The great secessionist was a former Duke economics professor, and not exactly an Austrian, but we found common cause in opposing the centralized state and its empire. He championed small nations, and especially a Second Vermont Republic. When Vermont is free, this Mississippian must be recognized as its founding father.
Thanks to Kirkpatrick Sale for this obituary.
THOMAS NAYLOR, R.I.P.
Thomas died recently of heart failure, in Vermont, the state he and his Second Vermont Republic organization dreamed of having secede from the American Empire he so loved to hate. It’s doubtful if that group will continue without him, but the Vermont Commons folks and others like-minded will keep the dream alive.
I first met Thomas around 2000, when we both attended a seminar chaired by Donald Livingston, the Emory philosophy professor, to discuss the seminal work of Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations, for which I had written a fond introduction. Around a table of academic rightwingers, with more than a whiff of neoconservative about them, he was the only one to unreservedly understand and appreciate the book and its compelling proof of the desirability and necessity of small nations. We hit it off immediately, of course, and in the course of that weekend I came to know his authenticity, perspicacity, and kindness.
We corresponded a bit, and then in late 2003, when John Papworth, editor of the Fourth World Review in England, was looking around for a place to hold his next “Radical Consultation” meeting, I suggested Thomas and John immediately lined him up for a meeting in Vermont for the next year. Thomas had already started his Second Vermont Republic, an organization of mostly himself working to create a separate state for Vermont as it had been between 1777 and 1791, and he agreed to devote the meeting to a discussion of (and we hoped commitment to) secession. We eventually met in Middlebury in early November (the earliest date after the leaf-viewing season when we could afford the rooms) and devoted two days to answering the question of what could serious people, committed to really changing the government we suffer under and creating societies responsive to human needs, actually do in the world.
We began, naturally, discussing—and shortly dismissing—electoral politics, since no one believed significant change would come out of the present system and present parties—and this was just a few days after Bush had bought himself another Presidency. And we took no time in rejecting the reformist lobby-Congress trap that so many liberal groups spend so much time and money on, since that was dealing with those same corrupt parties. Next we considered the third-party alternative, looking at what effect Perot and Nader had on national affairs—damn little, since the major parties control the system—and concluded that any participation in a corrupt electoral system simply leads to having to be beholden to the same special interests that the major parties are.
What alternatives left? Well, reform and revolution, of course, and we had a few people championing that, but it didn’t take long to realize that all the power was on the other side and they wouldn’t be afraid to lose it, while a guerrilla uprising figured to be costly and futile as well.
That, naturally, leaves only secession, and Thomas was an able champion here in putting forth this to people, most of whom had not even thought of this as an alternative before this session. He tended to stress what I came to call the Push reasons for secession—that is, it allows a state to get out from under an inept, dysfunctional, and evil empire so as not to go down with its inevitable collapse, and it frees it from the taxes, wars, regulations, and entangling alliances of that empire. I favored more the Pull reasons—that is, the benefits the state would get if it was on its own, able to gain some measure of democracy, some hands-on control over the decisions that effects its life, in matters such as fuel, food, and finances, some sense of independence and self-determination.
It was not a super-easy sell, since many of these people had more anarchistic tendencies, pointing out the difficulties of trying to run any government no matter how small, but in the end almost everyone came around. At the end of the day we issued a Middlebury Declaration saying, in part:
“The principle of secession must be established as valid and legitimate. To this end, therefore, we are pledged to create a movement that will place secession on the national agenda, encourage nonviolent secessionist organizations throughout the country…and create a body of scholarship to examine and promote the ideas and principles of secession.”
And thus Thomas Naylor in effect created the secession movement and gave impetus to its growing influence over the next decade.
Thomas never wavered from his support for the movement and particularly the Vermont part of it, but he would have his causes and his strategies within it that once they caught his attention he would carry on with a passion.
That led him, for example, to meet up with some people who remembered when Scott and Helen Nearing were setting up their homestead in Vermont, and when he studied Scott’s writings he found enough of the fierce independence fire (despite the underlying Marxism) to convince him that Nearing was a fitting symbol for the Second Vermont Republic—and anyway, that ought to bring the radicals and the liberals, not to mention back-to-the-landers, into the movement. He somehow met up with a man in Long Island capable of making silver coins, and wouldn’t you know that within a few months the SVR website was offering $50 coins with Nearing’s image on one side and a Vermont flag on the other. That the first 500 of these sold out did nothing to convince some of us that Nearing (who was a lifelong socialist and moved to Maine after giving up on Vermont) had no more to do with secession than Mickey Mouse, but Thomas’s enthusiasm never slacked.
