THE FIRST NORTH AMERICAN SECESSIONIST CONVENTION
November 3-5, 2006, Burlington, Vermont
|Secession Convention Short Teaser||Secession Convention Press Conference|
CALL FOR REPRESENTATIVES TO
THE FIRST NORTH AMERICAN SECESSIONIST CONVENTION
Issued February 8, 2006
The Middlebury Institute herewith issues a call for representatives of active organizations and groups in North America concerned with secession and separatism to attend a convention in Burlington, Vermont, this coming November 3-4,2006.
We are seeking to provide a forum where people with a serious interest in secession from the United States, Canada, and Mexico can present information on what each organization is doing, learn the policies and tactics of other organizations, trade ideas on organizing, strategizing, and politicking, assess the strength of the secession movement, and figure out ways to make it stronger and more successful.
It is understood from the beginning that there are many varied groups with secession as the core of their strategy, and it is unlikely that there will be any full consensus on platforms or goals. But if we can assemble articulate and active representatives from serious, ongoing groups that are working in their various ways to push the idea of secession at a regional, state, or multi-state level, we are convinced that we can advance the cause of secession throughout the continent and pave the way for some genuine successes.
The Middlebury Institute is willing to underwrite the travel costs for some of those representatives, especially from the Western reaches of the continent, who are unable to pay their own way. We are unable to absorb the 2-night hotel room fees, but we will provide a conference room for a Saturday meeting and a banquet on Saturday night.
Individuals from real, active, serious, and ongoing secessionist and separatist organizations please, no individual secessionists or the like are urged to contact the Director@Middleburyinstitute.org if they wish to take part in the first North American Secessionist Convention.
November 2006 Burlington Convention
They Came, They Saw… They May Conquer
Well, it happened. The Middlebury Institute pulled off the First North American Secessionist Convention in Burlington last November, and it was as successful as any first-time effort in this ticklish political territory could be.
More than 40 people attended the event, including journalists and camera crews, and in an all-day roundtable discussion portrayed the current strength of the secessionist movement, its strategies, its outreach, its potential. Delegates came from 16 secessionist organizations in 18 states, including Hawaii, Alaska, Cascadia (along the Cascades in the West), Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Though the presentations were all engaging, unfolding a world of colleagues that we had not known before, the most striking thing about the event was—that it was held at all. That people came from so many distant parts to join forces. That people took the idea of secession seriously and were willing to get together with like-minded souls. That people were willing to take time off to declare their belief in this as a practical political activity for this day and age.
That we started a movement.
“Secession is every American’s birthright,” is how the [Second Vermont Repubic’s] Rob Williams put it. “We have to make it a viable option, as it was in the first seventy years of this country’s history. We need to make it contemporary and sophisticated and—I don’t mind saying—sexy.”
The politics of the delegates was about as diverse as you could have in a single room. A good number were libertarians, like the New State Project people, who want to get 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire and then slowly take over the state government and make it a libertarian oasis. Several were primarily Christians, like the Christian Exodus people who have a similar scheme to take over South Carolina (“We’re a warm-weather knock-off of FSP,” CE president Cory Burnell commented) and, working from county level to state, pass laws with a conservative religious ideology (against abortion and same-sex marriage, for school prayer and unregulated home schooling). Some were simply anarchist-minded activists from groups that want to reduce political power to a manageable state level, as the Second Vermont Republic, the Alaska Independence Party, and Cascadia Now. And then there was the representative from Hawaii who wasn’t for secession so much as liberation, to return the islands to the rightful nation it was before United States gunships conquered it in 1893.
A diverse lot, indeed, but as Ian Baldwin, Vermont Commons publisher, told the meeting: “It isn’t a left and right thing. The point is we are decentralists, all of us, and we’re up against a monster.”
And that indeed was one of the three basic things on which everyone in the room agreed: the empire that America has become is a monster. “Through oppression, greed, corruption, incompetence, and folly, the state is forfeiting its moral authority,” said one statement from the Southern National Congress Committee. “The empire is rotten,” said one delegate from Virginia, “and it can’t be fixed.” “The American system cares nothing for people,” said a representative of the League of the South. “It provides no security for anyone.”
The second thing was the legitimacy of secession. As the convention put it in issuing a “Burlington Declaration” at the end of the session, “Any political entity has the right to separate itself from a larger body of which it is a part and peaceably to establish its independence as a free and legitimate state in the eyes of the world.”
