There are currently 50 petitions for secession from the United States, one from each state, that have been registered with the federal government. It goes without saying that not one of them has any prospect of being acted upon. It is therefore tempting to dismiss these petitions as expressions of sour grapes on the part of some in response to the outcome of the presidential election: a combination of partisan hostility, impatience with the democratic political process, a failure to make peace with contemporary demographic realities, frustration with the evident limitations of a particular candidate, and an expression of the politics of nostalgia. Seemingly lost amidst all of the needless repudiation of the petitions as fruitless gestures is their expression of a social Cris de Coeur in response to a genuine political dilemma. The secessionist impulse may therefore be instructive, revealing the limitations of the existing responses to that dilemma. What’s more, perhaps lost amidst the understandable lampooning of the impulse is just how inseparable secession is from the American experience itself.
The notion that “not since the Civil War” has this country been as deeply divided as it is today is commonly accepted as a starting point for public discourse, across the American political spectrum—and the media have the dichromatic maps to prove it. Partisan demographics are such that national elections are only meaningfully contested in a mere handful of states. Razor-thin margins determine the outcome of what we are told are incommensurate policy responses to our political challenges—and middle-term and compromise positions have become increasingly implausible. Our political divisions, according to the partisan formulations, reveal fundamental differences among us, and the stakes of our politics are therefore ultimate. Political defeat is tantamount to the loss of pubic recognition and affirmation of our identity.
Accordingly, the spectacle of high-profile celebrities who pledge self-expatriation in response to the prospect of their undesirable candidate of choice being elected is now commonplace, as is the customary reneging on the vow. However deep and widespread the disappointment with political outcomes, it seems clear that few Americans are willing to act as if all really is lost and truly forsake their homes. By contrast, the impulse to secede is an expression of a commitment to home and hearth, and the desire to safeguard them from alien influences; it is not an impulse to jettison and reject, but to protect and preserve. Interestingly, the response appears to cut across partisan lines; it found expression from the Left after the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, and now the Right has followed suit in the wake of President Obama’s reelection.
Kirkpatrick Sale is in the secession business. He is director of the Middlebury Institute “for the study of separatism, secession, and self-determination,” and long before the recent secession petitioners registered their acts of protest the Institute helped to organize a nonviolent citizens movement to advance Vermont’s independence. The movement has generated enough enthusiasm for nine Independence Party candidates affiliated with Thomas Naylor’s Second Vermont Republic to have run for state office in 2010.
Sale is a contributor to the recently published Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century, a deftly organized collection of articles exploring the anthropological, sociological, political, and historical arguments for a normative scale of politics and the means to revitalize self-government in the United States. Reflecting upon the Aristotelian premise that there is a natural limit to the size of political entities informed by the natural limits of human reason, Sale argues that “a state as large as 305 million is ungovernable.” He martials to his cause an abundance of evidence of bureaucratic fiscal bloat, unmanageable borders, escalating health costs, and failures in education and a host of other unmet social needs—all of which are tied, in some measure by his account, to the size of the country.
Surveying the global political landscape, Sale observes that 58% of the world’s political entities are smaller than Switzerland (7.7 million). In terms of prosperity, Sale notes that 18 of the top 20 nations ranked by per capita GDP are smaller than 5 million. Citing indices of well-being taken from the Wall St. Journal, the Economist, and Freedom House, he offers similar measurements of freedom, civil rights protections, and literacy rates, all of which affirm his argument that smaller states enjoy a relative advantage over very large ones in achieving the conditions for social health and prosperity. For Sale, secession provides a path to the decentralization necessary to sustain meaningful representation and responsible self-government.
The editor of Rethinking the American Union, Donald Livingston, on the other hand suggests that secession is but one way of accomplishing the recovery of vital self-government in the United States. He offers as a model for a federated relationship between political entities Althusius’ account of consociational representative political bodies. As articulated in his influential work Politica, Althusius’ polity is derived from his account of ancient Israel’s covenantal federation rather than the example of Greek democracy or Roman republicanism. As with Sale’s Aristotelian account of the limits of the classical republic, Althusius’ polity is naturally constrained from growing very large (although Althusius is not specific about the limits of size), lest it fall prey to corruption and lose its representative capacity. The theoretical framework itself consists of an account of structural pluralism slightly different, and less hierarchical, than the Catholic social doctrine of Subsidiarity. Each unit of association within Althusius’ federative polity that is capable of sustaining itself is normatively entitled to determine its political relationships with the federation of which it is a part, and is likewise entitled to secede from it. Likening Althusius’ decentralized federated polity to the American constitutional regime consisting of a federal compact of sovereign states is for Livingston irresistible. The structure not only preserves an account of states as jurisdictions of general police powers, but provides an essentially decentralized political order that requires active self-government on the part of the citizens of those states.
