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Seceding seldom succeeds, but Vermonters try

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2005


Politics, like fall foliage, turns faster in Vermont. The state was out front opposing slavery and first to approve civil unions. And if the activists who met here last month succeed, the state will set another precedent: first to secede since 1861.

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No, this wasn't a clandestine meeting of militants. It was a convention for Ver- monters, held in the plush, gold-domed capitol.

And its keynote - that separating from the United States is a just remedy for the federal government's trampling of state sovereignty - is echoing beyond the snow-capped Green Mountains.

From Hawaii to South Carolina, dozens of groups across America are promoting a similar cause. Their efforts aren't politically popular - yet. But they are reviving one of the most passionate debates in US history: Can a state legally secede?

For the Second Vermont Republic (SVR), the group that hosted the convention, the answer is "yes."

"If we had a right to join the Union, we certainly have a right to disband from it," SVR founder Thomas Naylor told the assembly. In his view, Vermonters should join the cause if they:

• Say the US has lost moral authority and is unsustainable, ungovernable, and unfixable.

• Want to help take back Vermont from big business, big markets, and big government - and do so peacefully.

Other separatist groups

Naylor's talking points aren't unique to Vermont. Separatist groups with diverse causes share the view that the federal government has grown too big and too powerful. Many say obedience to the Constitution would restore America's lost liberty. But some insist that the federal government long ago overstepped its constitutional powers, leaving secession as a valid recourse.

"Separatism is a Christian principle," says Cory Burnell, president of Christian Exodus, which aims to relocate thousands of Christian constitutionalists to South Carolina to "redeem" that state's government. "We talk about secession as potentially necessary because history has demonstrated that where one people stand up, there tends to be another people to rule over them."

The Free State Project (FSP) is another group determined to reclaim constitutional liberty. Its libertarian members have pledged to move to New Hampshire to restore limited government.

But FSP is not promoting secession, which, according to spokeswoman Amanda Phillips, usually has caused more problems than it has solved.

"We can accomplish our goals by working within the constitutional framework," she says.

FSP's reluctance to rock the boat points to a major obstacle US separatists face: public uneasiness about secession.

Two views of secession

Ever since the Civil War, many Americans view secession the way President Lincoln did: as an unlawful act of rebellion by the slave-holding Confederate States. Indeed, Lincoln saw it as a tyrannical threat to the principle of democracy.

But movements like SVR counter with two points. First, they argue that secession is a continuing theme from America's formative years. And second, they say that Lincoln was not a noble savior of the Union, but a racist warmonger intent on strengthening federal authority.

To mine intellectual capital for these ideas, Yankee-based SVR has dug deep into what critics call the neo-Confederate vein of Southern ideology. The group has promoted the work of scholars affiliated with the League of the South, which advocates greater autonomy for the Southern states.