“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dark Shadows in Vermont's Past

By Greg Guma

Given the contemporary image of the Green Mountain State as a refuge and laboratory for independent and progressive thinkers it can be jarring to look at a not-so-distant past when Vermont was an isolationist bastion in which Native Americans had to call themselves gypsies to avoid sterilization.
     Cynthia D. Bittinger’s book, Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History, doesn't over-stress this dark chapter in state history. But the impact of Vermont’s eugenics movement does suggest the need to revisit and update the state's traditional narrative. In the 1930s and later, both immigrants to Vermont and any other “non-Yankees” were widely considered outsiders, at best. Since about half of all residents today are “transplants,” there is good reason to reconsider just who was and is a Vermonter, native, "real" or otherwise, and what has been previously omitted or downplayed in telling the state’s story.
   

     To start, even Calvin Coolidge, one of two Vermonters to become president, had Indian blood in his background. It was not so uncommon. Unlike many Abenakis, however, Coolidge did not feel the need to hide his ancestry. In fact, Vermont was viewed as the “last great white hope” of New England in the 1920s. But immigrants, “nomadic tribes” and others did not fit in with this squeaky clean image and a related “domestic hygiene” movement. 
     The state’s shameless plunge into control of “human breeding” was apparently driven by a mixture of xenophobia and a confused desire to weed out so-called defects. Harry Perkins, the University of Vermont professor who led the state’s Commission on Country Life, publicly justified eugenics as a way to build a healthier society, eliminate poverty and prevent genetic diseases. But he focused specifically on the “hereditary degeneracy” of many Native Americans and French-Canadians.    
     “Perkins was judging who was unfit to reproduce,” Bittinger writes. “So he drafted a sterilization law that would provide prevention of propagation by consent.” Passed in 1931, it promised that the procedure would be "voluntary." In reality, it largely wasn't. The total number sterilized is unknown, but the impact on Abenakis was reportedly dramatic. It took almost half a century for the state to publicly acknowledge this disturbing human rights crime. Vermont’s sterilization law remained in place until 1981.
    Bittinger also lends support to the idea that the winners get to write history with the case of the Abenakis, who lost their chance in large part by siding with the French before the American Revolution. However, what distinguishes her book is not so much the revisiting of well-known moments as the intriguing biographical sketches.
     In a section on settlers who were captured by Native Americans, she recounts the journey of Susanna Johnson. In a memoir Johnson described life at an Abenaki village north of Lake Memphremagog in 1754: people living “in perfect harmony, holding most of their property in common.” The Abenaki were kinder and gentler, Johnson concluded, than the French jailers she met later on.
    She also grapples with the significant, often underrated impact of African Americans on Vermont’s reputation for innovation and independent thinking. Among the leaders were Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave who resettled in Guilford and became the first African American poet in the United States; Lemuel Haynes, a minister in Rutland and first African American ordained by a U.S. religious denomination; and Alexander Twilight, the first to serve in any state legislature.
     Twilight was a teacher, but also designed Athenian Hall, a school and dormitory that is the home of the Orleans Historical Society. In 1836, a crucial transition period in Vermont, he fought to reform education funding in the Legislature.
     Vermont’s record in the struggle to end slavery is certainly laudable, and features a broad range of leaders and strategies. Still, when William John Anderson Jr. became the second black elected to the state legislature in 1945 – more than a century after Twilight's time – he could not enter the Montpelier Tavern and Pavilion Hotel.
     In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan actually saw a brief revival. There were cross burnings and rallies, but also acts of courageous resistance. In order to go after the KKK’s secrecy, Burlington passed an ordinance against wearing masks. Rutland residents responded by staging a boycott of any business owner who dared admit to Klan membership. Frequent condemnation by local newspapers also made a difference.