For Livingston, Althusius offers an instructive model suited to meet the political challenges of modern circumstances. He confidently maintains that these remedies have not been tried and found wanting, but too rarely tried. He cites the examples of Canadian federalism, which allows member states to nullify federal civil rights provisions, and the semi-autonomous Swiss Cantons, which have sustained an independent Switzerland for more than seven hundred years, despite being situated in the very heart of a continent afflicted by war in pursuit of innumerable imperial ambitions.
Of course, as those who mock the current petitions do not fail to observe, in the American context any discussion of secession is always identified with the thwarted Southern war for independence in the 1860s. Further reflection suggests that the Civil War is in some sense, however, conspicuous as the failed exception in the American experience. Whether or not secession remains a legitimate recourse to aggrieved member states of the American union, its place in American history cannot be questioned.
Arguably, the primordial act of asserting American identity was itself an act of secession from Great Britain, and one that invited imitation. The language of the Declaration of Independence itself is putatively incomprehensible otherwise: “Whenever any form of government is destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
Less well remembered, and incontestable as an act of secession, is the state of Delaware’s separation from Pennsylvania only weeks before the ratification of the Declaration. Having been granted to William Penn as part of his inheritance, despite their independence and tradition of self-government long predating the establishment of Penn’s Woods, the three counties of Delaware were incorporated into Pennsylvania in 1682. In 1704, in recognition of that tradition, and in response to dissatisfaction with Pennsylvania governance, Penn granted those “Lower Three Counties” semi-autonomy, allowing them to maintain an independent legislature. On June 15, 1776, the three counties of Delaware declared themselves separate and independent of both Great Britain and Pennsylvania. In this way, driven by ethnographic, cultural, religious, and economic concerns, Delaware seceded in order to preserve the self-determination of a distinct political community unwilling to be subsumed under a larger and unrepresentative polity. Interestingly, Delaware’s status as the “First State” to ratify the United States Constitution in 1787, despite strong anti-federalist sympathies among her representatives, was in part informed by concern for preserving this independence from Pennsylvania.
Like Delaware, Virginia declared her independence from Great Britain prior to the Continental Congress’ Declaration of Independence. In her constitution of June 29, 1776, it reads that “the government of this country [Virginia], as formerly exercised under the crown of Great Britain, is totally dissolved.” When Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution in June of 1788, she explicitly reaffirmed the right to secede from the union she joined: “The delegates do, in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will.” (5 Bulletin of the Bureau of Rolls, 145.) In this stipulation, reserving the right to secede, she was joined by both New York and Rhode Island.
When North Carolina and Rhode Island, the “Wayward Sisters,” declined to ratify the U.S. Constitution despite its having been affirmed by the requisite nine states, and then two more, they did not secede from the coalescing union of states, but clearly asserted their independence from it. George Washington, writing to Gouvernor Morris in October 1789, declared “it is hoped … that the non-acceding States will very soon become members of the Union.” Rhode Island was particularly resistant to joining the United States, rejecting the resolution ratifying the U.S. Constitution many times over nearly three years. During this period of intransigence, the federal representatives of the member states of the union made provisions to treat Rhode Island as a foreign power, including taxing goods imported through Rhode Island and North Carolina as if they were imported from any other foreign state. Similarly, the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 established Federal Courts throughout the member states of the union without making any provisions for North Carolina and Rhode Island, who had not ratified at that time. When George Washington visited New England in October and November of 1789, he omitted Rhode Island from the trip since she had not come into the Union. Upon receiving word that the last of the thirteen Colonies had at last joined the others in ratifying the Constitution in May of 1790, Washington declared: “Since the Bond of Union is now complete, and we once more consider ourselves as one family, it is much to be hoped that reproaches will cease and prejudices be done away.”
Ironically, perhaps, the occasion for the expansion of the union was itself an expression of secessions of sorts. The ceding by Virginia of the vast Northwest Territory that would become much of the American Midwestern states prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution demonstrated regard for both the demands of self-governance and manageable republican political scale. Subsequent secession of Virginia’s western counties, which then formed the state of Kentucky, as well as the secession of Maine from Massachusetts and Tennessee from North Carolina, illustrate the historical viability of peaceful acts of secession—albeit acts that resulted in the maintenance of a federated union of the newly formed entities with their mother states. That said, such notable figures as Thomas Jefferson anticipated and were prepared for a pattern of Westward Expansion that would have not have produced a continental union of states, but the emergence of sister republics. Livingston cites Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, who observed that “Jefferson propagandized for an independent Pacific republic, and in the 1820s many leading Americans—including Albert Galatin, James Monroe, William H. Crawford, Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and possibly James Madison—shared the vision.”
