Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
December 31
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at

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Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 21, 2011 4:42PM

Crazy Talk: Vermont Secession

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On a recent visit to my parents in Vermont, I stepped into a little deli called Noonie’s. Back in high school, I’d visit Noonie’s every few weeks, devouring a massive turkey sandwich and kibitzing with friends. Middlebury had no coffeehouse, and I didn’t smoke pot in basements like everybody else, so a quiet little bistro sufficed for passing time.

            The place has changed little in 14 years. If anything, the menu has improved. As I waited for my Purple’s Pleasure, a hopelessly complicated BLT, I found a newspaper rack and plucked up a copy of Vermont Commons, a biggish newspaper that includes “voices of independence.” I nested in the corner, ate my sandwich, and read these voices. And sighed with mixed emotion.

            The headlines describe this paper better than I could:

 bye bye miss american empire

organizing for a free vermont

the greenneck: jack of all trades, slave to none

an energy optimist: optimized energy lifeboats

hemp for (an independent) vermont

This final headline adorns the front page, which bleeds into two additional pages about the fine uses of Cannabis sativa. The front cover shows a grizzled old man in a tricorne hat, holding a musket and an American flag. The flag is upside-down, and it reads: “A Republic If You Can Keep It.” The quote is attributed to one “B. Franklin.”

            If you know Vermonters, none of these sentiments are surprising. The state thrives on natural, social, and political concerns.

But for me, one concept stood out: Vermonters’ desire to secede from the United States of America. If a group of people can be serious about such a thing, these people are. The idea isn’t even a new one; author and professor Frank M. Bryan wrote his comic manifesto, Out: The Vermont Secession Book, back in 1987. He also wrote a book called Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats, but the joke has hardened over the years. The notion of the “Second Vermont Republic” is extremely appealing to smart, libertarian Vermonters. They fondly remember the state’s brief period of independence (1777-1791), and they yearn to raise their green flag over Montpelier. Vermont is more than a home—Vermont is a way of life, a spiritual womb. Unsullied by billboards and heavy industry, people can live how they please in Vermont. Why should 49 additional states bog down the Vermont way of life? Why pay for others’ mistakes, like petroleum wars and stock market fiascos? Vermonters are clean, smart, healthy, entrepreneurial, industrious and accepting. What’s more, they love to think of themselves as modest. The rest of the country is rude, misguided, superficial, and rootless. Firm up these borders, already!

            I have mixed feelings about this philosophy.


Feeling #1: I Get It

On the one hand, I am a very progressive thinker, and I am an avid follower of the feminist, gay rights, anti-war, pro-labor, pro-environmentalist movements—a typical Green Party guy who loves to commute by bicycle and works weird bohemian jobs. So I have every reason to relish Vermont Commons, a newspaper that also applauds farmers and naturalists (I recently gave a thumb’s up to a passing car, whose bumper sticker said it all: no farms, no food).


Feeling #2: These People Are Nuts

On the other hand, Vermont’s secession is so insane and ridiculous that I actually become angry. The arrogance of these Green Mountain patriots is suffocating, and it’s only part of the reason I no longer live among them. Vermonters love to applaud their own lifestyle, turning up their noses at “Flatlanders”—the slur for any human being who lives anywhere else. Never mind that Vermont is the least ethnically diverse state in the U.S. Never mind that the economy relies on tourism. Never mind that Vermont exports very little, besides syrup, marble and dairy products, and the last time the state did seriously export raw material, those precious Green Mountains were almost completely deforested. Vermont Commons could not be published without imported computers, paper, ink, and delivery trucks. Vermonters may resent their connection to the outside world, but without the outside world, Vermont doesn’t work.