     On the other hand, Kake Walk, a minstrel show performed in blackface, continued at UVM fraternities until 1969. When confronted, UVM President Lyman Rowell defiantly refused to “remake the university” for the benefit of blacks. The student senate eventually ended the tradition. Bittinger concludes that the persistence of Kake Walk “revealed a state university with a real paradox on race issues.”
     The book’s third section, a refresher on women’s history, is subtitled “the other half of the story.” It begins by describing the lives of Native American women. They had a “large degree of authority,” she writes, and older native women were respected as authorities on herbal medicine, sacred matters and tribal history.
     In contrast, early female settlers from Europe “were dominated legally by patriarchy and religious beliefs.” These women could not own property, sign a contract or keep any wages they earned. Even though Vermont’s constitution promised education for all, most women obtained little before becoming parents.
     “A woman was only remembered through her connection to her husband,” Bittinger says. In fact, the word “relict,” meaning a widow but also an inferior person, was carved on tombstones rather than the maiden name of the deceased, a practice demonstrating that women were deprived of identity even in death.
    Bittinger’s portraits point to some overlooked cultural cross-currents. For example, Mother Ann Lee was a British “shaking Quaker” who resettled near Albany and attracted hundreds of Vermonters during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Among her disciples was Jane Blancard, who left patriarchy and farm life behind in Norwich after seeing visions and joined the movement.
     There was also Emma Hart Willard, who first opened a school for women in her Middlebury home in 1814. Willard may be the first woman to teach other women science and math. However, she decided that Vermont was not the ideal place to pursue her vision of higher education for women.   
     Clarina Nichols made a similar decision more than 30 years later after fighting for suffrage and other legal reforms. “She wanted to tackle a new state and set up new laws. Vermont was just too conservative, with patriarchy too entrenched.” The 19th century migration trend “often took the best and the brightest” out of Vermont. Even before the Civil War, almost 150,000 women left. It took a century until the emergence of women politicians like Consuelo Northrup Bailey and Madeleine Kunin.
     So, why did Vermont lag behind on women’s rights when it was ahead in other areas? 
     In June 1870, for example, a year after it was founded, the Vermont Suffrage Association brought its signature issue to a Council of Censors’ Convention. It was defeated 233 to one. The only yes vote was Harvey Howes of Fair Haven. Women had mounted an active lobbying campaign, but it somehow ended up alienating the press and clergy, which made the defeat more overwhelming than it might have been. Afterward, Howes found it impossible to obtain a publisher for a written defense of his position.
     For that matter, why did Vermont’s leaders resist giving women the vote until the bitter end?  
     When a suffrage bill finally passed in the state legislature in 1919, Governor Percival Clement – at one time the leader of a progressive fusion movement – called it unconstitutional and refused to sign. A year later, when the state was pressured to ratify the 19th amendment, he refused to call a special legislative session. What was he thinking?
     Years earlier, Clarina Nichols’ first appearance at the Statehouse – the first ever by a woman – had outraged many in the audience. Why? 
    Here’s a clue: fashion. The editor of the Rutland Herald literally threatened to come to the capital with a man’s suit -- and dress her in it. Furthermore, the year Nichols left the state, when feminist leader Lucy Stone told people in Randolph that they should withhold their taxes until women had the right to vote, what did the papers say? 
     They wondered why attractive young women in the audience were parading around in “unfeminine” bloomers.
     So, it looks like Vermont, along with its many achievements, has also practiced the provincial politics of exclusion, delay, and judging books by their covers.

