RECAP: “Divided Houses: The Long History of American Secession Movements,” with Prof. Ken Owen

The Pacific Northwest, where Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow Ken Owen geographically began, embodies the two major takeaways from his May 1 Zoom colloquium: that secession is entrenched in the American political story and that it’s nearly impossible to singularly characterize the motivations behind secession movements.

As to the former, almost as soon as the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest took solid shape, a movement arose to create a State of Lincoln, dividing the ocean facing regions from their more rural counterparts at the Cascade Mountains. As to the latter, secession movements only intensified in the 20th century and for a variety of reasons. Noise in King County (Seattle) about seceding from Washington centered around issues of legislative apportionment and distribution of tax burden. Proponents of the Greater State of Idaho—which spanned California, Oregon, and Washington—crossed their fingers that Democrats might be willing to free themselves of the financial burden of administering rural counties and, in the process, make way for an ideologically cohesive state with an electoral college number that accounted for the population surge of incorporating the seceding counties into their named mother state. There have likewise been calls for a West Coast ecotopian secession, the movement for which coheres around issues of ecology and the rights of indigenous peoples, and, in the recent decade, Washington Representative Matt Shea—whose connections to white supremacist and Christian fundamentalist domestic terror groups are quite public—introduced legislation in the State House to create a State of Liberty east of the Cascades. Not only, Prof. Owen noted, do we see the difficulty of monolithically framing the reasons underlying secession in these examples, which claim everything from natural resource protection to political representation as their animating forces; we also see how easily secession movements can become malicious and threaten the internal fabric of a nation.

In unpacking a handful more case studies, Prof. Owen showed how, even in their pervasive variety, secessionists’ visions for a new nation or state—and their logic for forging one—do exhibit some measure of consistency of argument. For example, in addition to demonstrating just how historically deep the United States’ secessionist roots run, western North Carolinians’ 1784 attempt to split from the mother state and form a State of Franklin in what is now Tennessee likewise demonstrates how secessionists’ dissatisfaction with extant arrangements often breaks down along political/economic and social/cultural lines (and how, more broadly, issues of power so often motivate fracture in these instances). Frustrated by the North Carolina government’s lack of functional presence in its western borderlands, the Franklinites, led by John Sevier, staked their claim to—and, in fact, began to logistically pursue—new statehood on the ground that a separate, if similarly constituted government, would more efficiently and fruitfully administer land titles; provide better protection from Native American attacks; and bear none of the “good eating, good drinking, good carriages” cultural trappings of southern gentlemen on the east side of the state.

Technically speaking, the Franklinites’ plan crashed and burned, but as Prof. Owen argued, important waves had nonetheless been made. For one, the State of Franklin seized the attention of the not-yet-nation, and as news about it traveled up the coast from Savannah to New England, and as similar situations began to arise in Maine, Vermont, and Western Pennsylvania (among other places), concern began to spike among central planners both that these areas would become natural targets for Spanish and British forces looking for an imperial foothold in the frontier and, moreover, that the entire national experiment would fail if the west couldn’t be placated. Not only did these concerns spill over into the Constitutional Convention; delegates there also leveraged the spirit of the Franklinites to advance regional interests. Maryland’s Luther Martin, for example, reacted against population-based representation designs by saying that the ten least populous states would happily form a splinter confederacy if these designs weren’t altered. John Rutledge similarly made clear that any rejection of clauses protecting the importation of slaves would be tantamount to promising South Carolina’s retreat from the republic. And Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts also threatened dis-union should Massachusetts’ commercial interests not be preserved. Whereas Franklinites and Vermonters had to take concrete steps to establish their own government in order to have their voices heard, New Englanders and Southerners merely had to float the threat of doing so. Circling back to the State of Franklin before jumping ahead in time, Prof. Owen added that, while the original plan was never consummated, Sevier’s nuisance did kind of work. He would go on to walk the halls of Congress in North Carolina’s first representative delegation, and in 1796, his vision of an alternate government was realized when Tennessee was admitted into the union with more secure land title policy, more severe anti-Native American positions, and him as its first governor.

This failure followed by success pattern re-surfaced in the American heartland in the mid-20th century. Take, for example, McDonald County, a rural community deep in Missouri’s southwest corner whose industry relied on tourism and whose officials, in the early 1960s, wrote to Arkansas and Oklahoma to see if they would be interested in taking on the county as one of their own. Why secede from “the tyrants in Jefferson City”? As Prof. Owens showed, the breaking point was the fact MO Highway 59, which ran through McDonald, was left off Missouri’s state-issued “Family Vacation Land Map,” not a small issue for a county whose economy relied so heavily on out-of-town travelers. This was, though, a symptom of what county residents saw as a larger disease: a political system in which winners and losers (here, of a contest for national interstate passage) were callously selected; an economic system that marginalized rural communities; and a growing cultural and social sense of being left behind by a rapidly changing world. The same could be said of many other midwestern locales that threatened secession: Winneconne, WI, which was also left off of a tourism map; Kinney, MN (aka the Republic of Kinney), which received no state funding for a failing water tower; or the Republic of Forgottonia in West-Central Illinois, which tried to break away from the state due to lack of infrastructural support for transportation in the area.

And not unlike Sevier “getting” Tennessee, these locales saw their grievances addressed. McDonald got back on the map; Kinney got its water tower; and Forgottonia’s protestations launched a state re-investigation of infrastructural resource distribution. The through line, Prof. Owen noted in closing, comes back to the social contract and both an articulation of where citizens feel as if it hasn’t been upheld and an imagined vision of what honoring it might look like.