This article was first published in Green Mountain Noise, 2VR’s E-zine publication
Ethan Allen, the unpredictable frontier rebel who rallied resistance to any person or power threatening the property rights of early settlers and his fellow land speculators, has exerted a powerful influence over Vermont’s image as a home for rugged individualists and defiant outsiders. His story, both the factual and the mythical aspects, has nurtured an affinity with rebels and independent thinkers.
That said, political values that have exerted a more enduring influence in Vermont include accountability, local control and autonomy. Frequently crossing ideological lines, they persisted through a century in which the state was known as reliably Republican, a place where not even Franklin D. Roosevelt could win an election, and have continued to exert an influence in the decades since 1988, a period when Vermonters have voted for every Democratic presidential candidate.
Today the state is as identified with liberal social causes and political mavericks like Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean and Republican Jim Jeffords, who ultimately left the GOP, as it once was with “rock-ribbed” conservative thinking. But beneath the different labels is a consistent approach to governance and the way it is publicly discussed. Despite a centralized administrative structure, Vermont’s government has emphasized accountability more than most through the retention of short terms of office, a citizen legislature, and the rhetoric of local control.
Localism is a long cherished value. Even when Republican Governor Deane Davis was backing a statewide land use law in the late 1960s he called it “creative localism.” Town Meeting has a powerful image as the last vestige of direct democracy, holding out hope that self-government remains possible in the age of powerful administrative states. Of course, the image is somewhat overstated. On the other hand, the use of this forum – in some cases the only one open to the public – can be a form of self-empowerment reminiscent of the early Jeffersonian impulse.
Vermont’s “citizen legislature” meets four days a week for up to five months, and House and Senate members often return to other jobs. Due to the size of the state, many state representatives can drive home at night during sessions. The pay is modest, and the State House functions much like a graduate school for motivated students. Some are in training for higher office, but most stay in touch with their home base.
Nevertheless, the state’s political establishment has repeatedly advocated a constitutional amendment to extend the terms of some or all statewide offices to four years. In the late 1950s a Commission to Study State Government – known as the “Little Hoover Commission” for its similarity to a federal effort in the 1940s led by the former president – concluded that forcing candidates to campaign for re-election so often was a waste of money and detrimental to the state’s welfare. The necessary amendment failed in the legislature, but was brought back repeatedly over the next decades.
Most other states extended terms of office long ago. Beyond a suspicion of politicians and the power of Vermont traditions, the main reason it has not happened can be traced directly back to the last of the conventions called by the old Council of Censors. This Federalist-inspired holdover from pre-revolutionary days was supposed to oversee both the governor and legislature, making sure that laws were handled properly and the Constitution was being followed. If not, the Censors could call a convention and propose amendments. In its first 40 years, however, only one of its proposed amendments was ratified, and that one denied voting rights to foreign-born citizens until they were naturalized.
When terms of office were doubled to two years in 1870, the amendment process was also changed. The legislature would henceforth initiate any constitutional changes, but only once every ten years. This “time lock” provision was later shortened to five-year intervals, but remained a conservative deterrent to rapid changes in the structure and processes of government.
Vermont does not have a provision for referendum by public petition. But the state has played an active role in local politics since 1890, when legislation permitted Australian ballots printed by state government to be used at town meetings. Lawmakers can also request endorsement of a decision in a Town Meeting referendum. Exercising this authority to seek local opinion led to the enactment of the local option for alcohol in 1902 and death of the proposed Green Mountain Parkway in 1936.
All these traditions – local control, short terms, a citizen legislature – as well as impulses toward decentralism and even secession, reflect a fundamental commitment to autonomy. The original Greek idea is self-rule. Valued for its contribution to the search for truth and the functioning of a self-governing society, autonomy involves making conscious choices.
According to libertarian philosopher Murray Bookchin, who lived in Vermont for several decades, “Self-rule applies to society as a whole. Self-management is the management of villages, neighborhoods, towns, and cities. The technical sphere of life is conspicuously secondary to the social. In the two revolutions that open the modern era of secular politics – the American and French – self-management emerges in the libertarian town meetings that swept from Boston to Charleston and the popular sections that assembled in Parisian quatiers.”
In Vermont, the quest for autonomy underpinned the struggle of settlers against outside control during the revolutionary period. Since then, it has fueled campaigns of resistance and sometimes direct challenges to state and federal policies – from the rejection of the Masons, the abolition movement and the development of new political parties to campaigns for a weapons freeze, against nuclear power, and for same-sex marriage.
