MIDDLEBURY INSTITUTE PAPER VI
FROM LITTLE ACORNS: The American Secession Movement Today
Kirkpatrick Sale, May 2007
Here’s a simple truth. For those who can’t stand the increasingly ugly and corrupt American empire but don’t want to leave the home and place they love, the only possible solution, we have to face it, is secession—and that’s just what more and more people are thinking about these days.
The latest evidence for the appeal of the secessionist alternative comes from a just-released poll taken by the University of Vermont in February of this year that found that 13 per cent of the state’s residents came right out and said “it would be a good idea for Vermont to secede from the United States and become once again an independent republic as it was from 1777 to 1791.” Thirteen per cent—that may not seem a lot at first, but it translates to 64,400 people of voting age in the population at large, and that’s enough to make the politicians in the state house pay attention.
Vermont has had a secession movement for the last four years, made up of what is now a think-tank called the Second Vermont Republic, a periodic newspaper called Vermont Commons, and various groups, most recently FreeVermont.Net, hoping to put the question of secession on the agenda of the state’s 230 town meetings by the year 2010. But only recently has it begun to get media notice, with articles in the Burlington Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Enquirer, among others, and interviews on Vermont and New Hampshire public radio. Last year only 8 per cent of Vermonters favored secession, so an increase of 60 per cent suggests that the movement is on a roll.
And another question from the UVM poll indicates that there is more fertile ground for it. When asked, “Has the United States government lost its moral authority,” a surprising 74.3 per cent said yes, an indication that attachment to the government is clearly eroding. It was the loss of moral authority that played a large part in the downfall of the apartheid government in South Africa and eventually led to the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. When the center cannot hold—allegiance, loyalty, moral authority—things fall apart.
Some other indications that the idea of secession now is being taken seriously:
The Washington Post in early April carried an op-ed article by Ian Baldwin, publisher of the Vermont Commons, and Frank Bryan, a UVM professor who has been a secessionist activist since the early 1990s, entitled “The Once and Future Republic of Vermont” (a reference to the period from 1777 to 1791 when it was independent). According to an editor there, it was the second-most read piece in the entire Sunday paper (12,000 hits on-line) and garnered more than 200 emails, considered a high rate of response by the paper. It was syndicated cross-country and exploded with 21,000 entries on the internet.
A Daily Kos poll on April 2 asked, “Should states be allowed to secede from the union peaceably?” and 65 per cent answered affirmatively—which is interesting especially because it is conventional liberals, of the kind that this blog mostly attracts, who usually believe in working within the system and are not often fans of secession. A previous poll in 2005 showed only 53 per cent in favor of “I like secession as an option.”
A secessionist convention—the first ever for North America—was held at a downtown hotel in Burlington, Vermont, last November and attracted more than 40 representatives from 16 secessionist organizations in 18 states (including particularly strong showing from Hawai’i, Alaska, Cascadia, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and New Hampshire). The sponsor was the Middlebury Institute, the first American think-tank devoted to “the study of separatism, secession, and self-determination,” begun in November 2003. That such an event was held at all is pretty remarkable, and the fact that it drew serious people from across the land indicates that there is something that can fairly be called a secessionist movement. A second convention is planned for this summer.
An online petition recently posted on its website by the League of the South, one of the oldest secessionist groups, asks support for “the South’s right to secede from the current regime and form its own government.” It had been signed by 2,259 people as of April 18.
There are a number of other active secessionist organizations in North America.
The Alaska Independence Party has swung in electoral support from 5 per cent when it began in 1986, up to 38.8 per cent in 1990 (when Walter Hickel was on the ticket and won the governorship), down to 13 per cent in 1994, and it has hovered around 1-2 per cent in elections since then. (Still, 2 per cent is nearly 10,000 voting-age people, a real constituency.) It recently installed new leadership and a strong effort is being made to field serious candidates statewide next year.
The Puerto Rico Independence Party has varied from 1 per cent in referendums for statehood vs. independence in 1967, to 4.4 per cent in 1993, but down to 2.5 per cent in 1998 and 2.4 per cent in 2004. (But even that represents a 648,000 voting-age population.) It recently got a boost from an endorsement by a “Panama Proclamation” passed unanimously at the Latin American and Caribbean Congress meeting last November urging that Puerto Rico “become a free and independent nation.”
Hawai’i is a special case. The movement there is for sovereignty, of course, not secession per se, and several votes and polls have shown wide support for it. An election in 1996 had 73 per cent (22,294 voters) on a line in favor of Hawai’ian sovereignty; a Honolulu Advertiser poll in July 2006 showed 63 per cent wanted that “a Hawai’ian entity be formally recognized,” though it did not specify the entity. (Percentages like these amount to roughly 900,000 people.) The trouble with the campaign there is that it is divided into a half-dozen different groups with different agendas and tactics, and it hasn’t yet been able to translate what is obviously popular support into a coherent movement.
One other interesting area is the South, where some advocates of secession claim that 20 per cent of the citizens favor an independent nation but the professional polls seem to suggest support, as one leading pollster put it, only “in the high single or low double digits.” A poll said to be fairly typical, by the University of North Carolina in 1992, found that 8.4 per cent agreed that “if it could be done without war, the South would be better off as a separate country today” (5.2 per cent “not sure”), and 16.8 per cent said that “the South would be a lot better off it had won the War Between the States” (17.5 per cent “not sure”). The League of the South, the strongest secession group in the South, boasts chapters in 16 states and a dues-paying membership said to be close to 4,000; a new secessionist organization, the Southern National Congress, was started last year and plans an inaugural convention for later this year.
The other strong secession movement in North America is the Parti Quebecois in Montreal, which has come within a hair (in 1995) of winning a referendum on separation from Canada. Its latest showing in this spring’s election was third, but only 11 seats behind the leading Liberals, and much support was withdrawn from the party because it is widely felt that its current leadership under Andre Boisclair is not serious about secession. The PQ won 28 per cent of the vote this year, which represents something like 2.2 million people, so it still plays an important role in Quebec politics and there is a strong constituency in it that thinks itcould rebound in coming years to the majority status it once enjoyed.
Putting the Vermont vote in perspective, it appears to have one of the largest percentage in favor of secession of all the states that have been measured. As such, it is in a position to lead New England in recapturing its role as the home of American secession—just as it was in the first secession, of 1776, of the colonies from Great Britain; as it was in its republic that refused to join the Confederation of 1777 and the United States of 1788; as it was in the movement in 1804 to oppose the Louisiana Purchase and establish “a new confederacy” uncontaminated by the agrarian South and West; as it was in 1814-15 in the Hartford Convention that opposed conscription for the War of 1812 and advocated “some new form of confederacy” among the New England states.
It is the wording of the report of the Hartford Convention that resonates in Vermont even today: “Whenever it shall appear that these causes [the monopoly of power by Washington and the neglect of the commercial interests of New England] are radical and permanent, a separation, by equitable arrangement, will be preferable to an alliance by constraint.” Vermont secessionists would like to start to do to the American Empire what Lexington and Concord started to do to the British—a process leading to “separation, by equitable arrangement.” As SVR chair Thomas Naylor has put it in a new “Green Mountain Manifesto,” “Tiny Vermont might help save America from itself by seceding from the union.”
It is not fanciful to think that, 64,000 strong, they just might have a good go at it.