The first substantial consideration of division of the United States through secession, of course, was prompted by the War of 1812. New England states openly discussed secession as a response to the Madison administration’s shipping embargo. The Federalists of the Hartford Convention of 1814 seriously entertained the secession of the New England states as a remedy for their grievances with Madison, an opportunity to forge an independent peace wit Great Britain, and a mechanism to address their discontent with the constitutional three-fifths compromise and the impact of the Louisiana Purchase on American identity. Whatever the Federalist misgivings about Jefferson, in this respect they shared his appreciation for recourse to secession as a tool to facilitate meaningful political self-determination and liberty.
Though it may be proposed that such historical observations are without any imaginable practical application, another contributor to Rethinking the American Union, Yuri Maltsev, suggests otherwise. Maltsev, an economist and member of the Soviet economic advisory team that developed Gorbachev’s program for economic reform, offers the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a case study in successful contemporary secessionist efforts. Maltsev’s argument is that the Soviet Union was too big not to fail—an unsustainable empire, crippled by its unmanageable size, breadth, bureaucracy, and statist economic premises.
In his account of the unraveling of the centralized empire, Maltsev observes that as the central authorities began to recognize the conditions of dissolution, they considered the unlikely and ironic mechanism of state nullification as a way of keeping the Soviet Union intact. Nullification would have allowed the individual states and regional authorities with the means to avoid the onerous provisions from Moscow and address their diversity of interests and needs; apart from accommodating such limited autonomy, the only alternative available to those states was to secede. When Moscow refused to extend such provisions for decentralized self-determination, that is precisely what happened. Beginning with Lithuania in the spring of 1990, the Baltic States inaugurated the dissolution. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.
Maltsev’s account helpfully complements to insights of Pope John Paul II, philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, former Czech playwright and Prime Minister Vaclav Havel, and others who have observed that the Soviet Union collapsed in no small part because of its loss of moral authority. Lacking a coherent and persuasive organizing principle, the leaders of the Soviet Union were unable to provide its people a shared sense of purpose that would justify the sacrifices necessary to maintain any political order. The Soviet disintegration is thus a poignant reminder of the inadequacy of politics as a substitute for culture.
Alasdair MacIntyre has famously remarked that modern politics is civil war carried on by other means. The administration of justice and the effort to coordinate common life together that make up political pursuits require a set of conditions including civility and the possibility of meaningful public discourse about suitable means to the ends of the body politic. Apart from a shared sense of public purpose, such discourse becomes impossible; political interlocutors without shared cultural conceptions of the common good cannot assume that they will be able to escape the proverbial parallel modes of discourse. Columnist Michael Barone joins a chorus of commentators who are now given to describe the United States as “two countries.” More significantly, he offers that those two countries are not on “speaking terms.” However much such rhetoric ought to be attributed to the aftermath of a hotly contested and narrowly desided election, it suggests that there is a deepening rift in the American political landscape, one that is geographically discernible. Even if the contrast is overstated, it is sobering.
So stark is the contrast between “Red” and “Blue” states that each election is declared to be the “most important” living memory, if not in the history of the country. This remarkable and shameless diagnosis reveals the sense that American politics determines not only policy, but that it defines who and what Americans are. It is an extraordinary claim, one premised on the notion that the contest between two fundamentally distinct conceptions of American identity are separated by so slim a margin as has decided recent national elections. It is perhaps even more extraordinary to think that an election could transform the character and cultural identity of the country and bring coherence to it despite the opposition of just under half of her citizens.
In the effort to meet the challenges posed by the new things (rerum novarum) of modernity while safeguarding its promise, Catholic Social Thought and the Protestant heirs of Althusius articulated political frameworks that were devoted to sustaining structural social pluralism. Such frameworks abandon neither the liberal democratic ideal of liberty nor the need for communities of cultural commonality. By decentralizing the locus of cultural identification, and sharply limiting the scope of centralized political responsibility, both subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty attempt to provide an alternative to the homogenizing and totalizing impulses of the bureaucratic state. In the American context, this would closely resemble a robust form of federalism, in which the “unum exists for the sake of the plures,” as the late Richard John Neuhaus proposed in his Naked Public Square.
Nurturing the kind of rich, decentralized cultural life necessary to ask less of the national government, and require more of self-governing communities would require a recovery of the kind of habits of the heart Tocqueville famously identified with American character almost 200 years ago. Such a cultural and political rehabilitation might well obviate the perceived appeal of secession. Yet to allow for meaningful political representation of a genuinely diverse citizenry would also require a restraint on the part of the national political authorities that runs counter to the current centralizing trajectory of American politics. That said, the alternative may very well be increasingly insistent petitions for secession until they are not so easily dismissed.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Thomas Naylor, Downsizing the USA (Eerdmans)
Donald Livingston (ed.), Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century,
Bill Kauffman, Bye, Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and the Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map Althusius, Politica
Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum
Pope John Paul II, Centisimus Annus: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html
D. Jonathan White, “The Wayward Sisters: North Carolina and Rhode Island” http://www.aratorjournal.org/white.html