MONTPELIER, VT. — 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.
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.
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.
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.
One of them, Donald Livingston, a professor of philosophy at Atlanta's Emory University, wrote a cover story - "What Is Secession?" - for the Vermont Commons newsletter, in which he philosophically defended the principle.
The 15 states that left the Soviet Union beginning in 1991, Dr. Livingston says, show that secession can be a peaceful instrument to dissolve an empire that's become dangerously large.
"The public corporation known as the United States is too large," he says. "It needs to be downsized like any other corporation."
Secession was a vital part of American history, Livingston and others say. New England, for instance, tried to secede several times, most notably in 1814 over the war with Britain. The Declaration of Independence, they insist, was a secessionist document - not a revolutionary appeal to natural rights, as other historians maintain. And the right of secession, they argue, is implied in the 10th Amendment.
"The right to coerce a state in the Union is not delegated to the federal government," says Mr. Burnell of Christian Exodus.
Delegates in Montpelier didn't accept these arguments entirely. One man rose to express admiration for Lincoln, whose statue sits in the state house lobby. How could he support a position, he wondered aloud, that Lincoln fought so hard to oppose?
Indeed, Lincoln was adamant. He held as sacred the right of a people to overthrow a government that violates what the Declaration of Independence called the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."
But secession, he proclaimed, was not an exercise of minority rights; rather, it was an attempt to nullify majority rule - a cornerstone of a democratic constitutional republic. A government that allowed a fraction of its citizens to reject its authority any time that community dissented from majority rule would be no government at all.
"Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy," Lincoln said at his first inaugural address in 1861.
Furthermore, Lincoln felt secession was based on an erroneous claim about the nation's founding. In the secession view, expounded by South Carolina Sen. John Calhoun in the 1840s and echoed by SVR's Naylor today, the Union was a voluntary compact among sovereign states, which can be broken.
"The other view is no, the Constitution is not a pact among states; it is a contract among all people in the nation - it's an irreversible commitment," says Stephen Presser, a legal historian at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Today, most experts say states have no legal right to secede.
"To exercise the right of secession requires a violation of national law," says Herman Belz, a professor of history at the University of Maryland.
That didn't stop some frustrated voters in blue states from urging secession after President Bush won reelection last November. Nor will it stop SVR, which pledges to use all nonviolent means for Vermont to become "independent."
In fact, the group is already thinking nationally, with founder Naylor and author Kirkpatrick Sale teaming up to form the Middlebury Institute, a think tank devoted to secession.
Observers and SVR devotees alike say it will be difficult to gain popular support. "[SVR is] very sincere, but it has absolutely no chance of happening," says Eric Davis, a professor of political science at Vermont's Middlebury College.
But SVR takes inspiration from the history implied in its name. Vermont was an independent republic once before, between 1777 and 1791.