Yankee Doodle Dunce

On August 15, 2013 · 5 Comments

My recent long weekend at the in-laws provided plenty of downtime, which is a good thing, although I’m also one of those people who has to do something at all times. Luckily they always have a stack of magazines — remember those quaint periodic booklets printed on actual paper? — and I had plenty of time to leaf through them, including the July 2013 edition of Reader’s Digest. I don’t think I’ve ever actually owned a copy of Reader’s Digest although I can easily skim an entire year’s worth of copies in a day so I’ve probably seen every edition for more than a decade.

The July 2013 version included a feature labeled "What’s Your American IQ?" enticingly subtitled "Take our rollicking quiz to see if you’re a Yankee Doodle Dandy or a Yankee Doodle Dunce." Like a lot quizzes designed for exceptionally broad audiences, it reduced history to miniscule points of trivia, ephemera and the memorization of dates, and somehow equated that to intelligence (the historian inside of me cringed). I kept reminding myself that the article was intended to be lighthearted and it was appropriately included in a section called Fun. That right there should have given me enough notice to not take it too seriously, so I proceed with appropriately managed expectations.

Well, I made it to Question 3: "Which four states were sovereign countries before joining the United States?" Texas, Hawaii, California and Vermont.

Is it illogical for someone to argue with a fluff piece that’s neither designed nor intended to represent any serious degree of academic rigor or scholarship? Yes, yes it is. Is that going to stop me from arguing anyway? No, of course not. This is 12MC. No topic is too picayunish to escape scrutiny. I focused on the definition of "sovereign." It implied a system of independent governance with all of the trappings including a supreme command over a population and a territory, an ability to establish international relations, and to be viewed as sovereign by other sovereign nations.

I didn’t take issue with Texas and Hawaii so I dispensed with them quickly. Texas was the Republic of Texas from 1836 when it won its freedom from Mexico until 1846 when it joined the United States. Hawaii was the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1795 upon unification of several smaller chiefdoms until 1893 when the monarchy was overthrown. Absolutely, unquestionably, both of those states were once sovereign countries.

Things got more complicated with California and Vermont


California Republic
California Republic by Brian Wilkins, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There is no way that the so-called California Republic (or Bear Republic) should be defined as a sovereign nation. I’m feeling lazy so I’ll turn it over to Wikipedia for a moment:

[The California Republic]… refers to a period of revolt by American settlers in the Mexican territory of Alta California against Mexico. Revolt was initially proclaimed in Sonoma on June 14, 1846, before news of the outbreak of the Mexican–American War had reached the area. Although participants declared independence from Mexico, they failed to form a functional provisional government. Thus, the “republic” never exercised any real authority, and it was never recognized by any nation. In fact, most of Alta California knew nothing about it. The revolt lasted 26 days, at the end of which the U.S. Army arrived to occupy the area. Once the leaders of the revolt knew the United States was claiming the area, they disbanded their “republic” and supported the U.S. federal effort to annex Alta California

I think some of the confusion might have resulted from the state of California flag (photo above), a stylization of a period flag much more simplistically drawn. The current California flag clearly proclaims "California Republic." I fear that this specific notation may have misled generations of residents into thinking that a tiny, brief revolt equated to something much larger. California was not Texas.

The legacy of the Bear Republic lives on in many ways although my favorite is a brewery.

Case closed. California was not a sovereign country before it joined the United States. Let’s move on to the more complicated scenario.

Vermont Republic (New Connecticut)

Flag of Vermont Republic
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons released into the public domain

Vermont has a stronger claim to perhaps being a sovereign national although not without debate. Very simplistically, Vermont spawned from a colonial-era land dispute between New Hampshire and New York. Such disputes happened regularly between and amongst the English colonies of North America. The Crown did not always possess a complete understanding of topography in these still under-explored wilderness areas. Several royal charters overlapped with each other. New Hampshire granted land to settlers west of the Connecticut River (the New Hampshire Grants) in territory also claimed by New York. King George III sided with New York in 1764 and tensions simmered within the grant area for years thereafter.

New York eventually moved to terminate the validity of the former New Hampshire Grants. This enraged those affected, and led to the formation of the Green Mountain Boys militia under Ethan Allen to protect their interests. It also led somewhat later to the establishment of the Vermont Republic (sometimes called New Connecticut) in 1777. The Republic established a government and even issued coinage, while fighting on the side of the colonies pressing for independence. They appeared and behaved much like any of the other colonies during this unsettling period.

Thus the question of sovereignty applied to the period after the conclusion of U.S. war for independence in 1783. Vermont was left on the outside looking in while the "Thirteen Original Colonies" formed the United States. Bigger, more consequential issues had to be addressed by the new nation before New York’s objections to Vermont could be resolved. Once completed, Vermont finally gained admission to the Union in 1791 as the 14th state.

Vermont functioned independently during the period between 1783 and 1791 although it did not establish international relationships and it was not viewed as an equal member by the international community. Other powers assumed Vermont was a bridesmaid waiting to catch an American bouquet instead of a truly sovereign nation, and Vermont behaved as such. It filled an odd grey area, in a type of limbo stuck somewhere between national sovereignty and admission as a U.S. state.

It’s difficult for me to conclude that the Republic of Vermont ever met the full definition of a sovereign country. Maybe I should give Reader’s Digest a quarter-credit or half-credit for Vermont, instead.

The legacy of the Vermont Republic lives on in a separatist movement, the Second Vermont Republic which also appropriated the flag of the Green Mountain Boys (image above).

Just call me a Yankee Doodle Dunce.

On August 15, 2013 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Yankee Doodle Dunce”

  1. Steve says:

    Ethan Allen: From?


    I only note that because he is so associated with Vermont.

  2. Steve says:

    Also, what the heck, many people don’t know Benedict Arnold is a Connecticut native as well.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    And if we interpret the question as “which states were technically independent nations at some point of time and then joined the USA at some later point”, there’s also South Carolina to consider 🙂

  4. Fritz Keppler says:

    And Louisiana declared itself independent of the Union as a republic before it joined the Confederacy, too!

  5. Drake says:

    Vermont was sometimes called the Reluctant Republic, just thought that was kind of a neat name, if I recall correctly they also minted their own currency, the Coppers.

    There are lots of little pieces of states that were quasi-independent. In Michigan we had the Kingdom of Beaver Island, run by a crazy Mormon guy, there was also West Florida, and the other Mormon one out west I can’t think of the name of right now.

    This reminded me of one of my old favorite sites, I think it’s defunct now, but the page still opens:

    Forgotten nations, footnotes to history.

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