There’s nothing more American than seceding. At least, that's what every secessionist movement would have you believe. Enchanted by the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, scores of small movements have found it necessary to dissolve political bonds with their state and federal legislatures, though none has successfully done so since the creation of West Virginia in 1863.
The hundreds of secessionist movements throughout U.S. history—over 200 in California alone—have mostly grown from the same root: a small, culturally homogenous, and usually conservative rural population that feels ignored, if not outright antagonized, by its big city legislature. This grievance sharpened in recent years as the ideological split over issues like gay marriage and especially gun control became geographically acute, and as vague anti-urban tendencies were focused by theories like Agenda 21, which see city planning policies as masks for fascistic attempts to confiscate resources and currencies.
The modern secessionist movements are very much of a piece with this history, with some crucial updates: their founders have morphed from hard-scrabble eccentrics to successful businessmen, and the printed declarations of separation have become Facebook pages and (woefully underfollowed) Twitter accounts. Below are five current secessionist movements currently kicking up dust in the overlooked section of their states.
1. The 51st State Movement (Colorado). In a sign of the new secessionist movements, the 51st State non-profit is run by businessmen: President Thomas L. Gilley, CEO of a dry beans distributor (“our beans speak for themselves”) and Treasurer Jeffrey Hare, CEO for an IT security firm. The men boast of their Colorado and farmer roots, a twin legacy they see threatened by the encroaching liberalism of the rest of the state.
“People think this is a radical idea,” Hare told the New York Times. “It’s really not. What we’re attempting to do is restore liberty.”
The eleven rural counties of the 51st State have depopulated over the past two decades, and though unemployment is low thanks to healthy oil and agriculture markets, the counties receive few resources from Denver. The movement was fired up when Colorado considered a slew of gun control measures following the Aurora shootings last year. (Not surprisingly, they cheered last month’s recall of two state legislators over the issue.)
Save for the intro from the Declaration of Independence, their website is matter-of-fact and utilitarian: there’s little anti-government invective, but plenty on how to get involved, and on the steps for legal separation: a ballot measure, then ratification by the state legislature and amendment of the state constitution, and then by Congress.
Currently, the 51st Movement remains something of a shot in the dark. The group’s hopeful hashtag—#51stStateInitiative— has exactly two mentions on Twitter. Hardly shocking for a rural movement, but not fortuitous for one that eventually demands recognition, either.
But that’s not to say they’re not having an impact. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper has recently shown signs of being chastened by the backlash from more conservative elements of his state. “There are enough people that feel their views and their opinions aren’t being considered that I think that’s a serious problem,” he said, showing that secessionist movements might, ironically, be better at affecting change within their legislators than at splitting from them.
2. Texas Nationalist Movement (Texas). Ignore Rick Perry’s infamous 2009 secessionist comment, which was taken out of context from a longer answer to the Associated Press dismissing secessionism.
Do not ignore the Republic of Texas, a choleric organization that briefly flourished in the 1990s. The Republic was founded by Richard Lance McLaren, who declared Texas illegally seized by the U.S. government and demanded independence and eventually reparations to the tune of $93 trillion; he filed so many suits that the country clerk supposedly gave his cases their own cabinet. Incensed by the Branch Dividian conflagration in Waco, but also riven by internal disputes, the Republic ended with McLaren holding two hostages in stand-off with Texas authorities. He’s currently in prison until 2041.
The Texas Nationalist Movement slowly grew out of the Republic of Texas, and claims to work within existing legal and political structures to achieve Texas independence. Like many secessionist movements, TNM argues that its state’s annexation was illegitimate, giving its proposed separation a gossamer of legal rationale. It recently hosted the Come and Take It Festival, where it gathered signatures for a Let Texas Decide Petition that TNM hopes will make the ballot in 2014.
The group claims its membership soared both after Perry’s comments and around the 2012 election—it now claims over 250,000 members—and its political presence was affirmed at the start of the 2013 legislative session, when the group scored a meeting with Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, and even got secession mentioned on the floor of the Texas House. “Our economy is so vast and diverse that if Texas were its own country — and no, don’t worry, that isn’t something we’re going to do this session — but if we were, we’d be the 14th-largest economy in the world,” boasted House Speaker Joe Straus.
3. Alaska Independent Party (Alaska). “Aren't most Alaskan Independence Party members a bunch of radicals and kooks?” It’s a good question, especially as it was asked by the Alaskan Independence Party itself. “The party has its share of individualists, in the grand Alaskan tradition,” A.I.P. responded. “No longer a fringe party, the A.I.P. is a viable third party with a serious mission and qualified candidates for elected offices.”
That grand Alaskan tradition includes “Old” Joe Volger, the founder and charismatic authority of the A.I.P., who became politicized during the construction of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, declaring that “the United States has made a colony of Alaska.”
