As published in The American Conservative November 3, 2008
If at first you don’t secede…
By John Schwenkler
WHOEVER WINS ON NOV. 4, few Americans will harbor any illusions about their national unity. No matter which pairing one chooses—red and blue, Right and Left, coastal elites and flyover salt-of-the-earthers—there is no getting around our status as a country divided, a people set apart from one another as
much by regional culture as by religion or political ideology.
A perfect time, in other words, to talk about secession—which is what will happen when the Middlebury Institute’s Third North American Secessionist Conference convenes in Manchester, New Hampshire a week and a half after the election. Thomas Naylor, whose Second Vermont Republic is one of the country’s most active secessionist organizations, is candid about the motive for the scheduling: “The date was set,” he tells me, “on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be elected—and of course that’s not going to happen.” Nevertheless, the post-election timeframe is “looking more and more important every day” as popular outrage against the Wall Street bailout and anxiety over impending recession continue to build.
The Manchester conference brings together secessionists of all types. Writing in Orion, Bill Kauffman described the crowd from 2006 as “ponytails and suits, turtlenecks and sneakers, an Alaskan gold miner and one delegate from the neo-Confederate League of the South who wore a grey greatcoat, as if sitting for a daguerreotype just before the battle.” Despite—or perhaps because of—their ideological differences, they all share a common cause: to regionalize, to decentralize, to debunk the myth of a nation indivisible and replace it with a story that gives difference its due. That story is by no means a new one. The idea of political separatism is, as Middlebury Institute founder Kirkpatrick Sale puts it, “as American as America.” From the 13 colonies declaring their independence from the British Crown in 1776, to the rash of state-splittings that took place during the early years of the Republic, to Norman Mailer’s secessionist 1969 campaign for mayor of New York City, the aura of divisibility has long been a part of the American tradition.
Throughout the years, the causes of such division have been as varied as the makeup of the American tapestry itself. Consider the movement that sprang up on the border of California and Oregon in 1941, when a group of disgruntled miners and loggers stormed the courthouse in Curry County, Oregon, brought several counties from Northern California on board to form a provisional government, and established the mining town of Yreka—pronounced “why-REE-kuh”—as the unlikely capital of the even more unlikely State of Jefferson. (The state’s name, which recalled the independent streak of the most rebellious of the American founders, was settled on only after such proposals as “Orofino” and “Mittelwestcoastia” were mercifully rejected.) The rebel flag bore a pair of X’s to indicate that the region had been doublecrossed by the governments in Sacramento and Eugene, and storekeepers put out change buckets for shoppers who wanted to redirect their sales-tax pennies from the state treasuries. Local men armed with hunting rifles set up roadblocks along the Klamath River Highway, distributing copies of a Proclamation of Independence that explained that they were in “patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon” and planned to “secede each Thursday until further notice.”
The State of Jefferson turned out to be short-lived—the sudden death of its first governor was followed quickly by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which sent the country into a fit of patriotic fervor that left little room for rebellion. But the spirit of ’41 lives on in men like Leo Bergeron, a 70-year-old former rancher and 17-year resident of California’s Siskiyou County. He wears a loosely-hung bolo tie with his golf shirt and shows no signs of losing the energy that once made him president of the state Grange and led him to run for county supervisor earlier this year. He’s working to revive the State of Jefferson. “There’s becoming a state, becoming a territory, and becoming our own country,” he tells me. “The first two are the hardest because you need all sorts of approval from the legislators, but with the third option you can just tell ’em all to go to hell. It’s really all about independence—we know this place, and we know how to govern ourselves. We don’t need some a–holes from Washington or Sacramento telling us what to do.”
A dreamer? Sure, but no doubt they said that about the original Jefferson, too. And it’s not as if Bergeron and his crew don’t have their own King George in the form of the state and national administrations. Back in 1941, the uprising was the product of poor road conditions and a distant government that seemed more intent on exploiting the area’s resources than attending to its residents and their livelihoods. Today, the Jefferson secessionists are motivated by that same distant government, which now imposes a staggering roster of environmental and other regulations that threaten the jobs of local farmers, miners, loggers, and even Klamath River medical marijuana growers. One way or another, these northernmost Californians and their Oregonian neighbors plan to find a way to put control of their communities back in their own hands.
Thomas Naylor insists that the ideological diversity that brings together the environmentalist-bashing, property-rights activists of Yreka and anti-globalization leftists like Sale and himself is a feature, not a bug, of the push for political self-determination. Asked whether we should be concerned about independent governments tossing out state or federal protections for the environment and civil rights, he tells me, “It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job of solving most of our problems than the U.S. government, and over the long run these problems are best dealt with in the hands of small groups of people who’ve got a stake in them. Maybe the way that people in Northern California deal with the environment is not exactly the way that Vermont tree-huggers would embrace, but it’s their way.”
Sale, whose impeccable leftist credentials—he was a founder of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s and remains a contributing editor of The Nation—have not kept him from being accused, like Naylor, of being a crypto-racist because of his willingness to associate with the League of the South, takes a similar tack. Such diversity is “the reality of America today,” he tells me. “It’s more than just blue states versus red states, it’s all kinds of states wanting different things. So I say—let them. And if it turns out that the state I’m in does things that I don’t like, then I can go somewhere else nearby where an independent republic is to my liking.” It’s really none of his business, he says, what might go on in an independent South; all that the Vermonters want is the authority to keep the ever-encroaching Leviathan from continuing to entangle itself in their own corner of the woods.