            As for those 14 years of independence, they were lived in Colonial wilderness, when even dirt roads were rare. The land was a frontiersman fantasy: You could claim land, shoot all the Abenaki living there, clear the trees, build a pine cabin, wear animal skins, and, in theory, smoke all the pot you wanted. But that was 200 years ago. A Second Vermont Republic is like a New Camelot: The Green Mountain Boys could no more liberate 21st Century Vermont, nor defend it, nor even organize it, than King Arthur could conquer Washington, D.C. and put evil lobbyists to the sword. This idea isn’t productive. It barely makes any sense. Secession is an outgrown hobby, a game of Risk for smart rural pontificators with too much time on their hands. And it’s openly hostile to every other American. For a culture that takes pride in tolerance, secession is the least tolerant decision Vermont can make. We don’t like how you live, say the secessionists. So we’re making our own country, and you can’t join.


Feeling #3: But Seriously, I Get It

Still, I understand the impulse, especially at the onset of election season. Politics is the ugliest of all sciences, a toxic mix of psychology and economics, and the open gamesmanship has ruined any illusion of high ideals. Everyone knows that speeches are ghostwritten, candidates wear makeup, bills are passed unread, filibusters wreck nearly every good idea, and everyone is sleeping with everyone else, literally and figuratively. Worse yet, everyone knows the fate of a spirited young incumbent: He goes to Washington with bright eyes and strong words, he gets bitten, chewed up, digested, and shat out. That is the entire history of American politics, and it’s really the story of all democratic politics. (The alternative is monarchy, whose story ends in beheading). The only survivors of this battle are total criminals, whose great virtues appear only in stump speeches and never get in the way of their real goal, which is to wield money and power. Faced with degradation and infamy, where do all these bright-eyed incumbents come from? And what the hell is wrong with them?

            Wouldn’t it be nice to leave all that behind? Live in a nation of 500,000 people, most of whom are related, or at least neighborly? Maybe the world’s most powerful military won’t notice if we quietly unzip ourselves from the American fabric and set up a Unitarian junta. In the Tea Party era, fraught with dystopic visions, any drastic measure sounds appealing. For better or for worse, folks like Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and John Stewart have transformed how we approach politics. We are now a culture of populist action. We keep eyeing the “undo” key. We wonder: If we’re all so irreconcilably different, if we don’t seem to live in the same America, why not just make our own?

            Like all these radical causes, and nearly all individuals, Vermont Commons can be found on Facebook. I have debated becoming friends. Not yet. But maybe someday.

Author tags:

secession, vermont

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Note that we never have embarrassing yahoos representing us in Congress. We always send the cream of the crop. I think it's because Vermont is so small. You can't get away with being an idiot, because people will talk. I keep hoping Canada will take us in, and help us fortify the borders against the zombie apocalypse.
Why don't you Vermonters get together with Texas to ?"form a more perfect union"? But, hey, for those of us who never got to live in Vermont (or even go to Middlebury College) and never aspired to live in Texas (though "some of my best friends" do, in fact) leave us Bernie Sanders, o.k.? Ya gotta leave us left-overs a LITTLE hope, o.k.?
What was it they said about South Carolina: "Too small for a republic, too large for an insane asylum"? But I can see why people in Vermont aren't crazy about being in a union with Texas or Arizona.

Still: The next time the South wants to secede, just let them go.
What a well-written article Robert. Sometimes I wish the Tea partiers could break away and form their own country so they could learn the hard way that their whacked out ideas won't actually produce a better society. But Vermont? It's one of those intriguing ideas that won't go anywhere.
Secessionists (or whatever they're called) make me chuckle. They really need to get out of Vermont occasionally and see what's going on in this country. One sentence probably explains most of the movement: "Vermont is the least ethnically diverse state in the U.S."

Enjoyable read.
@ podunkmarte - I have lived in Texas, and I think the Texas/Vermont combination would be about as successful as - uh - I'm at a loss to describe how unsuccessful it would be. Maybe scorpion/frog successful, or the two Irelands. We're keeping Bernie. It took us years to get used to his New Jersey accent, but he has been ours for some time. All ours. You can't have Patrick Leahy either. Unless you move.
Aside from the politics of Vermont, it is a very special place. Nearly magical on many levels. However, my future son-in-law, a Vermonter from Bennington, left about 13 years ago for California and hasn't looked back (except for annual visits with my daughter to see his family. Love your photo at the top. New England is incredible! Formerly from Connecticut, I miss the amazing Autumn season.
One of the founders of the Second Vermont Republic, Ian Baldwin, has referred to the group as "our small community." Membership in the group is no longer allowed by its founder, Thomas Naylor. In the 2010 election their gubernatorial candidate, Connecticut native Dennis Steele (yes, most of the seceshers moved to Vermont to give us the benefit of their wisdom), garnered barely three quarters of one percent of the vote or, as he likes to call it, third.

