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl, there’s a better place for me and you
   ~ The Animals, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” 

I kinda like the sound of that. With all due respect to a periodic reader and neighbor, Walter Judge, who responds negatively whenever I preach secession, it’s a topic that has hit home again with our new president’s view of the world.

At least two recent media items have reincarnated my leading secessionist, the late Thomas Naylor, who pushed for getting Vermont out of the Union. I turned on one of the local TV stations the other night and who should appear but Thomas in an early interview about his Vermont slogan, “Most Likely to Secede.”

Thomas, of course, was an interesting mix of background, education, learning and working. Born and raised in Mississippi, he earned an undergraduate degree at Millsaps College in Jackson and probably would have agreed with Phil Ochs that it’s “time for Mississippi to find another country to be part of” (but not, according to Naylor, in order to retain its racism). Thomas headed north to Columbia University in New York City where he earned a second baccalaureate, then completed an M.B.A. at the University of Indiana and a Ph.D. in economics at Tulane. He spent 30 years teaching economics at Duke University, before retiring to our town—primarily, as he said often, because it had a good feel to it, in terms both of size and closeness among residents.

I remember sitting with him, sipping coffee outside Spears Store in East Charlotte, and he told me how he had recently visited Carolyn Chute, an off-beat author (The Beans of Egypt, Maine), who had invited him to attend a gathering of a clan of which she and her husband are members (Curiously, her husband is illiterate, which might seem unusual in an author’s spouse.). The clan is the Second Maine Militia, whose goal also is secession, and Thomas was himself laughing at some of the things that it promoted (not the least impactful was the marijuana inside their brownies), which led me to believe that he retained a certain sense of humor and a degree of common sense about getting the U.S. out of Vermont.

Running into Thomas periodically at the store, we felt comfortable talking secession. We’d be outside drinking coffee, and I’d be getting the latest scoop on improvements that could come about if we’d just get out of this damn country and form our own. Thoughtful as always, Thomas had carefully studied European nationhood and had come to the conclusion that individual countries, such as Switzerland and Denmark, were culturally more comfortable places to live and work because the individual citizen was closer to his government and could have a more direct bearing on what happened within a smaller nation (and between and among countries) than we of larger nations ever could hope to have—unless, of course, we were part of the government, which then required us to do it as a job. He also pointed out what had happened to the former Soviet Union when it broke apart into its separate entities and became less an overall dictatorship, despite Russia’s seeming continued dominance.

Fourteen years ago he launched the Second Vermont Republic (SVR) as a keystone body pushing for Vermont’s independence movement. Not to be chauvinistic, Thomas said it would be all right if other states joined in if they wished, forming the United States of New England.

So, here we are again. In the 18th century Vermont had pulled out of the British Empire but had not yet become one of the United States. Maybe 240 years later, it’s time to try independence again.

Unfortunately for Thomas’s ideas, the history of secessionism in this country has often focused on the southern confederacy. He pointed out the League of the South, which has been deemed racist, and was compared unfavorably to what he advocated for Vermont. The Southern Poverty Law Center took him to task for making the connection, saying that SVR had formed a “bewildering alliance” with these neo-confederates, according to an article in the recent January 11 Seven Days. While some of their actions were similar, Thomas always denied the connection between the beliefs of the two bodies.

Maintaining financial stability without the larger economy supporting us directly has become another contentious issue. Critics ask what would happen if you separated from America’s global oversight, had to develop your own currency and succeed in a state with a relatively small labor force, a mountain range down its middle limiting manufacturing jobs. Whether it was foresight on his part or such a rapid change in the ways money is earned these days, Thomas did not believe “smalling down” would hurt Vermont financially.

Naylor’s strongest proponent in the movement to secede is a Waitsfield activist and former yak farmer, Rob Williams. He publishes a paper called the Vermont Independent whose editorials focus on ways to break away from corporate America.

An article in the latest New Yorker magazine peaked my science fiction curiosity along a similar vein. It focused on living a different type of existence in the future. There is a group that feels it may be desirable to move out of society as it currently exists before we are pushed into a type of existence that is totally foreign to today. In order to prepare themselves, members are purchasing condominium units built into an underground bunker, without windows on the world or porches on the yard. Secession seems almost mild in comparison. An eye glaring down from space or a stray comet could become a closer reality. Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy could prove real.

Naylor leaves us Vermont with new bosses. Adams destroys the whole planet to make way for an interstellar bypass, and as they leap into the future, his dolphins bid us, “so long and thanks for all the fish.” Could fat cows serve as our new country’s staple product?