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A Free and Indivisible Union

Are seceshers dreaming the impossible dream?

By 4.25.13

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Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and Their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America's Political Map
By Bill Kauffman

(Chelsea Green, 336 pages, $17.95)

Six months ago, following the re-election of President Barack Obama, demoralized denizens of all fifty states signed online petitions to secede from the union. (Where confederates once opened fire on Fort Sumter, the aggrieved now storm the Internet.) The petition on behalf of the state of Texas garnered roughly 125,000 signatures, more than enough to merit a formal response from the White House.

The response was, in short, “Dream on.” Secession is frowned upon in these “free and independent states,” to quote Jefferson. Fact is, the old republics of the USSR had a better chance of gaining independence than do Louisiana or Alaska. Just ask the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. I’d bring along a translator though.

Washington big wigs historically have been hostile to secession-speak and there’s no reason to think it would be any different this time if, say, native Hawaiians on the island of Oahu decided to exercise their natural right of self-determination. The isle would be declared in rebellion and droned into submission. The Constitution simply does not provide a way for states to secede. Once in, there is no out. (Though there may be a loophole, of sorts. In the post-Civil War Supreme Court decision Texas v. White, Chief Justice Salmon Chase said a state could secede with the consent of the other states. That was big of him.)

Today’s seceshers run the political gamut from decentralizing conservatives to hippie greens. The most strident foes of secession are -- you guessed it -- those placeless men with the most power. No wonder the Obama White House declares that the Founders established the United States as a “perpetual union,” while U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia has allegedly written that the “constitutional” basis of secession was “resolved by the Civil War” (evidently might does make right), and the right to secede is illusory, as the Pledge of Allegiance clearly illustrates through the phrase “one nation, indivisible.” I may be out of order, your honor, but since when does the Pledge carry any legal weight?

None of this has stopped seceshers from dreaming the impossible dream. Bill Kauffman, a columnist for the American Conservative, and the author of eight previous delightfully radical books, profiles these oddballs and their insurmountable odds in his latest book, Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America's Political Map. In it, Kauffman reports on current secessionist movements in Alaska, Hawaii, New York City, Vermont, Texas, Upper Michigan, West Kansas, Northern California and the states of the old confederacy. Some seceshers, like those in West Kansas and New York City seek to form their own states. Others, (Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, Vermont and the old confederacy) long for complete independence. Their reasons are as varied as the people of Waikiki and Baton Rouge, but the best, says Kauffman, “have in common a love of place, of a distinct and individuated culture, a history and lore and humor all their own. They honor the sanctity of small places — which can be city neighborhoods as well as country hamlets. They believe in local democratic self-government, and they see all too clearly that the American Empire, a centralized bureaucratic behemoth mired in perpetual war, is the enemy of their places.”

KAUFFMAN SYMPATHIZES with many of these dissidents, especially those regionalist types who seek to break up larger states. He would like nothing more than to see New York City separate itself from his beloved upstate New York. He is less sympathetic with groups that want to leave the United States altogether. Call it sentimentality, but Kauffman loves this big, hulking, maddening country of ours, warts and all. Though he would have preferred we remain the contiguous, lower 48 states. Why the hell, he asks, should politicians in Washington, D.C. who have never been within a thousand miles of Alaska tell the folks in Anchorage how to run their affairs? He has a point.

It’s a cliché to say that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And, as Kauffman reminds us, “I know: Breaking away is impossible. Quixotic. Hopeless. So was dancing on the Berlin Wall.”

These are Kauffman’s kind of people, the kind who hesitate to say the Pledge of Allegiance, not because of the phrase “Under God,” but because of the word “indivisible,” which clangs on the ear like a cell door. Self-government dreamers, small-is-better believers, localist underdogs and home grown patriots. How can you not love them?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.