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Sunday, April 1, 1990

A Reviewers Notebook: The Vermont Papers

Frank Bryan and John McClaughry, two resident Vermonters, call their book The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Chelsea, Vermont 05038, 308 pages, $18.95). It is a many-faceted book that will repay several readings. The best of it is its Vermont history, which goes deeply into Vermont’s Dark Age when demographic tides were depopulating the American Northeast by spreading emigrants over the Middle and Far West. The Mormon Church had its Vermont origins. Philosopher John Dewey was a Vermonter before he went to Chicago and New York. He gave us pragmatism, which explains much in the American character.

The Vermont Dark Ages came to an end around 1950. It was roughly at the mid-century that the big return to Vermont began. Homecoming Vermonters began picking up farms in the hill country, carrying new businesses northward with them. There was a whole cluster of entertainment industries connected with the ski business and summer tourism.

Bryan and McClaughry want to see Vermont made over into a federation of small to medium size geographical units practicing town-meeting or representative town-meeting democracy. What to call the federation? McClaughry in particular is enamoured of the word “shires.” It comes out of English history (Devonshire, Nottinghamshire, etc.). McClaughry is very much the Anglophile, but in an entirely inoffensive way.

The theft of the word “shire” from English history to help create new American history is hardly a sin. But, since we don’t have a federation of shires in Vermont just yet, Bryan and McClaughry are reduced to some confusing back-and-forth writing. You don’t know for certain whether the authors are talking about the present, the past, or the future at any given moment. All you can be certain of is that the authors will use a coming “shire” independence to create units that will make their own fish and wildlife decisions, run their own schools, or let education go to private academies. The authors can’t tell you about transitions, but the authority of big state government is going to be pushed back, presumably after a constitutional convention.

What would a shire look like in the proposed new Vermont federation? The authors pick four units, beginning with “Lincolnshire,” a westward-sloping “shire” that begins at the top of the Green Mountains and runs down to the shores of Lake champlain. With its nine towns and one small city government (Vergennes), the Lincolnshire area town governments already use the town meeting as their legislature. There can be “walking distance” democracy in a shire whose largest town is Bristol (population 3,993) and whose smallest is Weybridge (population 667).

“Kingdomshire,” in the rugged and fabled Northeast Kingdom on the border of Canada to the north and New Hampshire on the east, is a problem. The shire could have direct democracy, but “walking around” in it can mean walking past black bears in places unmarked by camp sites or trail markers.

“Burlingshire,” in the west along Lake Champlain, contains the big city of Burlington, which poses the need for decentralized government. “Brattleshire,” on the Connecticut River, impresses one as “typically Vermont in its topography,” with the western part of the town of Brattleboro “dotted with hills; over ten of them above 1,500 feet, while the downtown on the Connecticut River is about 300 feet above sea level.” Brattleboro has representative town meetings and an administrative town manager.

These are some of the shires that must be federated to satisfy Bryan and McClaughry. As a partisan of tradition myself I would be happy to see Bryan and McClaughry get some organizing disciples. But who is really calling for a federation?

Let me get personal. I have a daughter and son-in-law and two granddaughters who have lived in Vermont a long time, and they had to wait for me to acquaint them with the idea of the shires, or even the very word. They are busy people. My daughter does remedial work with disadvantaged students, my son-in-law teaches computer science in a Burlington college, one of my granddaughters is a first-rate ski instructor at Mad River Glen, and the other granddaughter has been a policewoman. They just aren’t going to take the time to do organizing for Bryan and McClaughry. And they couldn’t care less for the proposal to do away with the State Senate and create a “unicam” government of 200 members. “Unicam” government does not provide a possibly necessary braking system. As Isabel Paterson has put it, “a mechanism without a brake, a motor without a cut-off, is built for self-destruction.” Both James Madison and John Calhoun have said as much. It could be a long time before Bryan and McClaughry get their federation of shires.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.