This week, the United States celebrates its independence from Great Britain. But throughout the nation’s history there have been plenty of people who have sought their independence from the US, not in it. Some of these rebellions against the US have been mere publicity stunts, while others genuinely threatened to tear the country apart. Still others continue to this day, their members insisting that secession is their naturally given right.
Conch Republic flag from Wikimedia Commons.
Dozens of secessionist movements, self-governing communities, and micronations have existed in the United States. The Middlebury Institute, a secessionist think tank, keeps a list of currently active movements within the US. These ten have particularly interesting histories:
Second Vermont Republic: Several US states have active secession movements: Hawaii, Montana, and Texas (as Rick Perry has reminded us), just to name a few. But the Second Vermont Republic considers itself“perhaps the foremost active secessionist organization in the country” (according to Slate) and was on Time magazine’s list of“Top 10 Aspiring Nations.” This “nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank” seeks not only to secede from the United States, but also to support the dissolution of “meganations” like the US, Russia, and China. Looking to create an independent nation modeled on countries like Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland, the Second Vermont Republic is anti-war and subscribes to principles like political power sharing, economic solidarity, and sustainability. In 2005, the group held an independence convention in Montpelier, which was reported as the first such convention since North Carolina’s secession in 1861. During that convention, the SVR passed the following resolution, “Be it resolved that the state of Vermont peacefully and democratically free itself from the United States of America and return to its natural status as an independent republic as it was between January 15, 1777 and March 4, 1791.” In 2010, nine Vermonters ran for state political office — including for governor and lieutenant governor — on a secessionist platform. The gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial candidates, however, received only 0.8 percent and 4.7 percent of the vote respectively.Second Vermont Republic Flag is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.
Alaskan Independence Party: Alaska’s independence movement definitely gives Vermont’s a run for its money. With 15,255 registered members, the Alaskan Independence Party is the third largest political party in Alaska (Todd Palin was a registered member until 2002). Although Alaskan independence certainly isn’t the only item on the AIP’s platform (the party takes a heavily libertarian stance on issues), one of its governing beliefs is that the 1958 vote for statehood was illegal because voters were not presented with the entire range of available options — remain a territory, become an independent country, become a US commonwealth, or become a state. They make no secret of their disdain for the United States, however, stating on the party website, “considering the moral, educational, and economic decay of the U.S., Alaskans’ [sic] who hold themselves to a higher standard might very well decide to at least maintain an arm’s length distance from a country in decline.” In 2006, AIP members sought to get a secession initiative on the ballot, but the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that any attempt to secede would be unconstitutional, thereby blocking the initiative.
The Conch Republic: Some secession movements are serious business while others are a bit more tongue-in-cheek. The secession of the Florida Keys’ Conch Republic — which lasted one minute — definitely falls into the latter category. In 1982, the US Border Patrol set up a road block and inspection point between Key West and the Florida mainland, meaning that US citizen were being stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants while driving within their own state. (It didn’t help tourism much, either.) After the city of Key West failed to get an injunction against the roadblock, Mayor Dennis Wardlow, as an act of protest, declared himself prime minister of the new Conch Republic, which then declared war on the US. The war’s sole casualty was a piece of stale Cuban bread, which Wardlow broke over the head of a man in a US naval uniform. Afterward, Wardlow immediately surrendered to the man and applied for $1 billion in foreign aid. Despite being short-lived, the Conch Republic has become a source of tourism for the Florida Keys. Visitors to the Keys can apply for a Conch Republic passport, purchase Conch Republic dollars, and partake in the independence celebrations each April. The republic also has a particularly excellent motto: “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”
The Conch Republic isn’t the only secessionist movement to jokingly attempt the Mouse that Roared strategy. In the early 1970s, the Forgottonia movement planned to declare the secession of 14 counties in western Illinois and similarly collect foreign aid after declaring war on the US and then surrendering. The idea was to bring attention to the impoverished region. (You can read more about Forgottonia on the Journal Star.) The city of Winneconne, Wisconsin, threatened to secede and form the Sovereign State of Winneconne after being left off the official Wisconsin road map. During a secret committee meeting, they resolved to declare the village president James Coughlin king (or rather “King Kong”) and annex nearby territories, starting with Oshkosh. Similar tactics have also been tried by Minnesota’s “Republic of Kinney” and Missouri’s “McDonald Territory.”