Adapted from a review by Greg Guma first published September 9, 2012 on VTDigger. Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History, by Cynthia D. Bittinger, was published by The History Press.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Vermont's Decentralists: Questioning Authority, Power and Wealth


By Greg Guma

"Centralization in our social, economic, and political systems has given rise to a deep sense of powerlessness among the people, a growing alienation throughout society, the depersonalization of vital services, excessive reliance on the techniques of management and control, and a loss of great traditions." 

Forty years ago, a group bringing together the political left and right, Democrats and Republicans, attempted to create a “third way” called the Decentralist League of Vermont. It was convened by Robert O’Brien, a state senator who had recently lost the Democratic primary for governor, and John McClaughry, a Republican critical of his Party’s leadership. Each invited some allies for a series of meetings to forge a new political vision. 
     "We oppose political and economic systems which demand obedience to the dictates of elite groups, while ignoring abuses by those who operate the controls," its founding statement announced.
     Vermont had been fertile ground for “outside the box” thinking before. To start, it didn’t immediately join the new United States after the War of Independence, remaining an independent republic until 1791. Almost half a century later it was the first US state to elect an Anti-Mason governor, during a period when opposition to elites and secret societies was growing.
      The Anti-Mason movement – which also elected a Pennsylvania governor and ran a candidate for president in 1832 – lasted only a decade. Most of its political leaders eventually joined either the short-lived Whig Party or the more durable Republicans. Along the way, however, it exposed the dangers of special interest groups and secret oaths and, on a practical level, initiated changes in the way political parties operated -- notably nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms, reforms soon embraced by other parties.
     Early in its history, Vermont also had direct experience with another type of challenge to centralized power -- nullification. The general idea is that since states created the federal government they also have the right to judge the constitutionality of federal laws -- and potentially refuse to enforce them. It happened when American Colonists nullified laws imposed by the British. Since then states have occasionally used nullification to limit federal actions, from the Fugitive Slave Act to unpopular tariffs.
     In November 1850 the Vermont legislature joined the club, approving a so-called Habeas Corpus Law that required officials to assist slaves who made it to the state. The controverial law rendered the Fugitive Slave Act effectively unenforceable, a clear case of nullification. Poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier praised Vermont's defiance, but President Millard Fillmore threatened to impose federal law through military action, if necessary. It never came to that.
     Even a short-lived political movement can produce new thinking and unexpected change. In 1912, for example, the new Progressive Party inspired by Theodore Roosevelt when he lost the Republican nomination to William Howard Taft led to the election of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt left the Party, but its work continued under Robert La Follette. Although La Follette’s run for president in 1924 netted only 17 percent, he won Wisconsin, his home state, and successful reforms were implemented there.
     In recent times, Vermont has emerged as a testing ground for political, economic and environmental thinking that challenges conventional wisdom. But the ex-urbanite professionals and members of the counterculture who arrived to help make that possible built on a solid foundation. Questioning of illegitimate, centralized power began before the American Revolution, as early settlers in the Green Mountains organized to declare themselves free of British rule and exploitation by land speculators. It continued with the jailhouse congressional re-election of Matthew Lyon in defiance of President Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts, resistance to an embargo of Britain and the War of 1812, rejection of slavery and Masonic secrecy, and Town Meeting defeat of the Green Mountain Parkway during the New Deal. The pattern reflects a libertarian streak that has resisted the excesses of both liberal and conservative leadership.
     One key reason is localism, a long cherished Vermont value. Even when Gov. Deane Davis, a conservative Republican, backed a state land use law in the late 1960s, he chose to call it “creative localism.” Town Meeting exerts a powerful enduring influence, both practical and symbolic. A form and reminder of direct democracy, it holds out hope that self-government remains possible in the age of powerful administrative states. The stakes may be overstated at time, but the use of this forum – in some cases the only one available – can be a form of self-reliance and self-determination reminiscent of the early Jeffersonian impulse.
     In a similar spirit, the group of Vermonters who launched an alliance in 1976 aimed at decentralizing political and economic power. Invited by Bob O’Brien, I acted as secretary and helped to craft its Statement of Principles.
     That Fall, Bernie Sanders made his second run for Governor as a Liberty Union candidate and called for the break up of big banks. The winner was Republican businessman Richard Snelling, who defeated Employment Commissioner Stella Hackel after a fractious primary season. But Jimmy Carter became President and soon appointed Hackel as Director of the US Mint. According to a March 28, 1977 article by UPI, the Decentralist League was officially launched in Montpelier with a press conference and had 12 initial public signatories. The plan was not to become another political party, the press coverage said, but rather to "speak out for the interests of persons not protected by rigged deals."
     Charter members included McClaughry of Kirby; Sen. O'Brien of Orange County; Sen. Melvin Mandigo, a Republican representing Essex-Orleans; Rep. William Hunter, a Democrat from Weathersfield; John Welch of Rutland, who sought the 1976 GOP nomination for U.S. Senate; and Frank Bryan, a UVM professor. I also made the eclectic list, identified as a magazine editor and activist from Burlington, joining former Democratic party vice-chairman Margaret Lucenti from Barre; James Perkins of Sheffield, co-chair of the Vermont Caucus for the Family; William Staats of Newfane, founder of the Green Mountain Boys; Martin Harris of Sudbury, leader of the National Farmers Organization; and John Schnebley Jr. of Townshend, who ran in the 1976 Democratic primary for the U.S. House.
     As I outlined in Decentralism & Liberation in the Workplace, a July 1976 essay published in response to the US Bicentennial celebrations, Decentralism involves participatory democracy and worker ownership, home rule and neighborhood assemblies, regional self-sufficiency in food and energy, and voluntary inter-community alliances. Through efforts at both the industrial and local political levels, it can move us toward a social libertarian culture that respects the traditions of freedom and independence in America's past, and that adds to this heritage a more positive vision of human nature, ethical and ecological tools, and an internationalist perspective.
     The basic purpose of the League, McClaughry argued at the time, was to "re-orient the political spectrum so that people begin to see issues in terms of power widely dispersed -- close to them in communities, and power centralized -- in large institutions over which they have no control."
     Bryan and McClaughry continued to explore the concept and Vermonters' attraction to decentralism in The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale. “God-given liberties, hostility to the central power, whatever it may be," they wrote in 1990, "their attachment to their towns and schools and local communities, their dedication to common enterprise for the common good – all these have been among the most cherished Vermont traits, the subject of countless eulogies of Vermont tradition over the years."
     Although the League lasted only a few years -- a casualty of Reagan era polarization -- it did identify a set of core beliefs, priorities and policies that could unite those who find the current national and global order unsustainable and dangerous. In Burlington, one legacy was the creation of Neighborhood Planning Assemblies. Taking aim at centralized power and wealth, the League asserted that decentralizing both, where and whenever possible, is the best way to preserve diversity, increase self-sufficiency, and satisfy human needs. Its principles, released in March 1977, may resonate anew in the current global atmosphere of resurgent authoritarianism.