Arguing that a U.N. charter guaranteed territories a vote on independence, something Alaska never technically held, Volger began a surprisingly successful campaign for political prominence, eventually getting Wally Hickel, Richard Nixon’s interior secretary, elected governor under the A.I.P. ticket. Along the way, he made a name for himself as an eccentric player in Alaskan politics, once proposing during a gubernatorial debate to nuke the glaciers surrounding Juneau. (“There’s gold under there!”) And when he wanted the U.N. to recognize Alaska, he sidled up to the only nation willing to sponsor it—the Republic of Iran. Volger was murdered by another secessionist before the recognition could take place.
Younger members furthered his cause, favoring “infiltration” methods over Volger’s more pugnacious style. Two members soon found a willing figure in the mayor they’d helped elect in Wasilla—Sarah Palin. Palin’s husband Todd was a member of the A.I.P. for many years, and Palin addressed the A.I.P annual convention in 2012, not long before John McCain chose her as his running mate, endorsing their beliefs in a liberty-heavy rhetoric that would soon become familiar to the rest of the nation.
The A.I.P. currently endorses Bob Bird for Senate and Don Wright for the House of Representatives, bragging that both men received 4% in their last elections. Its website (which hasn’t been updated since 2010) promises that in the event of secession, Alaska will not lose federal funds, its military bases, or its McDonalds.
4. The State of Jefferson (Southern Oregon and Northern California). In 1941 a group of residents from Southern Oregon and Northern California rebelled from Salem and Sacramento and announced the State of Jefferson, named after Thomas Jefferson for his role in drafting, wait for it, the Declaration of Independence. (A local newspaper ran a contest for the best proposed names and got “Mittelwestcoastia," "Orofino," and “Bonanza.”)
Feeling slighted by the big city and big government concerns of its surrounding counties, members stationed themselves in Yreka, CA, elected a governor, and created a flag with two Xs marking the double-crosses of their state legislatures. They then began seceding every Thursday, flying their rebel flag and distributing articles of grievance to passing motorists on Highway 99, sometimes at gunpoint. The group’s momentum was growing when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred, knocking the nascent movement into the footnotes of history.
A modern iteration of the State of Jefferson, flying the same flag, considers this only a dream deferred. Two weeks ago, Modoc and Siskiyou counties—representing about 50,000 residents between them—voted unanimously to separate from California.
Unlike many secessionist movements, which usually find nothing but scorn from the rest of their state, Jefferson has a sympathetic ear further south. Jeff Stone, a Republican on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, wants to create South California, a state that bundles 13 more conservative southern counties—home to 13 million people—and lets liberal Sacramento have the rest.
But there’s a catch: Stone wants Northern California to keep the City of Angels. "Los Angeles is purposely excluded because they have the same liberal policies that Sacramento does,” Stone said, specifically citing the plastic bag ban. “The last thing I want to do is create a state that's a carbon copy of what we have now.”
A Facebook page called California Rebellion supporting Stone’s cause sprung up in 2011, howling at the state’s budget shortfall and pledging to help Oakland police fight Occupy protesters. (The page also seems to have been confused by a We the People petition calling for a similar secession, accusing the White House of planting it to distract from the real cause.) CR planned a large-scale gathering to get the ball rolling, but unfortunatelyscheduled it on September 29, 2012, one week before the presidential election. The event was canceled and never rescheduled. The page’s last post, which quoted the Buddha, was in December 2012.
In all, Stone’s efforts don’t seem to have gained much traction. As for California’s opinion on the matter, Governor Jerry Brown’s office had a suggestion for Stone. "If you want to live in a Republican state with very conservative right-wing laws, then there's a place called Arizona,” a spokesman said.
5. A New State Initiative (Western Maryland).Founded by a businessman, contemptuous of urban centers, and redolent of fringe right-wing politics, the Western Maryland secessionist movement features the best cross-section of modern secessionist characteristics.
Western Maryland’s five counties are more rural and suburban than their eastern counterparts, and represent a solid Republican block in an otherwise blue state. The movement has many of the same complaints as its Colorado counterpart—high taxes, gun control laws, environmental regulations—but adds a more fiery, Tea Party-esque flair heavy on invocations of freedom and constitution references.
The driving force behind this is Scott Strzelczyk, a technology consultant who started the movement this summer on Facebook (the page is approaching 7,000 likes). Strzelczyk was once a Democrat, but swung far right after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, when he began speaking at Tea Party events and blogging on theories like Agenda 21.
“If you think you have a long list of grievances and it’s been going on for decades, and you can’t get it resolved, ultimately this is what you have to do,” says Strzelczyk told the Washington Post. “Otherwise you are trapped.”
Whereas other movements already have ballot measures in play, Strzelczyk hasn’t yet devised a strategy, and is soliciting even the most basic services online. But if nothing else, Strzelczyk and his followers hope to get Martin O’Malley’s attention, as the 51st State Movement did Hickenlooper’s.
“Best-case scenario: It works. Worst case: Nothing changes,” one member said. “But if it doesn’t work, maybe they will finally see that the populace really is fed up.”