Republic of Lakotah: Technically, members of the Republic of Lakotahmovement don’t consider themselves secessionists because they consider themselves part of an independent sovereignty that never belonged to the United States. Proponents of this movement wish to form a Native American homeland within the borders of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which would encompass more than 77,000 square miles in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. Headed by Native American activist Russell Means, the Lakota Freedom Delegation traveled to Washington, DC, in 2007 and “withdrew from the constitutionally mandated treaties to become a free and independent country.” In response, the Bureau for Indian Affairs noted that the the Lakotah Freedom Delegation is not a representative elected body (although when Means ran for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in 2008, he received 1,918 votes to the victor’s 2,277). The Republic has requested recognition from foreign nations to no avail. In 2010, the group plans to reiterate its position to the United States government, demanding that the US withdraw from its (quite sizable) territory.Map of the Republic of Lakota, based on the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, from the Republic of Lakota website.
Essex Junto: Decades before the Southern Confederacy considered separating from the Union, New England Federalists were contemplating a secession of their own. The Essex Junto, a group of politicians, lawyers, and tradesmen that originated in Essex County, Massachusetts, was a powerful force within the Federalist Party. Discontent with the growing power of the Jeffersonian Democrats and fearing the diminished influence of the North after the Louisiana Purchase, many of the group’s members began to contemplate a Northern secession from the Southern states. Timothy Pickering, who had served as the third US Secretary of State under George Washington and John Adams, was a driving figure of this secessionist movement, envisioning a Northern republic comprised of New England, New York, New Jersey, and Canada. Members of the Essex Junto even approached Alexander Hamilton about heading such a secessionist state, but he was horrified by the plan, feeling it antithetical to his own Federalist notions. Pickering ultimately threw his political weight behind Aaron Burr in 1804, hoping that if Burr was elected governor of New York, that state could lead a secession movement. Burr lost the election by 7,000 votes after Hamilton campaigned heavily against him. Hamilton reportedly agreed to attend a secessionist meeting to be held the following autumn (some writers suppose with the intention of talking his fellow Federalists out of the idea), but the meeting was canceled after Burr killed Hamilton in their famous duel.
The Essex Junto would be associated with another secessionist movement during the War of 1812. In 1813, John Lowell Jr. published a pamphlet advocating the secession of the original 13 states from the rest of the Union (so less of a secession and more of an ejection of the western states), and Federalist newspapers in New England supported the plan. When New England Federalists held the Hartford Convention in 1814-1815, many around the country feared they meant to put such a plan in motion. But by this time, most of the Essex Junto’s remaining members opposed secession and radical secessionists were excluded from the convention, and secession was not among the final proposals. Aaron Burr, however, would go on to lead a conspiracy to conquer Union and Mexican lands, a plot that would lead to his trial for treason and the end of his political career.
The Republic of Cascadia: After Lewis and Clark explored the American Northwest, Thomas Jefferson envisioned the formation of a Republic of the Pacific by American settlers, a republic that would be independent from, but economically linked with, his eastern Union. Today, there are some in the Pacific Northwest who would see Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (along with perhaps Idaho, western Montana, and Northern California) united as an independent Republic of Cascadia. Although it hasn’t claimed any independence from the US or Canada, the Cascadian Independence Project seeks a gradual transition self-regulation for the Pacific Northwest, asserting that the region is better equipped to govern itself than distant governments in distant governments in Ottawa and Washington, DC, are:
The goal of the Cascadian Independence Project is to raise awareness of the idea of Cascadia, to increase bioregional independence within our communities socially, politically, economically and environmentally. and to further democratic governing priniciples, civil liberties, digital privacy, human rights and regional sustainability in a respectful and peaceful manner.
A Cascadia-esque nation exists in Ernest Callenbach utopian novel Ecotopia, although the titular nation doesn’t include British Columbia.