Another of his early passions was the idea of a secessionist think-tank. He didn’t want to do it himself, having enough trouble figuring how to shape an SVR that wasn’t invaded by do-gooders and anarchists and the lot of ex-hippies in search of a cause, so he dumped it on me. I little fancied the idea, but he insisted I was the one for it, and in 2005 I gave in and created the Middlebury Institute “for the study of separation, secession, and self-determination,” a grand-sounding affair that was nothing more than a website run from my study but was, and remained, a beacon for those interested in examining the subject. Thanks in part to Thomas’s urging, I sponsored three national congresses of secessionist organization from around the country (at various times there were as many as 35 operating), gaining considerable media attention, and putting the movement on the map.
Then in 2011 Thomas read Morris Berman’s Why America Failed, animated by this vision: “The principal goal of North American civilization, and of its inhabitants, is and always has been an ever-expanding economy—affluence—and endless technological innovation—‘progress.’ A nation of hustlers, writes [Walter] McDougall, a people relentlessly on the make.” That was right down Thomas’s pike and he wrote a glowing review (as did I, of course) and began to mull over a manifesto that would, in effect, detail how America had profoundly failed as a nation of hustlers and how its present empire was beyond redemption.
That eventually became—after contributions from many people and a rewrite by me (it’s what I do)—the Montpelier Manifesto, issued at and endorsed by an Independence Convention at the Vermont State House earlier this year. Its introduction will give some idea of how it captured much of Thomas’s vision:
“We, citizens of this American land, haunted by the nihilism of separation, meaninglessness, and powerlessness, subsumed by political elites who use corporate, state, and military power to manipulate our lives, pawns of a global system of dominance and deceit in which transnational megacompanies and big government control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures, sustainability, and independence, and as victims of affluenza, technomania, cybermania, globalism, and imperialism, do issue and proclaim this Document of Grievances and Abuses.”
That was Thomas through and through, in his fullest Push mode. But the manifesto ends with a nod to the Pull factor:
“Let us therefore consider ways peaceably to withdraw from the American Empire by (1) regaining control of our lives from big government, big business, big cities, big schools, and big computer networks; (2) relearning how to take care of ourselves by decentralizing, downsizing, localizing, demilitarizing, simplifying, and humanizing our lives; and (3) providing democratic and human-scale self-government at those local and regional levels most likely to effect our safety and happiness.”
Thomas’s newest passion, and one that alas he did not live to see through, was a conference gathering as many small nations as possible to discuss their important status in the world as balances to the megastates and set up an on-going organization to keep up a steady criticism of those megastates and empires and to encourage small nations and small nations-to-be—like, for example, Vermont. He had formulated this passion while reading a book by the prince of Liechtenstein, Hans-Adam II, on the importance of the world’s smallest states, of which his was one of the smallest (and wealthiest), and so of course he wrote a review of the book (including a criticism of the prince’s favorable view of the American empire) and sent it off to the prince.
That began a several-week correspondence, and in the end the prince agreed to sponsor a small-nation conference exactly as Thomas had envisioned it. He passed the organizing job on to a scholar who runs the Liechtenstein Institute of Self-Determination in Princeton that he established a few years ago, and there was every reason to think that a conference might be held by the end of next year. Thomas and I talked about it on the phone several times, and he was sure that this would be the instrument finally to stick it to the American empire and gain worldwide backing for the secession movement here and elsewhere.
He won’t live to see it, but his colleagues in Vermont and I, with the help of the Liechtenstein institute and the prince, are determined to make it come off, in memory of Thomas, of course, but also because like most of what Thomas did in his life, it is a good and necessary, and ultimately important, cause.
We will miss him.
Kirkpatrick Sale is director of the Middlebury Institute and the author of a dozen books over fifty years, including most recently Emancipation Hell: The Tragedy Wrought by the Emancipation Proclamation 150 Years Ago (Amazon.com).