A less progressive expression is the enduring tension between the desire for local control and the state’s authority over education. The Vermont Constitution called for a system of public schools, yet education remained uneven and chaotic for many years as independent school districts of varying quality popped up across the state. The autonomy of local schools was the rule until the legislature mandated reforms such as compulsory attendance, effective training of teachers, free textbooks and a fair school tax system.
School district autonomy persisted until 1892, when the state turned over power to the towns. But local resistance to state education plans and mandates continued throughout the 20th century.
“Vermont is a country which abounds in the most active and rebellious race on the continent and hangs like a gathering storm on my left.”
General John Burgoyne, after losing the Battle of Bennington in 1777
In a tongue-in-cheek guide to being an authentic Vermonter, Frank Bryan and Bill Mares joked that most people would agree that “Vermont, like Texas, is more than just a place – it’s a state of mind. Vermonters are committed to a certain creed and live by certain values that set them apart. Some people have them. Others do not. Most are somewhat in between. Yet social critics often are content to divide the world into two classes – Real Vermonters and Flatlanders.”
In the early 1980s the writers acknowledged that such distinctions were already narrowing as the fence between the two types grew “more rickety.” In the 21st century the categories have become outdated. Yet mention of Vermont still suggests certain attitudes and sensibilities – community involvement, civil discourse, social concern and tolerance, a shifting mixture of libertarian and egalitarian tendencies.
Even conservative writer David Brooks, who once tried to stereotype Burlington as a “Latte Town,” had to admit that it had “a phenomenally busy public square – arts councils, school-to-work collaborations, environmental groups, preservation groups, community-supported agriculture, anti-development groups, and ad-hoc activist groups…The result is an interesting mixture of liberal social concern and paleo-conservative effort to ward off encroaching modernism.”
Since the 1970s the state has been a testing ground for alternative approaches to politics, but the many ex-urbanite professionals and members of the counterculture who have helped to make that possible were building on a solid foundation. Active dissent began before the American Revolution, as early settlers organized to declare themselves free of British rule and exploitation by land speculators. It continued with the re-election of Matthew Lyon to Congress in defiance of the Alien and Sedition Acts, resistance to an embargo of Britain and the War of 1812, rejection of Masonic secrecy and Town Meeting defeat of the Green Mountain Parkway during the New Deal. This pattern reflects a libertarian streak that has resisted the pull of modern liberalism.
Despite relative isolation before the arrival of railroads, telephones, highways and instantaneous global communication, many Vermonters also expressed an egalitarian belief in equality and tolerance that made it fertile ground for revival-era religious experiments and persistent leadership in the fight to end slavery. Although the state was sometimes slow to respond, as with the decision to extend voting rights to women, or even reactionary when handling union activism, the tradition re-asserted itself in Ernest Gibson’s expansion of social services in the 1940s, the peaceful assimilation of counterculture immigrants and the landmark legislative decision in 2009 to make same-sex marriage the state law.
Concern has frequently extended beyond the protection and defense of state residents and resources. Ecological consciousness, rooted in Vermont’s rural character and a practical understanding of interdependence, has made it an advocate for reducing pollution, conserving limited resources, protecting endangered habitats, and closing the Yankee Nuclear plant. Skepticism about wasteful military spending and the logic of war, combined with the symbolic power of Town Meeting, helped it to spur national reconsideration of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpiles and intentions.
In a long-shot 2008 campaign for state attorney general, writer and lawyer Charlotte Dennett promised to prosecute George W. Bush for murder if she was elected. Dennett was running as a Progressive Party candidate against William Sorrell, a popular incumbent who had held the job for a decade. The previous year Vermont’s State Senate had announced to the world that the actions of Bush and Vice President Cheney in taking the country to war in Iraq raised “serious questions of constitutionality,” and passed a resolution that called on the US Congress to impeach them.
Dennett did not win that race. But like previous challenges to prevailing national policies, it was an act of conscience in keeping with long-standing state values. The following winter on Town Meeting Day voters in Brattleboro and Marlboro backed her up, passing symbolic resolutions that instructed their town police to arrest Bush and Cheney for “crimes against our Constitution” if they ever stepped foot in either town. The next step was to “extradite them to other authorities that may reasonably contend to prosecute them.”
It sounded a lot like the style of Ethan Allen.
Greg Guma is the author of The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, Spirits of Desire and Dons of Time. He has lived in Vermont since 1968.