Posted on October 31, 2008

Untied States

John Swenkler, American Conservative, Nov. 3, 2008

Whoever wins on Nov. 4, few Americans will harbor any illusions about their national unity. No matter which pairing one chooses—red and blue, Right and Left, coastal elites and flyover salt-of-the-earthers—there is no getting around our status as a country divided, a people set apart from one another as much by regional culture as by religion or political ideology.

A perfect time, in other words, to talk about secession—which is what will happen when the Middlebury Institute’s Third North American Secessionist Conference convenes in Manchester, New Hampshire a week and a half after the election. Thomas Naylor, whose Second Vermont Republic is one of the country’s most active secessionist organizations, is candid about the motive for the scheduling: “The date was set,” he tells me, “on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be elected—and of course that’s not going to happen.” Nevertheless, the post-election timeframe is “looking more and more important every day” as popular outrage against the Wall Street bailout and anxiety over impending recession continue to build.

The Manchester conference brings together secessionists of all types. Writing in Orion, Bill Kauffman described the crowd from 2006 as “ponytails and suits, turtlenecks and sneakers, an Alaskan gold miner and one delegate from the neo-Confederate League of the South who wore a grey greatcoat, as if sitting for a daguerreotype just before the battle.” Despite—or perhaps because of—their ideological differences, they all share a common cause: to regionalize, to decentralize, to debunk the myth of a nation indivisible and replace it with a story that gives difference its due.

That story is by no means a new one. The idea of political separatism is, as Middlebury Institute founder Kirkpatrick Sale puts it, “as American as America.” From the 13 colonies declaring their independence from the British Crown in 1776, to the rash of state-splittings that took place during the early years of the Republic, to Norman Mailer’s secessionist 1969 campaign for mayor of New York City, the aura of divisibility has long been a part of the American tradition.

Throughout the years, the causes of such division have been as varied as the makeup of the American tapestry itself. Consider the movement that sprang up on the border of California and Oregon in 1941, when a group of disgruntled miners and loggers stormed the courthouse in Curry County, Oregon, brought several counties from Northern California on board to form a provisional government, and established the mining town of Yreka—pronounced “why-REE-kuh”—as the unlikely capital of the even more unlikely State of Jefferson. (The state’s name, which recalled the independent streak of the most rebellious of the American founders, was settled on only after such proposals as “Orofino” and “Mittelwestcoastia” were mercifully rejected.) The rebel flag bore a pair of X’s to indicate that the region had been doublecrossed by the governments in Sacramento and Eugene, and storekeepers put out change buckets for shoppers who wanted to redirect their sales-tax pennies from the state treasuries. Local men armed with hunting rifles set up roadblocks along the Klamath River Highway, distributing copies of a Proclamation of Independence that explained that they were in “patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon” and planned to “secede each Thursday until further notice.”

The State of Jefferson turned out to be short-lived—the sudden death of its first governor was followed quickly by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which sent the country into a fit of patriotic fervor that left little room for rebellion. But the spirit of ‘41 lives on in men like Leo Bergeron, a 70-year-old former rancher and 17-year resident of California’s Siskiyou County. He wears a loosely-hung bolo tie with his golf shirt and shows no signs of losing the energy that once made him president of the state Grange and led him to run for county supervisor earlier this year. He’s working to revive the State of Jefferson. “There’s becoming a state, becoming a territory, and becoming our own country,” he tells me. “The first two are the hardest because you need all sorts of approval from the legislators, but with the third option you can just tell ‘em all to go to hell. It’s really all about independence—we know this place, and we know how to govern ourselves. We don’t need some a—holes from Washington or Sacramento telling us what to do.”