Talkin' About a Revolution

Just thirty years ago, the Vineyard and neighboring islands voted to secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

No taxation without representation. Every person with even a rudimentary knowledge of America’s struggle for independence from Great Britain knows the slogan, although far fewer people know it is widely credited to one Jonathan Mayhew, born on Martha’s Vineyard.

So, how apt it was that more than two hundred years after Mayhew’s death that same rallying cry was recycled by the inheritors of the lands of Mayhew when they sought their own independence from their oppressors across the sea.

No, not the British oppressors. The American oppressors who, a mere thirty years ago, pushed the Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands to the brink of secession by denying them the political representation they had enjoyed for more than 250 years.

History is written by the victors, so you won’t find mention of the Islands’ declarations of independence in any textbooks. You will find no battleground memorials, for there were no battles. Nor any obelisks recording the names of the patriots. But the 1977 independence movement was real enough. A bill was introduced into the State House proposing secession from Massachusetts. Overwhelming majorities voted for secession at town meetings all across the Islands. A convocation of the All-Island Selectmen’s Association on Martha’s Vineyard voted to leave the state and (maybe) the nation.

Most people have forgotten about this other American revolution, but it lives on in the memories of the surviving revolutionaries. For a while, it was headline news across the nation; it is comprehensively documented in the files of the Vineyard Gazette and the morgues of other media. It is commemorated not on plaques but in memorabilia including flags, clothing, and bumper stickers. Its spirit is there every time an Islander colloquially refers to the act of taking a trip off-Island as “going to America.”

Sure, the revolution of ’77 was not a very big one, but it did have political consequences and it provides a fascinating insight into the very real historical and psychological separation between the denizens of these Islands and the rest of America. And it was also, as one of the ringleaders, John Alley of West Tisbury, proudly claims, a heck of a lot of fun and a textbook example of how to run a public relations campaign. Starting with nothing but a more or less affected sense of grievance in the depths of a bitter Vineyard winter, a ragtag army of Islanders seized the media agenda. “We rode the crest of the news story until darned near summer,” he chortles.

Every revolution takes time to heat up, and this one began simmering some ten years earlier, when Massachusetts state representative John Toomey of Cambridge filed a redistricting bill, which would have reduced the house from 240 to 180 members. The bill would have deprived Dukes County (including the Vineyard and Elizabeth Islands) and Nantucket County of separate representation in the State House. Toomey had a lot of support for it on the mainland, not least from The Boston Globe, which contended that the State House was “unconstitutional because it is grossly malapportioned and in flagrant violation of the ‘one man, one vote’ precept laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

And, you have to admit, they had a point. In those days, fewer than 4,000 voters in Dukes County and around 2,000 on Nantucket each elected a representative. The average district size for the state was more than 10,000. But there were historical complexities and precedents involved, which traced back over 300 years to the forebears of Jonathan Mayhew – which we’ll come back to later – and in 1968 the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the separate representation for the Islands.

The matter didn’t die there, though, and on January 7, 1977, the Legislative Committee on Redistricting held a surprise hearing on a plan to amalgamate Dukes and Nantucket counties with the outer Cape towns of Chatham, Eastham, Orleans, Truro, and Wellfleet, under one legislator. Some 12,000 Islanders would be lumped in with 24,000-odd residents of Cape Cod.

The committee chairman, George Keverian, was driving the issue hard and it quickly became clear the Islands could not count on support from Governor Michael Dukakis or on the intervention of the court. These were desperate times – just absorb the desperation in the plea from Chilmark selectman Lewis G. King when he addressed the redistricting committee at its February 12 hearing on the Vineyard:  “Our problem is our loneliness,” he plaintively pleaded. “We are given short shrift almost all the time. No matter how hard you try to understand, no matter how compassionate you are, you cannot understand how lonely we are.”

Everett Poole, another Chilmark selectman and a third-generation lobsterman (his great-grandfather was a whaler), was more assertive: “By the state constitution, the Islands have always been assured of representation in the General Court,” he said. “If they want to take that away from us, then the hell with them. We’ll set up another state.”

Just four days later, the All-Island Selectmen’s Association members voted to withdraw the Island from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and form the nation’s fifty-first state. They also voted to invite Nantucket to join.

Media reports at the time had it that the selectmen also agreed that if the formation of the new state should be blocked by Congress, they would declare independence from the United States of America. But when we spoke to some of the key players, all these years later, there was some disagreement about a formal threat to secede from the country. Everett Poole denies it.

