Vermont ranks highly in “social capital,” ability of people to work together to solve problems.
Touring Vermont in the wake of the devastating flood of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge gave a speech expressing his love for his home state, “because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people.”
“If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish,” Coolidge said, “it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
The 30th president’s stirring words – carved in marble in the statehouse – are often cited, most recently by two Vermont governors in an unusual joint statement in the wake of last November’s election. “At this time of national discord,” the outgoing Democrat and incoming Republican said, “Vermont can present a united voice urging compassion, commitment to community, and fierce dedication to equal rights and justice… Vermonters know how to weather the storms. When times are toughest, we always come together to focus on what’s important – each other.”
Vermonters’ history of coming together, in times of trouble or not, is rooted in a colonial New England practice – Henry David Thoreau called it “the true American congress” – of town meetings. On the first Tuesday of every March, residents of most of Vermont’s 237 towns have the opportunity to gather as citizen legislators. They approve town budgets, decide on local tax rates and make the decisions that affect their lives.
“There is strong evidence that the way we govern ourselves makes a difference,” says Susan Clark, an author and moderator of the town meeting in Middlesex, in central Vermont. “You know that if there’s something that is really important to you, you can go and have your say,” she says. The result is that “sense of the commons, this web of connective-ness that makes us feel responsible for one another. . . If we see someone at the side of the road, we stop, even if we don’t know them, because it’s what we do.”
It’s what Frank Bryan, a retired University of Vermont professor, calls “human-scale democracy,” a way of governing written into the state’s genetic code from the time it was an independent republic (1777 to 1791), with a constitution outlawing slavery and allowing people (men, that is) without property to vote. It’s what British general John Burgoyne complained about in his diary, as he sailed down Lake Champlain toward defeat in Saratoga in the American Revolution: “Vermont abounds with the most rebellious race on the continent and hangs like a gathering storm on my left.”
It forms the basis of the state’s reputation for economic conservatism, social liberalism and political tolerance, which in turn have produced some high marks in health care and education, low rates of poverty, unemployment and crime. And these successes are borne out in the Best States rankings which place Vermont as the No. 10 state overall.
Only 80 miles across and 160 miles long, fifth from last in area, the state’s population of 626,000 is less than half that of the city of San Diego. Only Wyoming has fewer people. It is the country’s second most rural state – edged out by Maine only in the last census – with the large majority (60.1 per cent) of its population still living in towns of 2,500 or less. It is also among the most racially homogeneous.
The state ranks No. 1 for its crime rate – lowest in the nation. It ranks No. 6 in health care – with among the lowest infant mortality and adult obesity rates in the nation (No. 8 in both cases.) And its public schools, pre-K through 12th grade, rank fifth in the nation in the Best States analysis. The state also ranks No. 8 in alternative energy consumption.
There is a correlation, Clark says, between the data and what is known as “social capital,” a measure of a society’s ability to work together to solve its problems. Vermont is “consistently in the top” of states with high social capital. “It’s often assumed that because you have a good strong economy then everyone gets along,” she says, but “the reverse is true. Social capital makes people healthier, wealthier and wiser.”
Vermont’s isolation, climate (the 7th coldest state), rugged topography and relative inaccessibility – with more than half the roads unpaved – saved it from the ravages of “progress” that came with the urban industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, Bryan says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state ranks relatively low in road quality – though No. 17 in bridge quality nationally, in a state famous for its picturesque covered wooden bridges.
In a book of Vermont humor, entitled “The Vermont Owner’s Manual,” Bryan and co-author Bill Mares put it this way: “When you (citizens) own Vermont, you own something very special. Sometimes Vermonters lose sight of this. That’s easy to understand. Mass American urban culture has bombarded us with big and fast and rich for so long that it is easy to believe we have fallen so far behind we’ll never catch up.”
“Guess what? We did. We won’t. And who cares?”
It may be hard to believe, but the state that brought us the Brooklyn-born U.S. senator and erstwhile presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was for much of its history one of the most reliably Republican in the union, favoring the GOP candidate in every presidential election until 1960, electing only Republican governors until 1963.
The 1960s and 1970s changed all that, as educated urban professionals migrated from the cities of the east coast, mostly Massachusetts and New York, looking for the good life in the Green Mountains. Vermont’s human population passed the number of cows in 1963 – the same year Vermont finally elected its first Democrat as governor, and it was then that Vermont started taking steps to preserve perhaps its most important asset, its natural beauty, banning billboards from its highways in 1968 (the ban remains today), and in 1970 passing Act 250, a landmark environmental law that remains in place, keeping development under control.
More recent measures to support the state’s dairy industry and others who work the land recognize that Vermont is a working landscape. Its iconic farms, its fields and rolling pastures, its forested hills and valleys, will last only as long as there are people to work them, and laws to protect them.
The Green Mountain State is green in more than its landscape. Green industries are credited for contributing increasingly to the state’s economy. Vermont is in the forefront of the drive to develop renewable resources for power generation. The health of its high-tech sector is reflected in the curious statistic that Vermont ranks fourth in the nation for the number of patents granted per million population. Greater Burlington, home of the University of Vermont, routinely ranks among the most innovative tech hubs in the U.S., with everything from scrappy internet startups to established biotechnology companies with global reach.
And yet Vermont is still a state divided. There’s the new Vermont, politically progressive, the Vermont of craft beers and ciders and artisan cheeses, the state that is its own brand. It’s such a valuable brand, in fact, that a marketing specialist, quoted recently in the local news website VT Digger, suggested merely affixing the label “Made in Vermont” to certain food products, could mean a markup of anywhere from 10 to 40 percent in the price.
And there is old Vermont, conservative, rural, economically struggling, especially in the three counties known as the Northeast Kingdom, a grand name for an “obstinate paradise,” this “hardscrabble, begrudging Eden”–in the words of the photographer Richard Brown who has made a living documenting the region.
Vermont wouldn’t be Vermont without the sort of Vermonters travel writer Jan Morris once described as charmless of manner and utterly without pretense. “Vermonters,” she wrote, “give the salutary impression that they don’t care ten cents whether you are amused, affronted, intrigued or bored stiff by them. Hardly anyone asked me how I liked Vermont. Not a soul said, ‘Have a nice day!'”
Ellen Bartlett is a writer living in Peacham, Vermont.