by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 18, 2006
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In 1794, a dispute broke out in the Rutland, Vt., area. Some people wanted to build a dam on a particular river and run more mills. Property owners protested that their lands would be flooded and turn into swampy health hazards during the summer.
Today we talk about the conflict between economic development and environmental protection as if we've discovered something new and threatening. Windmills on ridge lines. Big box stores and run-off. Gas stations built below the 100-year flood line. ATVs destroying the pristine silence of our forests. But the record shows that there has always been a tension between the two forces.
Or, how about using the property tax to pay for educating our children? Today we have "receiving towns" and "sending towns," and wealthier towns resent being forced by law to pay for educating the children of the poorer ones. But did you know that from the 1890s until 1931, Vermont had a statewide property tax for the equalization of educational spending? Or that mountain towns, during the 19th Century heyday of Vermont's agricultural economy, were receiving towns because farming was hard in mountainous terrain?
Then the mountain towns discovered tourists and skiing, and their fortunes changed. Suddenly they became "sending" towns. Their reaction? At least two have petitioned to secede from the state of Vermont, and New Hampshire has already welcomed Killington if it can manage to separate itself.
D. Gregory Sanford, the archivist of the State of Vermont, takes a wry view of the issue. "I've looked at the records, and I haven't seen [even] one effort to secede on the part of Killington when they were a receiving town," he said.
How about Vermont seceding from the United States? About 8 percent of Vermonters today think it's a good idea. That must be new, right?
Actually, secession has a long history in Vermont. The archives contain a letter from George Washington explaining why he doesn't think it is a good idea for Congress to direct him to invade Vermont, which was, at the time, threatening to break away from New York and New Hampshire. It might set a dangerous precedent, Washington suggested, for the other, original, wavering 13 colonies.
In the run-up to the Civil War, Vermont again struggled with succession. This time it did not want to be attached to a country that upheld slavery. "But within four years we beggar ourselves of our youth and our treasure keeping the south from seceding," Sanford said.
How about the right to an abortion? Or the argument that the death penalty is not fairly applied? Aren't these contemporary issues?
Not even close. In 1830, Dr. Norman Cleveland of Irasburg was tried and convicted of first-degree murder for a botched abortion. Abortion was legal then, but murder, of course, was not. Cleveland was sentenced to hang. But he was a wealthy man with high connections, and after a lot of drama he managed to persuade the Legislature to commute his sentence. Vermonters decided that the death penalty was not being applied fairly. "So Vermont comes within three votes of being the first state to abolish capital punishment," Sanford said.
Did you think a national health care system is a new and radical idea? Forget it. In 1931, Vermont was the site of a national study on the subject.
"Health care resources were being consumed by a small population," Sanford said. "There wasn't equal access. It depended on one's economic situation. What fascinated the group that did the study was an emerging health care system in Saskatchewan, in Canada, to help provide public health for tuberculosis. That system evolved into Canada's national system."
Sadly, that evolution didn't happen here. But even in 1931, some Americans recognized that there was just something wrong with a just-for-profit health care system.
If, about now, you're thinking that there's nothing new under the sun, you're probably right. According to Sanford, these are all "continuing issues."
From the beginning, the radical idea at the center of the United States has been self-government. No kings, no popes, no oligarchy, no dictators, no father figures, no deluded "God wants me to be president" rulers, no New World Order. We are Americans. We think for ourselves. We govern ourselves. We elect representatives to make our laws. We police and protect ourselves.
But embedded in the idea of self-governance is a continuing tension. Without some kind of dictator, some kind of fiat, how do we balance our rights with our neighbors rights? Do we build the dam or keep the land pristine, and how do we decide?
As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." So we still see people squawking about Act 250, which tries to find a balance between environmental protection and development, and we fight about how we fund our schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court muddied the waters when it decreed that corporations had the same rights as citizens. They don't, and they shouldn't, and by having them they've made a mess of our democracy. Instead of knowledge being power, or good citizenship being power, power now goes strictly to the money.
That's why Gov. James Douglas was wrong to veto the genetically modified seed liability bill recently. Instead of protecting organic farming, the most promising industry in the state, he sided with the biotech industry.
But Douglas is a conventional man and a conventional thinker, and he finds many ideas, like a unified health system, too new and radical for his taste.
We can't blame only Douglas. There are too many people like him at all the levels of government. Today we need leaders bold enough to see future possibilities and wise enough to learn from the lessons of the past.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. A collection of her reader's favorite columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com, and you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.