“I moved that we secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But we never said we would secede from the U.S. at that meeting….I’ve got the paperwork and the correspondence stored somewhere,” he says. “But I don’t know where it is. It would take me another ten years to find it, and I’m seventy-six now!”

Whether it was specifically voted at that meeting or not, says John Alley, the threat of secession from the nation was certainly out there.

 “I went to the redistricting hearing held in the old Oak Bluffs School gym,” he recalls. “We decided after some discussion that one way we could show our displeasure was to threaten to secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United States of America – and then apply for foreign aid.”

But quitting the United States was really a side issue. The more serious issue was quitting the state.

As Island historian Ann Coleman Allen of West Tisbury recounts, relations between Massachusetts and the Islands had been fraught right from the beginning, when Thomas Mayhew (Jonathan’s great-great-grandfather) bought the Islands from two English “owners” in 1641. “One of my theories about why Mayhew bought the Islands is that it was to get out of the jurisdiction of the colony, the suffocating regime of the puritans in the Bay Colony,” she says. “They had very tight controls over everything and everybody, and Mayhew was quite a secular fellow. I think he bought Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands as a way out from under.”

Indeed, for fifty years after Mayhew’s purchase, the Vineyard was not part of Massachusetts at all. During that time the Massachusetts Bay legislature specifically decided not to include the Vineyard in its jurisdiction. For thirty years, Mayhew was effectively a law unto himself; then in 1671, it came under the jurisdiction of New York. “The Island really was the equivalent of its own colony,” says Ann. “It was not really in anybody’s jurisdiction. New York was very light in imposing its will. They made Mayhew governor for life. That gave the Vineyard kind of a sense of having been separated from the mainstream, right from the start.” When Massachusetts took control in 1691, she says, “there was huge resistance on the part of some of the leadership on the Island, because they had enjoyed such a benign, hands-off relationship with New York. Massachusetts was forever interfering in their business. Having someone from the outside telling them what to do didn’t sit well.”

And the mainlanders didn’t ever do much for them. They could not even defend them during the War of Independence. The Islands were declared effectively neutral, but that did not stop the British from raiding them. One right the Islands secured from Massachusetts, however, was the right to have their own representation in the General Court – in the case of Dukes County since 1692 and in the case of Nantucket County since 1696.

And now that was being taken away.

The redistricting bill, the Vineyard Gazette thundered on March 4, 1977, would be “in the clearest and simplest terms a denial of the basic principles of democracy….As geographic units, set aside long ago by glacier, ocean and other forces, the Islands are in no way comparable to the mainland districts and the distribution of their population. To amalgamate them with Cape Cod would be to hand them over to exploitation by antagonistic and predatory forces.”
The secessionist movement picked up steam. Vineyard Haven resident Barbara St. Pierre Hotchkiss wrote a Martha’s Vineyard “national anthem.” It was, one would have to say, a pretty ordinary effort. (Sample lyric: “Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine would leap with joy at our refrain. Will Chappy be happy as a territory, or want equal status in our victory? We love our land from shore to shore. Secession’s the answer. We could take no more.”)

Rather better was the new state flag, a striking design produced by Fran Forman, a member of the Cambridge chapter of the Martha’s Vineyard Support Committee. It featured a white seagull in upward flight, against a red-orange sun, all on a field of deep blue. On March 1 at a ceremony in the State House’s Hall of Flags, Vineyard Representative Terrence P. McCarthy (the man with the greatest direct stake in the redistricting, as he was to be left without a job) was presented with one.

One after another, the towns on the Vineyard, Nantucket, and Elizabeth Islands put the secession plan to meetings of the citizenry. The first vote on the Vineyard was taken in Chilmark on April 4. It was a night of stirring rhetoric and poetry: “Say it so loud it peels the gilt right off the State House dome,” Everett Poole urged. But Massachusetts loyalist Sheldon Dietz countered him in verse: “Massachusetts though they urge us to secede, I will remain true to you, Home of the Cod,” he recited.

The rebels were more persuasive, and by a four-to-one margin they voted to quit the state if they lost their representative. At later meetings, Nantucket voted for secession by a similar margin, as did the other Vineyard towns. The vote was reportedly “almost unanimous” on the Elizabeth Islands.