And, you'll like this, in its fall issue Vermont Commons announced that it is folding.
But seriously, folks....

I'm very much conflicted by being linked to states (mainly Southern, all of them red) that have helped ruin the idea of a democratic government by attacking the idea of any government at all.

We were founded on the notion that our government would be us. We have been hornswoggled by the Tea Zombies so that too many people believe that the government is not them, and that government has no purpose save to tell them how to run their lives.

The consequence of all this is that we have a tax system that largely transfers middle-class and lower class wealth--what little there is of it--into the hands of the already-rich, and a military that serves as enforcers overseas for the plutocracy (see: Smedley Butler).

Something's got to give, and perhaps it's time to re-examine the Articles of Confederation, with a Bill of Rights attached. While I think the Federal government does many good things, it also does many many bad things (think: H-bombs, supporting Arab tyrants, subverting foreign governments). I'm reluctant in the extreme to see the power of the government put into the hands of the Tea Zombie.

Time to decentralize, disunify, pay our bills and get out of the empire business.
Loved it, well written. Never been to Vermont. I was thinking when I saw this title that Secession is just one of those ideas that, for any state in the Union, is unworkable, unfeaseable and in that light, truly unthinkable.

I'm stuck here in Texas and I can't think of a more different state than Vermont from it. If Texas seceded, I'd leave in a New York second and not look back -- except maybe to make sure some hotshot Texas State Trooper weren't still chasing me across into Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, or Oklahoma, whichever border was closer at the time.

I find the idea anti-America. But imagining how it would play out is fun. I imagine a huge exodus and economic collapse. At which point, the state's few remaining citizens either come groveling back begging for help or just die off.
Oregon is in many respects a kindred spirit to Vermont. We're green and chi-chi, too! The southern part of the state wants to secede from Oregon to form the State of Jefferson, and it's wanted to do so since at least the Great Depression (I). Both secessionist fantasies are primarily the work of libertarians -- maybe with too much dope smoking. But we love them anyway.

And I'd trade you ten Sen. Ron Wydens for one Vermont Senator.
Vermont shares 120 miles of border with Quebec - maybe separatists from both camps can come together to form their own "coalition of the willing".
But then who would the rest of the country envy for picking such fine reps like Dean and Sanders? My sis lives in Winooski (I was just there, before the flooding, she's fine- uphill). Years ago, I was there on the weekend of the second election of George Bush (or the first, depending on who you ask) and IMMEDIATELY, on Wed morning, after the victory, Middlebury College professors had convened to invoke the ancient Right of Secession that every Vermonter knows is in their founding paperwork or something. Of course, other than Norway, Vermont is the other place I would live it weren't so darn dark and cold and wet. Because it IS better.
I recently wrote a post about what the consequences of Texas secession would be for Texas, mainly to point out how much of an idiot Gov. Perry is. It was fun to write. The idea of an independent Vermont isn't nearly as much fun. It's just kind of odd. As far as I can see, that would just cost it influence because they'd give up a couple of Senators and a Congressman, but who knows? I'm trying to imagine a Vermont military. It would probably be a very cute country that might prove annoyingly radical in weird ways, like by supporting national liberation movements around the globe. Not financially - they wouldn't be able to fund it.
That is the entire history of American politics, and it’s really the story of all democratic politics.

Amen. Shit always ends in tears.

(The alternative is monarchy, whose story ends in beheading).

Well, that's one alternative. ;D

Fun hangin tonight, man. Comments here are hilarious.