It took Donald Livingston, a professor of philosophy at Emery University and a scholar of secession for many years, to point out that this legitimacy rests on American history. Not only were the Founding Fathers seeking secession instead of revolution—they had no interest in taking over Whitehall—but secession has been done, peacefully, several times in American history, as with Kentucky’s secession from Virginia, Tennessee’s from North Carolina, and Maine’s from Massachusetts. “This is a thoroughly American idea,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of fringe kooks.”
And the third thing, which emerged only as the discussion went on, was the understanding that secession in a sense is only a means toward the objective of liberty. As one delegate from Louisiana put it: “Secession is not the end, but the means to the end—liberty.” Afterwards another delegate added: “A new paradigm is emerging and it was exciting beyond measure to be a small part of its birth. The new—or renewed—paradigm is liberty, freedom from unlimited, unaccountable, despotic, state-corporate power.” So it didn’t matter that it became clear that many groups had many different issues and causes in their quivers, they were united in seeing that people had the right to be free to live in their locales as they see fit.
###So we came together to start a movement, and it looks as if it can only grow stronger through continued networking, organizing, and meetings. Two groups have tentatively offered to host a second convention next year, and the Christian Exodus people are proposing to start a discussion group among the convention attendees.
So now, with that under our belt, what can we say about the strength of this movement?
Well, first that there are 16 real and active secessionist organizations, some new but some (like the League of the South and the Alaska Independence Party) in existence for decades. They have meetings, they send out newsletters, they have websites, and they travel around talking up their cause. Here are a few:
The Confederate Legion, based in Tennessee but with chapters as far away as Cairo, Illinois, has a youth contingent and a female auxiliary. Its delegate, “chief of staff” David Towery, said that the best places to recruit followers were the churches (since they were basically opposed to mainstream—insufficiently Christian—American society anyway) and the bars. He claimed that they had 4,000 followers—people willing to sign statements in support of the new Confederate cause—and representatives in 16 states.
The League of the South also has chapters in 16 states and members in 11 others, and it has an active website (Dixienet.org), a bimonthloy newspaper, and an annual conference attended by upwards of 300 people. They’ve been doing this for 12 years now, and say that every year they are winning new recruits.
The Second Vermont Republic may be one of the most active organizations, with a website and a newspaper, and in a statewide survey earlier this year garnered the support of 8 per cent of the population, a remarkable achievement for a group just three years old.
And the New State Project has some 3,000 people from all 50 states already signed up, and 200 have moved into the state, including the convention delegate, NSP Secretary Sandy Pierre who has just moved ffrom California. Pretty good for a movement also only three years old.
There are two other think-tanks in addition to the Middlebury Institute. The League of the South has an institute for the study of Southern culture and Donald Livingston has an Abbeville Institute, with 40 active academic fellows, trying to “challenge the assumption that the Union should be preserved at all costs.” (Its motto: “Divided we stand, united we fall.”)
And remember, there are at least two dozen more groups out there that have claimed they support secession, though for one reason or another did not send representatives to the convention. My feeling is that we will hear from them shortly when they see that there’s a movement goin’ on and will want to be part of it.
A good start. I’ll keep you posted.
Kirkpatrick Sale, an author of a dozen books, is the director of the Middlebury Institute
The New York Sun, September 27, 2006
Modern-Day Secessionists Will Hold a Conference on Leaving the Union
By Gary Shapiro Staff Reporter of the Sun
Here come the new Green Mountain Boys.The Middlebury Institute, a think tank devoted to the study of separatism, secession, and self-determination, is planning the First North American Secessionist Convention in Burlington,Vt.
More than a dozen secessionist organizations are likely to send representatives to the gathering on November 3 and 4, the director of the institute, Kirkpatrick Sale, said.The room at the Wyndham Burlington hotel can hold about 50 people, he said. The organizers have picked the right state for this radical gathering: Vermont was an independent republic between 1777 and 1791.
“Vermont has a very strong self-identity,” Mr. Sale said, and added that New England states were talking about secession around the time of the War of 1812.
Why secession? “It’s the only principled, moral way to go,” Mr. Sale said. The goal is not to take over any national government but to “simply absent ourselves from it,” he added.
Mr. Sale is working with an emeritus professor of economics at Duke University,Thomas Naylor, who is a founder of the Second Vermont Republic, an association that seeks to return Vermont to an independent republic.
Representatives from both red and blue states appear to be joining in — although “joining” is probably not the right word. According to the Web site MiddleburyInstitute.[org], responses as of June had come from “Hawaii Nation, Alaska Independence Party, League of the South and several of its chapters, Southern National Congress Committee, Southern Caucus, Christian Exodus, New State Movement, Puerto Rico Independence Party, Parti Quebecois, the State of Jefferson, and the Second Vermont Republic.”
