Group wants Vermont to become independent republic

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(Host) As we celebrate the Fourth of July, one group of Vermonters wants to take independence one step further.

They want Vermont to secede from the union, and become once again an independent republic.

But an expert on Vermont’s past says the advocates of independence may be misinterpreting history.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) State archivist Gregory Sanford says he gets the question all the time: Where in the state constitution is the escape clause – the language that allows Vermont to leave the union?

(Sanford) “Unfortunately, there is not and there never has been a provision in the state constitution that says we can withdraw from the United States.”

(Dillon) The idea of the opt out clause, Sanford says, is one of the enduring myths about Vermont independence. The archivist recently published a column that attempts to correct the historical record.

Vermont was independent for 14 years, from 1777 to 1791. And those who support a 21st century Vermont Republic argue that Vermont did not join the union in 1791 to become part of the American empire.

But Sanford says that’s not really true. He quotes a 1791 speech from a supporter of statehood who argues that by joining the United States, Vermont becomes a member of “the American empire.”

(Sanford) “Within Vermont, I think there was a strong feeling of wanting to belong. At the constitutional convention there were only four dissenting votes.”

(Dillon) Sanford says that in fact the opposition to statehood came from outside the state, not from Vermonters who wanted to remain an independent republic. He reminds people that Vermont at the time was a break-away republic from New York.

(Sanford) “Let’s be frank. The other guys didn’t want us. At a bare minimum to recognize Vermont, which was a separatist movement in an existing, defined, no matter how poorly state, New York, would be to open the door to separatist movements that existed in virtually all of the original 13 states.”

(Dillon) Frank Bryan is a UVM political science professor who favors a new, independent republic of Vermont.

In a recent piece in the Washington Post, Bryan cited several historical points that Sanford has criticized.

Bryan said, for example, that Vermont’s independent streak was on full display after the great flood of 1927. He quotes then-Governor John Weeks as saying: “Vermont will take care of its own” and didn’t need federal assistance.

Bryan acknowledges that the Weeks quote can’t be found.

(Bryan) “We didn’t want to take federal money. No one has been able to nail down the Weeks quote, if it was there. But certainly history has attributed it to him. And it certainly reflects the passion of that moment.”

(Dillon) But Sanford points out that the congressional delegation lobbied for and won $2.6 million dollars in federal aid to help Vermont rebuild after the flood.

Perhaps the biggest source of historical disagreement between Sanford and Bryan concerns Vermont’s role in the Civil war.

Bryan says Vermonters fought primarily to end slavery, not to preserve the union.

(Bryan) “It certainly is the case that of all the states, Vermont was most vociferously against slavery, and that the underlying passion and historical movement from the very beginning of Vermont was anti-slavery. And that’s what drove Vermont to compete in that war at levels that exceeded any other state.”

(Dillon) But Sanford says letters that soldiers sent home to Vermont rarely mention slavery as the reason for going to war. Instead, most of the letters talked about fighting the secessionists whom the Vermonters viewed as traitors.

The two scholars do agree about the role of myth in shaping the image of Vermont. Bryan says when it comes to independence, the myth is real.

(Bryan) “I think Vermont’s historical experience certainly, more than any other states, exemplifies independence. It used to be criticized, for instance, that we tried to be independent throughout The Depression when we rejected the Green Mountain Parkway that was planned by the federal government to blacktop the crest of the Green Mountains.”

(Dillon) Sanford says the public should be careful to separate myth from historical reality.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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