Decentralist League of Vermont
Statement of Principles

In a free and just society all men and women will have the fullest opportunity to enjoy liberty, achieve self-reliance, and participate effectively in the political and economic decisions affecting their lives. Wealth and power will be widely distributed. Basic human rights will be protected. The principle of equal rights for all, special privileges for none, will prevail.
     When economic and political power is centralized in the hands of a few, self-government is replaced by rigid and remote bureaucracies, the independence of each citizen is threatened, and the processes of freedom and justice are subverted. Centralized power is the enemy of individual liberty, self-reliance, and voluntary cooperation. It tends to corrupt those who wield it and to debase its victims.
     The trend toward centralization in our social, economic, and political systems has given rise to a deep sense of powerlessness among the people, a growing alienation throughout society, the depersonalization of vital services, excessive reliance on the techniques of management and control, and a loss of great traditions.
     Decentralists share with “conservatives” repugnance for unwarranted governmental interference in private life and community affairs. We share with “liberals” an aversion to the exploitation of human beings. We deplore, however, conventional “liberal” and “conservative” policies which have concentrated power, ignored the importance of the human scale, and removed decision making from those most directly affected.
     Decentralists thus favor a reversal of the trend toward all forms of centralized power, privileged status, and arbitrary barriers to individual growth and community self-determination. We oppose political and economic systems which demand obedience to the dictates of elite groups, while ignoring abuses by those who operate the controls. We believe that only by decentralization will we preserve that diversity in society which provides the best guarantee that among the available choices, each individual will find those conditions which satisfy his or her human needs.
     Decentralists believe in the progressive dismantling of bureaucratic structures which stifle creativity and spontaneity, and of economic and political institutions which diminish individual and community power.
     We support a strengthening of family, neighborhood and community life, and favor new forms of association to meet social and economic needs.

We propose and support:

-- Removal of governmental barriers which discourage initiative and cooperative self-help

-- Growth of local citizen alliances which strengthen self-government and broaden participation in economic and political decisions

-- Widespread ownership of productive industry by Vermonters and employees

-- Protection of the right to acquire, possess and enjoy private property, where the owner is personally responsible for its use and when this use does not invade the equal rights of others

-- Rebuilding a viable and diverse agricultural base for the Vermont economy, with emphasis on homesteading

-- A decent level of income for all, through their productive effort whenever possible, or through compassionate help which enhances their dignity and self-respect

-- Reshaping of education to promote self-reliance, creativity, and a unity of learning and work

-- A revival of craftsmanship in surroundings where workers can obtain personal satisfaction from their efforts

-- The use of technologies appropriate to local enterprise, and which increase our energy self-sufficiency

-- Mediation of disputes rather than reliance on regulations and adversary proceedings

     This decentralist program implies a de-emphasis of status, luxury, and pretense, and a new emphasis on justice, virtue, equality, spiritual values, and peace of mind.

       Decentralism will mean a rebirth of diversity and mutual aid, a new era of voluntary action, a full appreciation of our heritage, an affirmation of meaningful liberty, and a critical awareness of Vermont’s relationship to the rest of the nation and to the world.
   
Greg Guma is the Vermont-based author of Dons of Time, Uneasy Empire, Spirits of Desire, Big Lies, and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. He helped to write the Decentralist League's Statement of Principles and led a successful campaign for neighborhood assemblies in Burlington.