A strong response has also come from secession supporters in “Cascadia” (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia) and “Delmarva” (Delaware, Maryland, and the Virginia Peninsula), among other areas, according to the site. Scholars, researchers and journalists professionally interested in secession may be in attendance, as well.
Convention attendees will first “assess what stages these various organizations are at, how far along they are, and how many members they have,” Mr. Sale said. They will then discuss what they are planning to do and go over various successful secessionist strategies.
“It’s an expression of frustration,” a history professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, John Patrick Diggins, said.
“I don’t think secession is a viable plan,” a Columbia University professor of history, Eric Foner, told The New York Sun. “But ‘getting out from under America’ is an old tradition.There have been such currents throughout American history, but in the half-century after the Civil War, they were very much reduced, for obvious reasons.”
At the beginning of the Civil War, New York’s mayor thought the city should secede from the Union and trade with both the North and South, Mr. Foner said.
“It would be a great loss to the U.S. if Vermont absconded,” a Columbia University sociologist and School of Journalism professor,Todd Gitlin, told the Sun.
If Vermont seceded,it would be more difficult to reach an Electoral College majority, Mr. Gitlin added. “He wants to elect a president in a corrupt” system, Mr. Sale said, when told of Mr. Gitlin’s comments.
In an article in Adbusters magazine in January, Mr. Sale wrote, “For one thing, as hurricane Katrina has glaringly shown, the Federal government is a clumsy, bureaucratic, politicized, and insensitive instrument (and as the rebuilding will show,corrupt as well),and states and localities that give themselves over to depending on it are in real trouble.”
Noting the tradition of secession in American history, Mr. Sale told the Sun that he doesn’t know why it should be impractical for Vermont to secede. “The first group of secessionists was the Founding Fathers,” he said. “The American Revolution was in fact a secession from the United Kingdom.”
But a professor of history at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming book “The Declaration of Independence: A Global History,” David Armitage, said, “It seems to be one of the few observable laws of world history since 1776 that any state that has declared its own independence will thereafter prevent any part of that state from declaring its independence.”
Mr. Sale in the past has pointed out that the Constitution is silent on the matter of secession and that the Tenth Amendment reserves powers not delegated by America to the states or the people. But the Supreme Court decision Texas v.White et al. in 1868 declared that the Constitution does not allow states to secede.Sometimes,towns have revolted.
The founder of National Review, William F. Buckley, said secession is not the easiest thing to do because one has to decide “where to secede to.” Many who in effect seceded to Canada in protest eventually “inched their way back” to America, he added.
CounterPunch.Org, October 5, 2006
The First North American Secessionist Convention
By Kirkpatrick Sale
The Middlebury Institute, in keeping with its mission of "the study of separatism, secession, and self-determination," is holding the First North American Secessionist Convention this fall in Burlington with a dual purpose: to assess the secessionist movement on the continent at this time and to bring together those with an interest in the movement for a discussion of strategies and policies to make it stronger.
There is a great deal of talk about secession in various quarters, picking up as the American empire continues with its illegal, ineffective, intrusive, and immoral actions here and abroad, and more and more people are thinking that, extreme as it may at first seem, it really is the most sensible of the various options for serious political action. As did the participants at the 2004 Middlebury conference that issued the Middlebury Declaration, they are finding do-nothingism intolerable, party politics a reformist dead-end, and rebellion and revolution useless and self-defeating. So if you want to lead a better life, with some democratic control over your affairs, without participating in the corrupt and dangerous system provided by this increasingly imperialistic failed state called the United States, secession seems to provide an answer.
As of this writing, over 30 people have signed up-most of them genuine representatives of state separatist movements, plus a few expert observers. They represent movements in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Alaska, the three oldest movements, the League of the South, Southern National Congress Committee, Southern Caucus, Christian Exodus, New State Movement, State of Jefferson, and groups in Texas, California, Michigan, South Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Washington City, Maine, and of course Vermont. It seems clear evidence, as Vermont's Thomas Naylor says, that "not since the end of the Civil War has there been this much interest in political independence by the states." (I'll have to remind him that it was not a civil war but a war of secession, quite a different thing.)
The League of the South looks to be one of the strongest groups, with chapters in 16 states and members in ll others. It was formed in 1994, it has a national office in Arkansas, a bimonthly newpaper, a national conference, a website (Dixienet.org), and an associated LOS Institute for the study of Southern culture. Its primary goal is establishing "a free and independent Southern republic...by:
1) de-legitimating the American Empire at every opportunity;
2) by proving our willingness to be servant-leaders to the Southern people; and
3) by making The League of the South a strong, viable organization that will lead us to Southern independence."
