AMERICANS HAVE BEEN living in a union of 50 states for over half a century now, ever since Hawaii and Alaska were added to the flag. But that hasn’t stopped some from trying to change that number by breaking away from existing states, and forming new ones, when they feel excluded from the political process.
The latest effort comes out of Colorado, where rural counties are furious at how urban Democratic counties lord over them on everything from water rights, to mineral and energy issues, to gun control. In August, local officials in Weld (pop. 259,000), Phillips (pop. 4,400), and Logan (pop. 22,700) counties voted to place on November’s ballot a measure asking voters if they would like to secede from Colorado and create a 51st state. Three other counties have already added the ballot question. Still others could join them.
The Weld county commissioners were unanimous in their decision. Chairman Bill Garcia told skeptics “Si se puede—yes, we can.” The local congressman, Cory Gardner, was sympathetic: “The people of rural Colorado are mad, and they have every right to be…I don’t blame these people one bit for feeling attacked and unrepresented by the leaders of our state.” Commissioner Sean Conway cited attempts to ban fracking as the last straw, saying “our very way of life is under attack.”
But regardless of whether the November advisory referendums pass—and no matter what the margin is—actually leaving a state is incredibly difficult. The Colorado legislature that rural residents so resent would have to approve the new boundaries, and both houses of Congress would have to sign off on the creation of a 51st state. Since the Constitution was ratified in 1789, only two states have split off from another: Maine left Massachusetts in 1820, and West Virginia was created as a Union stronghold out of slave-holding Virginia during the Civil War. In a somewhat different situation, the District of Columbia initially included the cities of Arlington and Alexandria, and later returned them to Virginia in 1846.
California has perhaps been the target of more secession initiatives than any other state—upwards of two dozen. Such attempts are the byproduct of the vast gulf in political and cultural attitudes between both its northern and southern halves, and more lately its coastal and inland regions. The closest any of them ever came was in 1941, when four Oregon counties tried to join with three California counties to form the state of Jefferson. A proclamation of independence was delivered to California’s governor on November 27, 1941, and John C. Childs of Yreka was elected the new state’s governor a few days later. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 quickly ended any talk of secession as the country came together to fight the Axis.
More recently, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone launched a 2011 effort to break away 13 counties to form a new state of South California, which would have been the nation’s fifth-largest in population. “Our taxes are too high, our schools don’t educate our children well enough, unions and other special interests have more clout in the Legislature than the general public,” Stone said. To his disappointment, Stone saw his effort more laughed at than lauded. A spokesman for Governor Jerry Brown called it “a supremely ridiculous waste of everyone’s time.”
WHILE SECESSION IS often viewed as a conservative cause, liberals launched their own effort in 2011. Paul Eckerstrom, a former chair of the Democratic Party in Tucson, Arizona, teamed up with elements of the Green Party to propose a new state called Baja Arizona. He argued that Tucson has long been alienated from the more populous and conservative cities to its north, including the state capital of Phoenix. “They are trying to declare themselves independent of the federal government in immigration, enshrine the Colt Revolver as the state’s gun, and shortchange social programs,” he said. “We actually want to stay in the union. It seems Arizona doesn’t.” His movement didn’t get any further than those in California.
New secession movements insist that they have learned from the mistakes of previous efforts. Proponents of the Colorado split say that they see a path to getting Washington’s approval. Commissioner Sean Conway of Weld County says that if Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C. ever become states, there will have to be a move to balance what will be a boon for Democrats. After all, Alaska and Hawaii entered the Union as part of a similar deal. “You can almost make the argument that you’re allowing two states in so you don’t disrupt the percentages in terms of the United States Senate,” Conway told reporters. In an era when decentralization and an aversion to excessive bureaucracy seem to be gaining hold, it would be nice to think our map of 50 states isn’t sacrosanct. We’re probably stuck with it, but that doesn’t mean efforts to break up states don’t have any effect. “It’s the political equivalent of smashing the china,” Professor John Pitney of California’s Claremont McKenna College told the Wall Street Journal. “But sometimes, that’s the only way to get attention.” Here’s to continued china smashing when conditions call for it. Our Founding Fathers would be pleased some Americans still have some revolutionary fighting spirit left in them.