The Vermont Papers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Frank Bryan’s and John McClaughry’s recipe for rejuvenating democracy is of, by, and for Vermont. The authors are a University of Vermont political science professor and a state senator from Kirby, respectively. The book was designed in Montpelier, typeset in Barre, and printed in Brattleboro. Furthermore, it is dedicated to that quintessential Vermont renegade, Ethan Allen The authors propose a reorganization of Vermont polity by which many of the functions of state government would devolve upon smaller units to be called “shires,” a term symbolizing for Bryan and McClaughry the feisty independence of Saxon England and governmental structure grounded upon freehold property and communal responsibility. To counter the relentless modern centralization of political power, with its burgeoning bureaucracy, impersonality, remoteness from the citizens it is supposed to serve, and allegiance to the “systems axiom,” they offer a plan and even a timetable by which Vermont could be transformed into a federation of shires perhaps three times as numerous as Vermont’s present fourteen counties but also more homogeneous and as nearly autonomous as possible.

Although this book is addressed primarily to the student of political reform and to the Vermonter who, feeling increasingly dominated by Montpelier, yearns to march to a different, more local, drummer, the authors are also counting on Americans in general to peep over the Vermonter’s shoulder. They consider Vermont the most democratic of states, but one nevertheless imperiled by creeping gigantism—in other words, the state most eligible to accept radical political change designed to restore a “human scale” to government. “Vermont is not burdened,” they point out,with the baggage of an older period—massive urban- industrial sectors with their calcified institutions, attitudes, and vested interests. As a result Vermonters are magnificently situated to participate in a seething movement of subnational networks which can transform relationships between peoples everywhere.

In the century ahead, they argue, those states already so “burdened” must nevertheless follow Vermont’s lead and decentralize all governmental functions except those that cannot be performed locally, a procedure they would also be happy to see duplicated in Washington. One of the striking things about these writers is their propensity for taking the word “state” in its traditional sense of “nation.” They quote writer Vrest Orton stating that between 1777 and 1791, when Vermont was admitted to the Union, it styled itself an “independent, sovereign Republic or Commonwealth,” and they add that periodically over the subsequent two centuries it has manifested unorthodox streaks of sovereignty—for example, appropriating $1 million for the World War I effort before the United States had declared war.

To Bryan and McClaughry, ’systems axiom” (by which one official or standard way of doing something is imposed upon all) is the most horrid of all dirty expressions. Convinced that big is bad in government and governmental functions, they review the literature of optimal-size analysis and arrive at an average shire population of ten thousand, although their model shires would range from fifty thousand in “Burlingshire,” centering on the state’s largest city, to the fewer than two thousand citizens of “Kingdomshire” in the state’s extreme northeastern corner. Once established, the shires would be free to decide the fate of the towns and villages composing them. Town governments could be left intact, combined, phased out, or even invested with greater power, as the shire citizens decide. The legislative body, the shiremoot, would resemble a representative town meeting whose members, called reeves, would receive a perdiem salary equal to the average income of the shire’s citizens. Each town would be represented by at least one reeve; beyond that, there would be one reeve for each two hundred citizens. The moot would elect a council of three to fifteen members, depending on the size of the shire, that would conduct business between the quarterly meetings of the moot. Meetings of both moot and council would rotate around the shire. Thus, in many respects, the shire would operate as the New England town, with its town meetings and its selectmen, does today, but the shires, about one-sixth as numerous as Vermont’s present towns, would have vastly more to say about their own destiny.

Shire courts would replace the patchwork of superior and district courts, though joint shire courts could be established by intershire agreement. Citizens of a shire would elect their own judge. A magistrate’s court and a family court would supplement each shire court. At the state level, the supreme court would provide general guidance and convene ad hoc superior courts for cases too important or complex to be tried at the shire level. The authors see far less reason for fearing the “tyrannical majority” than did the Founding Fathers and therefore renounce the elaborate system of checks and balances that they established.

Obviously the shires would not operate uniformly; the authors, in fact, enthusiastically anticipate variety and experimentation. The shires could dare to be different without incurring the displeasure of a powerful state officialdom. Even in Vermont today, the authors concede, local authorities find themselves bludgeoned or bribed by the systems mentality into a foolish consistency. The shire must be free to manage its business its own way. Since the shires would be fashioned as geopolitical units, one question arises immediately: How can a shire with a very limited economic base afford to provide its citizens with necessary services? If the state is to adjust and redistribute public monies, the specter of state control again looms. The authors propose a system...

(The entire section is 2397 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, August, 1989, p. 1928.

Bookwatch. X, August, 1989, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times. September 27, 1989, V, p. 4.

National Review. XLI, September 15, 1989, p. 47.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXV, May 19, 1989, p. 73.

Reason. XXI, November, 1989, p. 53.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, June 18, 1989, p. 13.

Yankee. LIII, October, 1989, p. 124.