Anger over Iraq and Bush prompts calls for secession from the US for Vermont

Along the Appalachian Trail, the 2000-mile ribbon of wilderness stretching from Vermont to Tennessee, the leaves are putting on their annual display of dazzling yellows, gold and vermilion.

And like the autumn leaves politics turns quicker in Vermont than elsewhere in the US.

The self-styled Green Mountain state has always had a doggedly independent streak. It opposed slavery long before other states. Vermont people are fiercely proud of the way they run their affairs through "town hall meetings" at which everything from school budgets to planning applications are thrashed out in public.

In 2004, Vermont elected its first socialist congressman Bernie Sanders, it almost sent the maverick Democrat Howard Dean to the White House, and was the first state to approve same-sex civil unions. Montpelier is the only state capital in the US to have no McDonald's restaurant and Vermont has kept Wal-Mart superstores out of its cities far longer than any other state. Vermont has some of the toughest environmental laws in the country. In a landmark case, it recently won the right to set tougher pollution standards on car makers than federal law demands.

And in the stores of its cities, T-shirts bearing the slogan "US out of Vt!" are big sellers. Because Vermont is now home to a growing movement agitating for outright secession from the United States. In Vermont's rural air, there has always been a whiff of rebellion. One of Vermont's founding fathers, Ethan Allen, was an early American revolutionary and guerrilla leader who fought with his Green Mountain Boys for Vermont's independence in the American Revolutionary War and for the establishment of the Vermont Republic which lasted from 1777 to 1791.

The modern independence movement campaigns with a mixture of whimsy and brass-neck maintaining that the United States has lost its moral authority. They argue that the "US empire" is unsustainable and have tapped into a growing well of anger over the war in Iraq, fears for the global environment and anger at the administration of George Bush.

In 2005, activists held their first convention in the golden-domed statehouse in the state capitol Montpelier where passionate arguments were made for Vermont to quit the union. The gathering, sponsored by a group called the Second Vermont Republic, was the first statewide convention on secession in the US since 1861, when North Carolina voted to leave.

Founder Thomas Naylor set out the case for independence in a Green Mountain Manifesto published in 2003 and subtitled Why and How Tiny Vermont Might Help Save America From Itself by Seceding from the Union. Naylor, 70, a retired professor, was a management consultant to Russia during the breakup of the Soviet Union from where he derived some of his inspiration on the future break up of the United States. Much of the rest of America sees Vermonters as closet Canadians. Naylor sees Vermont as a state of small towns, small farms, local government, grassroots democracy and green activism – not unlike a Switzerland of North America.

Naylor and his followers proudly claim the support of 8 per cent of the population of Vermont for the separatist path. They want fellow citizens to vote on the matter at a Town Meeting Day next March, a ballot which they say could eventually persuade the state Legislature to declare independence.

This week, however, the eccentric left-wing scholars and retired busy-bodies behind the campaign took a more controversial step which is puzzling some of its die-hard supporters. They travelled the 2,000 miles to the other end of the Appalachian Trail to sit down with an equally academically-minded group from the south also pushing for secession from the United States. Unlike the delegates of the Second Vermont Republic, the League of the South wraps itself in the flag of the Confederacy and has been widely denounced as a racist hate group.

Organised by a the left-wing Middlebury Institute of New York, the secessionists from opposite ends of the political spectrum have been meeting for two days in a Chattanooga hotel discussing how they might break away from the United States of America by peaceful means. The League of the South proudly displays a Confederate Battle Flag on its banner and campaigns for a breakaway 'anglo-celtic' state.

It has, however, been branded a hate group by the authoritative Southern Poverty Law Centre which monitors such groups. Mark Potok, said the League of the South "has been on the centre's list close to a decade".

"What is remarkable and really astounding about this situation is we see people and institutions who are supposedly on the progressive left rubbing shoulders with bona fide white supremacists," said Mr Potok.

Many Americans may not realise it but there are, in fact, several secessionist movements afoot across the country. There are groups in Alaska and Hawaii still bitter over their annexation half a century ago, as well as secessionist groups in Texas, California and even New York City.

Separatist groups with diverse causes share the view that the US government has grown too big and too powerful. They want to restore America's lost liberty by strict obedience to the Constitution, and maintain that the federal government long ago overstepped its constitutional powers, leaving secession as a valid and legal recourse.

Since the Civil War, most Americans have taken their lead from Abraham Lincoln who viewed secession as a tyrannical threat to the principle of democracy and an unlawful act of rebellion by the slave-holding Confederate States.

The Vermont secessionists argue that secession is a continuing theme from America's formative years and that far from saving the Union, Lincoln was a racist warmonger intent on strengthening federal authority. This is what makes this week's marriage of convenience between them and the League of the South so puzzling for outsiders.

Unfortunately for the secessionists, they face a hurdle in a Supreme Court decision which as far back as 1868 barred the road to disunion. The case of Texas vs White, issued a judicial coup de grâce to secession. Despite Texas having been an independent republic before joining the union in 1845, the Supreme Court ruled that it had no right to secede. "The Constitution in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States."

Michael Hill, the Alabama-based president of the League of the South, says that if allowed to go their own way, New Englanders "probably would allow abortion and have gun control" while Southerners "would probably crack down on illegal immigration harder than it is being now".

Naylor said the friendly relationship between Vermont and the League of the South doesn't mean they share all the same beliefs. He said the League shares his group's opposition to the federal government and the need to pursue secession.

"It doesn't matter if our next president is Condoleezza [Rice] or Hillary [Clinton], it is going to be grim," Mr Naylor said.

Chattanooga's meeting of secessionists was organised by the Middlebury Institute's founder, a well-known left-wing author and agitator Kirkpatrick Sale. Mr Sale said he wanted to show that "the folks up north" regard the southern secessionists as "legitimate colleagues".

''It bothers me that people have wrongly declared them to be racists," he said.

Self-consciously copying the Liga Norte in Italy, the League of the South is dominated by academics. From its founding in 1995 it has concerned itself with questions of Southern culture, and threatened to push for secession, at least rhetorically, as a final resort if what were seen as the rights and dignity of the South were not respected.

Within four years of its creation the League had grown from 40 to 4,000 and it has now reached an estimated 10,000 members. The movement's academic veneer, coupled with its insistence that it was not racist despite its keen interest in matters like the Confederate battle flag, helped draw in thousands who might otherwise have stayed away.

Over the years the movement has grown more racist, claiming society is composed of a God-given hierarchy of groups that should not have the same rights and privileges as one another. Mr Hill now decries racial intermarriage under any circumstances and says that people other than white Christians will be allowed to live in his breakaway South only if they bow to "the cultural dominance of the Anglo-Celtic people and their institutions". Where the goal of secession was once largely rhetorical, it is now a seriously stated aim of his movement.

Back in Vermont, whether the state's residents will approve the latest antics of the Second Vermont Republic in getting into bed with Southern secessionists is in some doubt. Mr Potok, who is from Vermont, says: "What we are seeing is the far left and far right of American politics coming together. Most people in Vermont will shake their heads in disgust."

There is some doubt that the secessionist movement will ever be taken seriously by Americans.

"What insanity it is to reopen this issue," says Pauline Maier, professor of American history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Secession is not possible today without violence," she told the online magazine Salon.com. "To assume something different is mad. It's to follow the example of the Southern secessionists who thought that they could just leave the union peacefully – and, nuttier still, get a part of the unsettled territory as a parting gift. It's almost as crazy as the idea that once you topple a dictator, democracy happens, much as weeds appear on a ploughed field. Isn't it time that Americans began learning something from history? Or must we again bleed ourselves into wisdom?"

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