By Lauren Davis
This week, the United States celebrates its independence from Great Britain. But throughout the nation’s history there have been plenty of people who have sought their independence from the US, not in it. Some of these rebellions against the US have been mere publicity stunts, while others genuinely threatened to tear the country apart. Still others continue to this day, their members insisting that secession is their naturally given right.
Dozens of secessionist movements, self-governing communities, and micronations have existed in the United States. The Middlebury Institute, a secessionist think tank, keeps a list of currently active movements within the US. These ten have particularly interesting histories:
Second Vermont Republic: Several US states have active secession movements: Hawaii, Montana, and Texas (as Rick Perry has reminded us), just to name a few. But the Second Vermont Republic considers itself “perhaps the foremost active secessionist organization in the country” (according to Slate) and was on Time magazine’s list of “Top 10 Aspiring Nations.” This “nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank” seeks not only to secede from the United States, but also to support the dissolution of “meganations” like the US, Russia, and China. Looking to create an independent nation modeled on countries like Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland, the Second Vermont Republic is anti-war and subscribes to principles like political power sharing, economic solidarity, and sustainability. In 2005, the group held an independence convention in Montpelier, which was reported as the first such convention since North Carolina’s secession in 1861. During that convention, the SVR passed the following resolution, “Be it resolved that the state of Vermont peacefully and democratically free itself from the United States of America and return to its natural status as an independent republic as it was between January 15, 1777 and March 4, 1791.” In 2010, nine Vermonters ran for state political office — including for governor and lieutenant governor — on a secessionist platform. The gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial candidates, however, received only 0.8 percent and 4.7 percent of the vote respectively.
Alaskan Independence Party: Alaska’s independence movement definitely gives Vermont’s a run for its money. With 15,255 registered members, the Alaskan Independence Party is the third largest political party in Alaska (Todd Palin was a registered member until 2002). Although Alaskan independence certainly isn’t the only item on the AIP’s platform (the party takes a heavily libertarian stance on issues), one of its governing beliefs is that the 1958 vote for statehood was illegal because voters were not presented with the entire range of available options — remain a territory, become an independent country, become a US commonwealth, or become a state. They make no secret of their disdain for the United States, however, stating on the party website, “considering the moral, educational, and economic decay of the U.S., Alaskans’ [sic] 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.” In 2006, AIP members sought to get a secession initiative on the ballot, but the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that any attempt to secede would be unconstitutional, thereby blocking the initiative.
The Conch Republic: Some secession movements are serious business while others are a bit more tongue-in-cheek. The secession of the Florida Keys’ Conch Republic — which lasted one minute — definitely falls into the latter category. In 1982, the US Border Patrol set up a road block and inspection point between Key West and the Florida mainland, meaning that US citizen were being stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants while driving within their own state. (It didn’t help tourism much, either.) After the city of Key West failed to get an injunction against the roadblock, Mayor Dennis Wardlow, as an act of protest, declared himself prime minister of the new Conch Republic, which then declared war on the US. The war’s sole casualty was a piece of stale Cuban bread, which Wardlow broke over the head of a man in a US naval uniform. Afterward, Wardlow immediately surrendered to the man and applied for $1 billion in foreign aid. Despite being short-lived, the Conch Republic has become a source of tourism for the Florida Keys. Visitors to the Keys can apply for a Conch Republic passport, purchase Conch Republic dollars, and partake in the independence celebrations each April. The republic also has a particularly excellent motto: “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”
The Conch Republic isn’t the only secessionist movement to jokingly attempt the Mouse that Roared strategy. In the early 1970s, the Forgottonia movement planned to declare the secession of 14 counties in western Illinois and similarly collect foreign aid after declaring war on the US and then surrendering. The idea was to bring attention to the impoverished region. (You can read more about Forgottonia on the Journal Star.) The city of Winneconne, Wisconsin, threatened to secede and form the Sovereign State of Winneconne after being left off the official Wisconsin road map. During a secret committee meeting, they resolved to declare the village president James Coughlin king (or rather “King Kong”) and annex nearby territories, starting with Oshkosh. Similar tactics have also been tried by Minnesota’s “Republic of Kinney” and Missouri’s “McDonald Territory.”
Republic of Lakotah: Technically, members of the Republic of Lakotah movement don’t consider themselves secessionists because they consider themselves part of an independent sovereignty that never belonged to the United States. Proponents of this movement wish to form a Native American homeland within the borders of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which would encompass more than 77,000 square miles in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. Headed by Native American activist Russell Means, the Lakota Freedom Delegation traveled to Washington, DC, in 2007 and “withdrew from the constitutionally mandated treaties to become a free and independent country.” In response, the Bureau for Indian Affairs noted that the the Lakotah Freedom Delegation is not a representative elected body (although when Means ran for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in 2008, he received 1,918 votes to the victor’s 2,277). The Republic has requested recognition from foreign nations to no avail. In 2010, the group plans to reiterate its position to the United States government, demanding that the US withdraw from its (quite sizable) territory.
Essex Junto: Decades before the Southern Confederacy considered separating from the Union, New England Federalists were contemplating a secession of their own. The Essex Junto, a group of politicians, lawyers, and tradesmen that originated in Essex County, Massachusetts, was a powerful force within the Federalist Party. Discontent with the growing power of the Jeffersonian Democrats and fearing the diminished influence of the North after the Louisiana Purchase, many of the group’s members began to contemplate a Northern secession from the Southern states. Timothy Pickering, who had served as the third US Secretary of State under George Washington and John Adams, was a driving figure of this secessionist movement, envisioning a Northern republic comprised of New England, New York, New Jersey, and Canada. Members of the Essex Junto even approached Alexander Hamilton about heading such a secessionist state, but he was horrified by the plan, feeling it antithetical to his own Federalist notions. Pickering ultimately threw his political weight behind Aaron Burr in 1804, hoping that if Burr was elected governor of New York, that state could lead a secession movement. Burr lost the election by 7,000 votes after Hamilton campaigned heavily against him. Hamilton reportedly agreed to attend a secessionist meeting to be held the following autumn (some writers suppose with the intention of talking his fellow Federalists out of the idea), but the meeting was canceled after Burr killed Hamilton in their famous duel.
The Essex Junto would be associated with another secessionist movement during the War of 1812. In 1813, John Lowell Jr. published a pamphlet advocating the secession of the original 13 states from the rest of the Union (so less of a secession and more of an ejection of the western states), and Federalist newspapers in New England supported the plan. When New England Federalists held the Hartford Convention in 1814-1815, many around the country feared they meant to put such a plan in motion. But by this time, most of the Essex Junto’s remaining members opposed secession and radical secessionists were excluded from the convention, and secession was not among the final proposals. Aaron Burr, however, would go on to lead a conspiracy to conquer Union and Mexican lands, a plot that would lead to his trial for treason and the end of his political career.