It argues that "legally speaking," the old Confederacy still exists because it never formally surrendered, and its strategy is to get "an educated and willing public" to realize this and create "a climate conducive to Southern independence." As Michael Hill, the LOS President, has put it: "Let us gain the confidence and support of our people by becoming their worthy servants. Then let us re-assert our independence and nationhood on the firm foundational principles of 1776 and 1861." He adds, "Though the South is presently a nation by right, this will mean nothing until the South starts acting like a nation in fact. To bring Dixie to that point is the League's goal."
Alaska's movement, the Alaska Independence Party, has been in business since 1984 and regularly runs candidates for statewide offices. It bills itself the largest third party of any state, pulling in between 10-20,000 voters and 3-4 per cent of the vote-once even electing a governor, Walter Hickel, who then tuned his back on the party and acted as an ordinary Republican in office. It has a website (Akip.org) with a great many interesting links, an annual conference, and occasional press releases, but it has been somewhat quiet in recent years-it drew only 14,000 voters at last fall's election, at 3.03 per cent. Its chief aim is to have a revote on the question of statehood, which was put on the ballot as a yes-or-no proposition in 1958, instead of a choice between statehood, remaining a territory, becoming a commonwealth, like Puerto Rico, or becoming an independent nation-and it's that last one that AIP favors. Some sense of its politics can be seen in its website response to the question of whether an Alaskan would lose U.S. citizenship if the state seceded: "Depending on the form of independence, several forms of citizenship would be possible, including the retention of U.S. citizenship or dual citizenship. However, considering the moral, educational, and economic decay of the U.S., Alaskans 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."
The movement in Hawai'i is a bit of a mix, and some there even argue that secession is irrelevant since they regard Hawai'i as a sovereign state that has simply been conquered illegally by the United States and doesn't need to secede from anything. But since a removal of the conqueror and an act of secession would have the same effect, there are groups willing to put their struggle in that light. Among them are the Hawai'i Nation, Kingdom of Hawai'i, Free Hawai'I, Huaka'i I Na 'Aina Mauna, and Sovereign Hawaii'I Government, and I have no way of knowing from this distance why there are so many different groups, since they seem to be working for the same thing. The general take would seem to have been well expressed in a 1994 proclamation by a General Council of native Hawai'ians stating that "we are the original inhabitants and occupants of these islands [and] have always been in possession of our land and are entitled to re-establish our Independent and Sovereign Nation." It concluded that the "General Council Assembled...do solemnly publish, declare and proclaim that the Independent and Sovereign Nation of Hawai'i is free and absolved from any other political connection to any other Nation State." A representative of that Council will be at the November convention.
Two other active groups that are not strictly secessionist, but with a strong interest in the convention because to fulfill their aims would probably come down to secession, are the Christian Exodus and the Free State Project. The first of these, begun in 2003 "in response to the moral degeneration of our nation" and the failure of regular political parties to halt it, has a scheme to settle large numbers of its adherents in South Carolina, which it deems to be the most conservative and Christian state in the Union. Once a critical mass is present there, they would begin to take over local and county institutions and eventually the state government, creating a constitution that would guarantee "the protection of human life at conception, the Ten Commandments as the foundation of law, the prohibition of any redefinition of marriage, and a strong reserve clause" of undelegated powers to local government. "If this cannot be achieved within the United States," they say, "then we believe a peaceful withdrawal from the union to be the last available remedy."
The Free State Project similarly intends to move people in to take over a state-in this case New Hampshire, because it has the smallest tax burden of any state and is small enough to be influenced by a small number of immigrants-and create a strongly libertarian government. The project was begun by Jason Sorens, then a Yale graduate student in political science, in 2001, who determined that 20,000 active people would be sufficient to wield influence over the state government-and as of June 2006, 7, 166 have signed on. The aim is to create a government that would "support policies such as abolition of all income taxes, elimination of regulatory bureaucracies, repeal of most gun control laws, repeal of most drug prohibition laws, complete free trade, decentralization of government, and widescale privatization." It is explicitly against secession, it says, but its literature recognizes that such a move might have to be taken if its program was resisted by Federal forces-as would seem to be likely.
It may be too much to say, as Thomas Naylor has said recently, that "once again secession fever is spreading across America just as it did back in 1776 and 1861." But there is no doubt that something is in the air, and the November convention will be the barometer of just how strong and purposive this movement is.
Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of twelve books, including Human Scale, The Conquest of Paradise, Rebels Against the Future, and The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream. His latest book, After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination, will be published by Duke University Press this fall.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6, 2006
Coming together to ponder pulling apart
Latter-day secessionists of all stripes convene in Vermont
By Paul Nussbaum, Inquirer Staff Writer
BURLINGTON, Vt. - Separatists, unite!