Cascadian flag from Wikimedia Commons.
The Great Republic of Rough and Ready: Accounts vary on why the California mining town of Rough and Ready seceded from and then rejoined the Union, but for three months, starting in April in 1850, it held itself out as an independent settlement. The accepted version of the story seems to be that the miners, most of whom had come out from Wisconsin to try their luck digging for gold, were displeased with the Union taxes on their spoils — especially given that the Union wasn’t doing much to uphold law and order in the town — and seceded in protest. Somewhere around Independence Day, the tiny nation dissolved. Some say that the residents were disappointed that wouldn’t be able to participate in the July 4th festivities, but others claim that the real reason is that Nevada City refused to sell liquor to “foreigners.” Whatever the reason, Rough and Ready has two celebrations of regional pride each summer: Independence Day on July 4th and Secession Day on the last Sunday in June.
Christian Exodus: When it was founded in 2003, the Christian Exodus movement called for a mass migration of Christians to South Carolina with the intention of created a self-governing Christian sovereignty within the state. The original plan was for members of the movement to flood the offices of local government, passing and enforcing Biblically rooted laws in defiance of Supreme Court rulings. Cory Burnell, the group’s founder, told the Los Angeles Times in 2005,“If necessary we will secede from the union.” Burnell believed at the time that South Carolina would be an optimal state from which to launch a secession from the US. Since then, however, the group has stepped back from its mission for political secession in the face of potential government opposition, stating on its website, “We have learned, however; that the chains of our slavery and dependence upon godless government have more of a hold on us than can be broken by simply moving to another State.” Instead, the Christian Exodus movement now places its emphasis on “personal secession” from American culture, much like other groups that opt out of the mainstream culture, “with the ultimate goal of forming an independent Christian nation that will survive after the decline and fall of the financially and morally bankrupt American empire.”
Northwest Angle: Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, population 119, is a bit unusual in that some of its residents once threatened secession largely due to its geography. Thanks to a mistake made during negotiations of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the area is the only region outside of Alaska to sit north of 49th parallel, where it borders Manitoba and Ontario. In order to reach the rest of Minnesota by car, Northwest Anglers have to pass through Canada. In 1998, Canada had imposed burdensome rules on border crossings, and Ontario forbade US fisherman from keeping any gamefish caught in Ontario waters unless they were staying at a Canadian lodge. Frustrated by the lack of support from the US, the Northwest Angle threatened to secede from the US and join Manitoba. US Representative Collin Peterson introduced a bill to amend the US Constitution to allow the secession to go forward (under US law, it’s illegal to secede from the US). The stunt worked, and the Northwest Angle received more favorable fishing rights, and today, they simply report their border crossings by videophone at an unmanned booth.Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Confederate States of America: This is the big one, the movement that immediately comes to mind when you think of an American secession. The secession of the eleven states of the Confederacy from the United States of America triggered the start of the Civil War. Events that occurred during the Civil War also led to the Texas v. White case, in which the Supreme Court officially held that a state cannot unilaterally secede from the United States. But the Confederacy wasn’t the only potential secessionist movement at the time; several sources report that Southern Confederates tried to drum up an insurrection in some of the Northern states, in the hopes that a Northwestern Confederacy made up of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and, Iowa. (Lost States has a map of the proposed three-nation America.) And the Confederacy was not immune to secession attempts itself. In some regions, such as Alabama’s so-called “Republic of Winston,” opposition to the Confederacy was so profound that legends cropped up that the regions themselves seceded into their own tiny nations. More poignantly, 26 counties in eastern Tennessee petitioned the Tennessee state legislature to approve their bid for secession; Nashville rejected their petition and Confederate troops were sent to the area to prevent a secession, proving that even the seceding entities don’t like to be seceded from.
8 Secessionist Movements in American History [mental_floss]
Wildest Secession Movements in The United States [Neatorama]
How Is America Going To End? [Slate]
Declarations of Independence: Encyclopedia of American Autonomous And Secessionist Movements, by James L. Erwin
List of Current North American Secessionist Movements [The Middlebury Institute]