To the extent that all this sounds at once deeply radical yet strangely familiar, things are exactly as they should be. The “so-called American Revolution,” Sale observes, “was in fact a war of secession, not revolt.” What’s more, the early years of the Republic established a tradition of states seceding from one another when they reached a certain size: Maine from Massachusetts in 1820, Tennessee from North Carolina in 1796, Kentucky and (more controversially) West Virginia from Virginia in 1792 and 1861. And as for the other events of 1861? Those “were not so successful,” he admits, “but they failed only because corporate America, becoming strong and expansionary in the North, found a dictator who could crush them.”
It’s here, of course, that things get tricky, since in many quarters the merest whiff of Civil War revisionism is enough to bring the discussion to a screeching halt. And not without reason: most historians still treat the traditional narrative of the Civil War as largely unproblematic, and the history of the American South with regard to slavery and race relations is nothing short of appalling. But then, the Northern states have their own repulsive history of racism, slavery, and the abuse and extermination of native populations. And there’s no disputing that the broader history of American territorial expansion—Hawaii, anyone?—has often been every bit as lawless and imperial as Lincoln’s worst critics accuse him of having been. These historical crimes do not belong only to one region. Moreover, even a negative assessment of the Confederate question does not disbar one from remaining open to the possibility that other secessionist movements might be rooted in more legitimate grievances.
Donald Livingston, an Emory University philosopher who has been similarly maligned over his distaste for Lincoln, suggests that the roots of America’s conflicted understandings of secession and states’ rights run deep. According to Livingston, who is at work on a book-length philosophical treatment of secession, present-day Americans are the inheritors of two “incommensurable Americanisms.” On the one hand, there is the Jeffersonian model of political order, which locates sovereignty in the small scale and thus treats secession as “a lawful act of a natural political society.” In contrast, the Lincolnian conception regards America as one nation indivisible—a “perpetual” and “indissoluble union,” in the language of Texas v. White —in which case “secession then would be revolution; it would be incompatible with government as such.” It was the dominance of the Jeffersonian conception that explains the success of the early split-state movements listed by Sale, while the rise of the Lincolnian one led to the crushing of the Confederacy and dearth of later secessionist movement.
The Jeffersonian view, Livingston notes, is similar in many important ways to the theory of human society put forward in Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle not only holds that man is a “political animal”—that is, a creature suited to life in a polis, or city-state—but also claims that there are natural limits to the extent of a polis: “the best limit of the population of a state,” as he puts it, “is the largest number which suffices for the purposes of life, and can be taken in at a single view.” And what exactly is this number? Livingston points to Athens, Venice, and Florence, each of which had populations in the tens of thousands, as political communities large enough to have attained the Aristotelian values of “life and high culture.”
The modern American empire, which Naylor eagerly compares to the Soviet Union in its declining years, may simply be too large for the good life—and it’s not only the outright separatists who chafe against the strictures of centralized federal authority. The Free State Project, for example, aims to recruit enough liberty-minded citizens who are willing to move to New Hampshire to turn the state into a libertarian haven. At present, five years into their drive, over 8,700 individuals have committed to head to the Granite State once FSP reaches a critical mass of 20,000 members. The FSP agenda is a decidedly non-secessionist one: the goal is simply to carve out a corner of America where it is once again possible to live free.
Back in Yreka, the prevailing sense is that an arrangement more like what the Free Staters are after would be good enough, if only the powers that be would allow them to give it a try. The odds of that are slim, though, and as Jefferson activist Brian Peterson shows me around the five-acre plot that he and his family recently bought on the south end of town, the frustrations of a rural resident in a state dominated by voters from coastal cities become apparent. The landowners and area environmentalists have “really been starting to work things out on our own,” he says, “People have been finally sitting down and talking, and really beginning to make some progress.” Ultimately, though, they’re all subject to regulators living hundreds or thousands of miles away, whose standards for a reasonable compromise are likely to be quite different. That independence that Bergeron talked about seems a long way off.
Peterson, who grew up in San Francisco and then skipped town as a teenager to move in with his grandparents in Yreka, was instrumental in reviving the push for secession during the Clinton years, and he laughs as he talks about the number of phone calls he gets from reporters who want to interview him. Thanks to Bergeron, he says, the Siskiyou County Grange has made consideration of Jefferson statehood an official “project.” But much of what that means is that they’ve formed a bunch of committees and rested content with that. “Now and then I ask myself if it’s all worth it,” he admits, “but then I ask myself, Who else would do it?” And so he finds the time, in between his gardening and his couple of jobs, to update the Jefferson website, respond to queries, and fill orders for dark green T-shirts with the double crossed logo on front. “Sometimes it feels like we’re back in the 1770s or 1780s,” he muses, “sitting around at the Constitutional Convention or something like that.” No doubt Thomas Jefferson would have been proud.
John Schwenkler is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.