Why you should care
East Coast or West, there’s a chance someone in your state wants out of the union.
One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. For those of you who didn’t recite this every day from grades 1 through 12, that’s a snippet of the Pledge of Allegiance. And we’re guessing plenty of readers in America, a nation of debaters and free thinkers, take issue with some of those phrases. But the trickiest bit in there might be the most innocuous: one nation.
Every state in the union has or has had at least one secession movement.
After the 2012 election, 69 separate petitions with more than 675,000 names were submitted to the White House “We The People” petition site. (We know so because we painstakingly counted.) Naturally, you might hear that and think, Wow, 675,000 nutjobs! That’s a lot of nutjobs. But as we were digging, we discovered some credible people in this scene, from Ivy League professors to presidential candidates like Ron Paul. Some of these groups have intricate, almost corporate structures that convey a level of seriousness far beyond the knee-jerk of “I hate the new president — time to move to Canada.” And they’re persistent. Groups in Texas have been utterly unrelenting in their drive to secede; a host of proposed states and even micronations want to form within the borders, some of which go back almost a century. The South may have given up, but Texas didn’t.
Then there’s Vermont. The land of all things maple, it’s also the only state to successfully secede from New York, and the state has its own secession movement in the Second Vermont Republic, a nod to the short-lived attempt between 1771–1791. Plus, you’ve got Killington, Vermont, displaying New Hampshire’s flag in its town office to complicate things. Yes, a town in Vermont wants not only to secede, but also to join New Hampshire.
Secession is far from all-American. Scotland made international headlines last year when it tried to break from the U.K., and while the measure didn’t pass, nearly 45 percent of the population voted for it. Quebec has been shooting for sovereignty since the 1960s via a number of political groups, some fringe and violent, but the primary sovereignty group is part of mainstream government. Venice and Catalonia have also sought to secede. Algeria actually broke ties with France in 1962 after a full-scale war. Then there’s a tea party in 1773 … and a crew of rebel colonists who didn’t want their children to grow up with English accents.
But could secession ever happen in modern America? Jason Sorens thinks so. A lecturer in the government department at Dartmouth, Sorens is also founder of New Hampshire’s Free State Project. According to Sorens, our current government is “too big and too distant” for everyday people to influence it, and seceding could restore a balance of power.
But if a state is looking to separate, it’s got to do more than, say, boost its Facebook following. Article 4, Section 3 of the Constitution makes it tough for the aspiring secessionist. Cindy Ellsmore of Keep It California, a group that opposes one secession project that would blend rural Northern California and Southern Oregon into the state of Jefferson, lays it out: Potential Jeffersonians would need to woo three Board of Supervisor members from all counties in the affected area, she says, before taking it to the California legislature, and then to Congress.
Nor would the state be viable, according to Ellsmore. Breaking off with no credit, a portion of their parent’s state’s debt, and a lack of support networks? Not a good idea, but it hasn’t stopped Jefferson from trying since 1941.
Plenty of others remain undeterred. Rob Williams, co-founder of the Second Vermont Republic, cites George W. Bush’s “election thefts,” and what he calls “the collapse of the U.S. Republic following 9/11” as “the last straw.” He sees Article 4, Section 3 not as a deterrent but rather as validation. “Secession is constitutional, legal and part of the U.S. political fabric,” he says.
Perhaps someday you’ll need a passport to stock up on maple candy.