Secession needed to be approved by the state legislature and governor – and finally by the U.S. Congress. The cause seemed quixotic; nonetheless a secession bill was filed by Representative McCarthy, who went so far as to produce a document outlining how the new state might deal with finances, pensions, licensing of trades, and education. Governor Michael Dukakis said he would veto it even if it passed.

The Islanders were angry at their disenfranchisement, no doubt about it. But they also were having fun with it. John Alley, acting on no authority whatever (“I just took it”), named an interim Cabinet comprising various friends and fellow travelers. “Willis Gifford was named secretary of state,” he recalls, “whereupon the American Legion wrote him a letter saying if he did a foolish thing like that, they would kick him out of the legion.” (The West Tisbury resident, who has since died, was a World War I veteran.)

But the Islands were making some gains. Some serious people began backing them, even if not always entirely seriously. Senator Edward Kennedy, for example, put out a media statement in which he said he fully understood “the deep sense of frustration of Island residents as a result of the loss of their seat in the House of Representatives of the Great Court.”

Massachusetts started to offer little sweeteners, such as toll-free phone calls for Islanders wanting to contact their new off-Island representative. But the issue became increasingly complicated. Should the Vineyard become the fifty-first state, or simply transfer its allegiance to some state other than Massachusetts? Other states began wooing them.

The Governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso, extended a “warm Connecticut welcome” to the Islanders. From its beginning, she said, her state had been a refuge for disgruntled Massachusetts citizens. The state would be delighted to have them, she said, and promised them their own representatives in the State House. New Hampshire’s House of Representatives passed by an “overwhelming majority” a resolution inviting the Islands to join “this nation’s most democratic state.” Likewise, a resolution was introduced in Rhode Island’s Senate. An aide to the governor of Maine was quoted in the papers as saying that state had split in 1820 from Massachusetts out of “a feeling of remoteness” and pointedly noting Maine had one representative for every 2,000 people.

Vermont’s Governor Richard A. Snelling promised at least two seats for the Vineyard and one for Nantucket. But the resolution of the State House supporting the offer – although it passed unanimously – seemed a tad insincere. In part it read: “Whereas the revolting Islands have signified an interest in aligning with a state more considerate...” and resolved to “offer a refuge to the salty castoffs” and send emissaries to open talks. It looked forward, at its end, to those emissaries finding “no reason that the natives of the mountains, the land of milk, honey and syrup, cannot dwell happily forever with the tidal tribes and gatherers of cod.”

 Everett Poole recalls: “The governor of Vermont sent me a letter with half a gallon of maple syrup and said his state would love to have a sea coast. I sent him back four pints of quahaug chowder.”

John Alley also was courted by Governor Snelling. “He rang me, when I was running the general store one day. I just thought it was a crank call and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and I hung up. And the guy rang back and said, ‘No, I really am the governor of Vermont.’ Later he came in the store two or three times. I got
letters from him saying he would be glad to have Vermont annex Martha’s Vineyard.

“There was a cartoon in [a] daily paper in Vermont – I can’t remember the name of it – which showed the state of Vermont and the Island with a bridge built between the two. There was even a letter from the state of Hawaii, offering to connect with us. I know Vermont’s reason, because the governor told me: It was a slow skiing season up there, and they needed some publicity,” John says. “I guess they all did it for reasons of personal or state publicity.”
And what about the Islanders? Were they never serious either?

“Some were,” says John. But most weren’t.

“We knew that we never could stop the redistricting of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The question was what we could get from it.” It was
really about getting noticed, he says. It was about using every inventive means possible to draw attention to the issue. Everything from bumper stickers to suggesting the Islands could become a haven for offshore banking.

“We went more than just the usual couple of steps,” he says. “The story dragged on for, I don’t know, eight or nine months. I was actually on NBC Evening News. They did a couple of minutes’ story.”

And what did it all achieve? The Islands did not get their representatives back. But they did win some acknowledgment of their unique circumstances as well as one aide each assigned to the representative charged with communicating their special needs.

But more than that, they got scads of publicity, which is what a resort community needs. Says John Alley: “The place became far more popular than it already was. In retrospect, if we had another opportunity, I think we’d all do it again.”

Indeed. The slogan might have been “no taxation without representation,” but the subtextual message that went out across the country, indeed around the world, was more like “beautiful place, interesting people.”

Martha’s Vineyard: It’s like America, but not too much.