On December 13, a French-language television station in Belgium reported that the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders had declared its independence, spelling the end of Belgium as a nation-state. With pictures of the King and Queen fleeing the country and of trucks blocked at the new border, the report appeared authentic enough for the newspaper Le Soir to announce the next day that “Belgium Died Last Night.” As it turns out, the report on the secession of Flanders was a hoax, and the uproar over the spoof revealed the sensitivity of Belgians to the possibility of the breakup of this fragile union of 10 million people.
It seems safe to say that citizens of the United States are not similarly fearful that their union of 230 years will soon disintegrate. However, a group of about three dozen activists that met in early November in Burlington, Vermont, hopes to change that. A few days before the elections that would return the Democrats to control in the Congress, this group was neither assessing the state of various campaigns nor prognosticating the close races. On the shores of Lake Champlain, the participants in the first North American Secessionist Convention were hoping to start a national movement that would eventually make such elections irrelevant.
If you thought the cause of secession in the U.S. died with the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox, you might be surprised to know that there are at least two dozen secessionist and separatist groups in the U.S. In that sense the meeting was more an attempt at cooperation than creation. Organized by the Middlebury Institute, a sort of secessionist “think tank” headed by the writer Kirkpatrick Sale, the convention assembled representatives from nine separate secessionist organizations, as well members of several groups who do not have secession as an explicit goal but who considered themselves fellow travelers. A handful of academic observers and journalists (including a reporter from the New York Times who is doing a series on offbeat Americans) rounded out the audience.
According to the conventional political categories, this was an odd collection of organizations, with the spokesperson for the environmentally-minded Cascadian Independence Project (incorporating Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) sitting next to the delegate from the fiercely libertarian Republic of New Hampshire, and the representatives of a Hawaiian sovereignty group sitting across from the Southern nationalists in the League of the South and next to the anti-corporate Second Vermont Republic. But this group aligned not on a left-right political continuum but rather a top-bottom axis. In spite of the ideological differences, there was unanimity in the room regarding the diagnosis of the problem and its most effective treatment.
The problem? In short, the American Empire. The delegates virtually all wanted to smash the Empire and bring an end to the suffering it causes at home and abroad. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was repeatedly condemned, and no praise was forthcoming for George W. Bush or any other politician (except for the candidates of the Alaskan Independence Party, the only political party in the room). In fact, several of the participants expressed the fear that the U.S. was heading toward fascism. As Ian Baldwin, publisher of Vermont Commons, the newspaper of the Second Vermont Republic, put it: “We are decentralists, and we are up against a monster.” For this group, the most effective way to resist the Empire was to simply withdraw from it, chip away at its geographic foundation. Secession was seen as a way to restore democracy and promote freedom through reducing the scale (in both the senses of spatial scope and size) of government.
A related problem for the participants was what they saw as the economic evisceration of local communities. If big government played the role of the villain at this convention, big corporations received equal billing as its evil twin. Many deplored the effects of transnational corporations on local communities, and a disgust with the influence of corporations in the political system inspired the activism of several of those at the table. Rather than protecting its citizens from corporate predation, the delegates felt that the U.S. government was assisting corporations in draining the economic vitality out of their communities. For Diana Licht, a Cambridge, Mass., resident and member of the populist (but not secessionist) Alliance for Democracy, her interest in secession was about “wanting to find a boundary within which you can protect yourself from intrusion.” If the U.S. government is not able to protect communities from intrusion by the multinationals, the boundaries must be redrawn to a more manageable scale.
Just as it would help restore democracy, secession was presented as a way to promote the economic health of communities over the bottom line of corporations. While Franklin Sanders of the League of the South admitted that when most people hear about secession “they think you’re offering them an economic atomic bomb,” many of the participants emphasized their belief that true, long-term prosperity can only be had by nurturing economic activity at the local level. To further this agenda, the development of local and alternative currencies (such as the well-known Ithaca Hours) was promoted as a way to achieve economic independence from the federal government.
The unity on these points was strong, and the meeting’s collegiality was threatened only once, perhaps predictably during the presentation of the League of the South. The League’s board members indicated that they wanted to build a “liberty-based society” in a reconstituted Confederate States of America, and several in the room wondered what that would mean for non-whites in the C.S.A. When Sale asked pointedly about the issue of race, Donald Kennedy (co-author of The South Was Right!) replied that one cannot be for liberty and discriminate against your neighbor. (It should perhaps be pointed out that aside from the Hawaiians the other groups at the table were certainly not paragons of diversity.) When an observer from Vermont said that he “just wanted to point out the contradiction in your interest in state sovereignty and your denial of personal sovereignty to women and homosexuals,” one of the potential fault lines of the gathering came to the fore. Probably sensing that the Southerners had not convinced everyone at the table of their good intentions, Kennedy later implored the group to focus on their common goals and not let their ideological differences divide them: “We are about liberty and home rule let’s defeat the empire!”
As clear as they were about the advantages (and indeed necessity) of secession, the participants were also frank about the challenges facing them. The association in the public mind of the idea of secession with the Confederacy, slavery, and war is a major obstacle for the movement, and they are well aware of this. Baldwin acknowledged that for many, “secession sounds like a racist plot.” SVR’s Rob Williams argued that activists need to find ways to make the idea of secession “sophisticated and sexy.” Beyond its legitimacy, even the very legality of secession needs to be argued by these groups and their allies in think tanks such as the Middlebury Institute and Abbeville Institute. In support of the legality of secession, several participants pointed out that decades before the Southern states seceded, New England was actively considering such a move. Given that Americans tend to think that the secession question was settled by the Civil War, American separatists clearly have their work cut out for them.
Given the marginal status of the idea of secession within American public discourse, one of the most important achievements of the convention would be enhanced credibility for these groups. Isolated secessionist organizations are easier to ignore than a national movement that can boast representatives in just about every corner of the U.S. (and I mean corner literally it seems that the coastal and border regions consider secession more of a geographic option than the interior states). Groups like the League of the South and Confederate Legion in particular have everything to gain by being associated with a secessionist alliance that includes Vermonters and Hawaiians, Oregonians and Alaskans. The League is clearly one of the most organized secessionist groups in the country, but their embrace of the Confederacy and defense of “Southern heritage” is a potential liability for the rest of the movement. Anything that strengthens the association of secession with the Confederate battle flag only amplifies the obstacles facing secessionists as they work to overcome the already considerable stigma attached to their cause (the event even featured the singing of the Southern nationalist anthem “Bonnie Blue Flag” led by a League of the South member from Connecticut, of all places).
Whether this movement will have much to sing about in the future remains to be seen. Because of the unique historical baggage this issue has in the U.S., the secessionists face odds that are likely more daunting than those confronting similar movements in other countries. But they are convinced that freedom and prosperity in the future will only be achieved through the disuniting of the United States. It seems as though practically every politician runs on the promise of reform, but if Americans tire of such empty promises and finally conclude that reforming the beast is hopeless, the ranks of the secessionists in this country may swell. In the words of Donald Livingston of Emory University, who is a member of SVR and a founder of the Abbeville Institute (citing the Institute’s motto): “divided we stand, united we fall.”
DAVE JANSSON is a professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.