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For this New Hampshire family, ‘Live Free or Die’ is more than a motto

New Hampshire's motto has taken on a different connotation with the Free State movement.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Tyler and Sara Brown are proud members of the Free State movement, transplants from New York’s Hudson Valley who moved here with three young children, joining thousands of other people from around the country who want to create a libertarian utopia in the Granite State.

The Browns, who relocated in November, are part of the most recent influx of Free Staters to arrive in New Hampshire, and their embrace of the movement offers a glimpse into its appeal for people who believe that liberty and modern government are incompatible.

But where Free Staters see a paradise, many critics see a mish-mash of preposterous ideas. Tyler Brown, for example, thinks secession could be a good idea. “What does New Hampshire have in common with Alabama?” he said.

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The couple are not worried about who would repair the roads if government disappeared. They oppose restrictions on firearms. And their children attend a home-schooling cooperative because the Browns believe public education is dysfunctional and dangerous.

To many critics, however, Free Staters are an existential threat to democracy itself.

Once considered a fringe movement in New Hampshire, the Free State philosophy has moved far past theory. Free State leaders estimate that more than 6,000 people have moved to New Hampshire as part of the movement, and say that nearly 20,000 have signed a pledge to do so.

Those figures have been disputed by critics, but Free Staters in New Hampshire are running for office from select boards to the State House, including contests in Tuesday’s primary election. Already, there are 25 known and likely members in the state House of Representatives, according to progressive tracking groups, and a number of other representatives are suspected of sympathizing with the movement.

They constitute a formidable bloc that some mainstream Republicans contend has hijacked their party in pursuit of an extreme conservative agenda.

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Free Staters helped win approval for an expansive school-choice program, now in its second year, that gives families an average of nearly $5,000 per pupil to spend as they see fit, including home school and online learning.

They have pushed for fewer firearms restrictions in New Hampshire, including a 2017 measure that now allows hidden, loaded firearms to be carried in public without a license. They also have endorsed gay marriage, which has been legal in New Hampshire since 2010.

“Intellectually, I would agree with most of the radical components of the Free State movement,” Tyler Brown said, sitting under a tree in the side yard of his modest, two-family home near the Merrimack River.

“Live free or die,” he added in a nod to the state motto. “Make this the haven for libertarian-leaning people.”

A chat outdoors with the Browns and their three children, who are 2, 5, and 8, resembles a typical scene in family yards across New Hampshire. A chain-link fence borders the property, and a small blue playhouse sits off to the side.

The children are scampering about, their parents are relaxed and smiling, picking occasionally from a table set with small bowls of cucumbers, carrots, nuts, and salsa.

“I’m a functioning member of society,” said Tyler Brown, who works in a warehouse and plays in a hockey league. “We don’t sit around talking politics every day.”

The welcome they’ve received from Free Staters is reinforcing their decision to move to New Hampshire, the Browns said. Tyler Brown made an exploratory visit to the state in January 2021, went to a Free State meet-up at a pub, and soon was sold.

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“Within 20 minutes, people were giving me their phone numbers. I was ready to move then and there,” he said of his fellow “porcupines,” the nickname Free Staters give themselves. Like the animal, the Free State “porcupines” say, they are harmless unless provoked.

The Browns also share the group’s disdain for mandates. Both Tyler, 39, and Sara, 38, who worked 13 years as a maternity nurse, lost jobs in New York state because they would not get vaccinated for COVID-19. So here they are in Manchester, carving out a new life and buoyed by libertarian camaraderie.

The Free State strategy is simple and incremental: Attract more members to this small state, acquire and concentrate political power, and then disassemble government from the inside out.

When Jason Sorens, then a Yale graduate student, launched the movement with an essay in 2001, he envisioned 20,000 people moving to a yet-to-be-determined state. New Hampshire, which has a 400-member House, was chosen two years later.

Free Staters often run for office as Republicans, and many have been accused of using the party to gain credibility and disguising their goals while campaigning. But more and more Free Staters are gaining confidence to advocate publicly for a radical end-game.

Jeremy Kauffman, a Free State Project board member, is hopeful the group can achieve its goals within 10 years. For now, there are frequent get-togethers, knitting circles that Tyler Brown jokingly calls “stitch and bitch” sessions, and an annual weeklong festival called PorcFest.

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“I love freedom, I love friends, and I love fun,” Sara Brown said. “A lot of people think we’re homogenized, but we’re not,” her husband added.

Brown said that he and his wife, who once made their home in a shack on the Appalachian Trail, came to the Free State philosophy from the left. Dissatisfaction with New York public schools brought them to New Hampshire.

Tyler Brown said they had listened to podcasts by the “School Sucks Project,” which describes itself as an “on-line community dedicated to promoting real education and deconstructing state indoctrination.” The podcast piqued their interest, one thing led to another, and they eventually discovered the Free State movement.

“We felt they taught to the lowest denominator,” Tyler Brown said of New York public schools. “On the whole, I think it’s a giant baby sitter.”

The couple are sending their children to a nonprofit home-schooling cooperative, Latitude Learning, where education is tailored to individual students, and parents help create programming, according to its website.

“Our daily schedule is designed so that kids can take one class or a day’s worth,” the website adds.

It’s rules-averse and unconventional, a philosophy that finds echoes in Brown’s thinking about firearms, which he said should not be restricted in any way.

“Tanks? Bring it on,” he said with a smile.

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Restrictions on weapons have not been effective, he said, although neighboring Massachusetts, with some of the strictest gun regulations in the nation, had fewer than half the number of firearms deaths in 2020 per 100,000 people than New Hampshire did, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tyler Brown also described the storming of the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as a false-flag event.

“People have made that out to be something it wasn’t. I think it was a media stunt perpetrated by both the Democrats and Republicans to keep Trump out of office for some reason,” he said.

In any event, he added, “don’t the people own their own property?”

Brown quickly added that he is not a Donald Trump supporter, although he initially thought the former president was “interesting.” He does not back President Biden, either.

“I think they’re both idiots. I think they’re both beholden” to outside interests, he said. “The idea that we’re given a choice is insane.”

The Browns stressed that they endorse a live-and-let-live philosophy — “Leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone,” Sara Brown said — but Free State opponents have said the movement is exclusionary at heart.

Kauffman, the board member, has called democracy a “soft form of communism,” and said that Free Staters should make New Hampshire a place that critics would leave or shun.

In the end, Tyler Brown said, people who rail against the movement as an existential threat to democracy should put up or shut up.

“Why not show up and do what we do? Make society what they want it to be,” he said. “People fear what they don’t understand.”



Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.