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Great thoughts: George Aiken on the ideal community

11/18/02 12:00AM By Frank Bryan
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(Host) Great thoughts and philosophies from Vermonters have shaped our state and sometimes influenced the nation. Commentator Frank Bryan explores George Aiken's concept of the ideal community.


(Bryan) Vermont is a place where visitors look around and say: "This is the way America was intended." Indeed. Historian, Bernard De Voto of Harvard once wrote, "There is no more Yankee than Polynesian in me, but when I go to Vermont I feel like I am traveling toward my own place."

At the root of this feeling is an idea. It's the idea that two seemingly conflicting concepts can and must co-exist. Those concepts are liberty and community, and they are so much a part of life in Vermont that we made them our state motto: freedom and unity. The idea is that community, rather than detracting from liberty, is essential to liberty's very existence. The idea is that the habit of tolerance on which liberty depends is best learned in small places. The idea is that humane public policy requires human scale society.

No other Vermonter is more responsible for this incandescent notion than former governor, George Aiken. In 1937 he wrote, "Day after day I have the occasion to thank God that I am governor of Vermont. Of all the governors of the United States, I think I have the best opportunity to observe the general good which may be effected by cooperation among groups."

Aiken grew up on a hill farm in a small town. He lead the agrarian progressive wing of the Vermont Republican party. He served two terms in the Legislature, became speaker of the House, lieutenant governor, governor, and United States senator for 34 years, until 1974. A renegade Republican in many ways who often endured the wrath of conservatives, he become one of the most effective senators in Washington. Every morning he had breakfast with the Democratic leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield of Montana.

Also in 1937, then-Governor Aiken wrote the book Speaking from Vermont, which both big government liberals and big business conservatives find troublesome. In it Aiken argued that it is the scale - the size of organization - that matters most. And he said that huge, depersonalized mega-institutions feeding off the absurdities of mass culture are anathema to democracy.

Today we are once again discovering that the politics of humanity and tolerance flow not from a powerful few at the center, but rather from the pasture springs in the high hills of home. They flow from the towns and villages that Aiken knew and loved.

Writer Jon Margolis echoed Aiken in 2001 when he wrote an article for U.S. News and World Report. He wrote that Vermont cherishes not only the idea of individual liberty, but a tradition of "restraint, civility, tolerance and compromise." Liberty and community. As George Aiken understood, you can't have one without the other.

This is Frank Bryan in Starksboro.

VPR's commentary series, "Great Thoughts of Vermont," examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts of Vermont commentary series.

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