That was the pitch this weekend by neo-Confederates, New England free-staters, Hawaiian nationalists, and a clutch of other dissenters who want out of the United States.
The First North American Secessionist Convention, billed as the first national gathering of secessionists since the Civil War, included an eclectic mix of conservatives, liberals, libertarians, left-wing Green Party zealots, and right-wing Christian activists.
The bearded, denim-vested representative of the Alaskan Independence Party sat next to the United Texas Republic man in his gray suit and red tie, just across from the blond pony-tailed representative of Cascadia (better known as Oregon, Washington and British Columbia).
They joined folks from such disparate groups as the League of the South, the Confederate Legion, the Free State Project, Christian Exodus, Free Hawaii, the Alliance for Democracy, the Abbeville Institute, and the Center for Democracy and the Constitution.
All agreed on one thing: their disdain for "the empire" of modern America.
The latter-day separatists inveighed against government intrusion, the influence of corporations, and the loss of individual freedoms. They castigated the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, and corruption in Congress.
"Reform is useless. Rebellion and revolution are useless," said Kirkpatrick Sale, a New York author who organized the session. "What is left? Secession."
But what about that annoying precedent of the Civil War?
That is a problem, the secessionists acknowledged.
"Abraham Lincoln really did a number on us," said Thomas Naylor, a former Duke University economics professor who is a leader of the Second Vermont Republic movement. "He convinced the vast majority of Americans that secession is illegal, immoral and unconstitutional."
At the moment, most Americans show little interest in divorcing their government. Even here in Vermont, home of one of the most active secessionist movements, only 8 percent of residents said in a recent University of Vermont poll that they favored secession.
The separatists see hope in the widespread citizen dissatisfaction with Washington. And they predict that global political unrest and natural disasters may soon push disaffected Americans toward the exit. It's only a matter of time, they insist, before so many citizens see the light that the federal government will have to let its people go.
"We have to make secession sexy, we have to make it a viable option, as it was in the first 70 years of this country's history," said Rob Williams, a Champlain College history professor who is a leader of the Second Vermont Republic, which advocates for Vermont independence. "Secession is every American's birthright."
Don Kennedy, the Louisiana author of The South Was Right, warded off the Vermont chill by wearing his gray Confederate greatcoat, which he usually reserves for Civil War reenactments. Kennedy, a leader of the League of the South, said that was as close as he intended to get to civil war.
"We're not going to repeat that," he said. "What we're talking about is not raising an army and declaring our independence tomorrow. We want to change minds. It may look impossible, but I think it's worth doing."
Some of the Northern secessionists quizzed the Southern secessionists about race. The 12-year-old League of the South has been accused by the Southern Poverty Law Center of being a white-supremacist "hate group," which the League denies.
"How can you believe in liberty and discriminate against your neighbor?" Kennedy said. "Equality before the law is something we want, and we're on the record for that."
Race was only one issue where the Southern and Northern separatists showed strains beneath their common goal. Mark Thomey, of the Louisiana chapter of the league, said an independent South would not permit abortion on demand, gun control or open borders, and would not take the Ten Commandments out of courthouses.
The Alaskan Independence Party representative, Dexter Clark, promptly asked about states that might want to permit abortion.
Thomey acknowledged that if a state "wanted to allow that immoral and heinous act to continue, it would be allowed." He said that "in a new Southern republic, states may have different ideas of how they want to order their society, and if you don't like it in Louisiana, you can get your butt out" and go to a state more to your liking.
The general tone, though, remained congenial, with animosity mostly reserved for "the empire." At the end of the day Saturday, the group adopted a Burlington Declaration, borrowing liberally from the Declaration of Independence and asserting that "any political entity has the right to separate itself from a larger body... and peaceably to establish its independence."
The obvious challenge for the group was finding a way to make its effort more than just an intellectual exercise.
"I'm glad to see it didn't implode over ideological differences," said Cory Burnell, leader of Christian Exodus, a group that says it wants to import conservative Christians to South Carolina. "At some point, though, you eventually have to see movement. The question is, how long do you give it to come to fruition?"
David Towery, a leader of the Confederate Legion, said, "I haven't been hearing how we're going to make this happen... . How do you get the majority of the people behind you and believe that this is a real possibility?"
Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or firstname.lastname@example.org
also printed at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003365324_separatists08.html
CounterPunch.Org December 20, 2006
North American Secessionists Confront the Empire
Divided We Stand, United We Fall
By Dave Jansson
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.