that consistently vexes me is the amount of time the modern statists,
particularly on the Left, spend labeling the idea of decentralization
and secession as "kooky." The Virginia and Kentucky
Resolutions of 1798 — if they have read them or know about them
— are often portrayed as quaint and unsophisticated pronouncements
of provincialism; the Essex Junto and Hartford Convention are
called the products of deranged Northern madmen; Andrew Jackson,
they say, was on the right side when he threatened the use of
force to keep South Carolinian secessionists in line in 1832;
and of course, they revel in the ultimate coup de grce
to states' rights and secession, the Northern victory in the War
for Southern Independence. Who could root for the evil, "undemocratic
slave power" clad in butternut, anyway?
would be well and good if their arguments were logical. They of
course forget that the South seceded through a democratic process,
but beyond that, one only has to look at the history of American
socialists and reformers to find that many of them were secessionists
and viewed decentralization as the logical path to their "utopian"
society. The case of the failed "utopian" experiment
Brook Farm in Roxbury, Massachusetts nicely illustrates how convoluted
the Leftist argument against secession has become.
Farm was established by George Ripley and his wife, Sophia, in
1841. They were transcendentalists who believed in the socialist
ideology of Frenchman Charles Fourier, the intellectual progenitor
of modern feminism. The Ripley's devised an autonomous community
that emphasized a communal lifestyle in the pursuit of leisure.
Every resident was to share equally in the task of growing products
for market in order to maximize the time each individual could
spend at leisure and learning. Sophia Ripley also ran the communal
school. What they found is that most preferred leisure to work
and a handful of the residents kept the rest afloat. Part of the
commune ultimately burned down, and the Brook Farm "closed"
Farm illustrated how socialist utopians viewed secession, or the
removal from society, as the best means to practice their societal
values. Fourier ultimately believed that no more than 1600 people
should be involved in a single commune and each commune would
be autonomous with only a loose confederation to oversee the entire
process. In other words, there was very little large-scale centralization
and tremendous decentralization, which they rightly viewed as
the most democratic method of government.
abolitionists consistently called for secession during the 1840s
and 1850s. William Lloyd Garrison, for example, demanded an end
to the Union in 1843. Henry David Thoreau simply seceded from
society at Walden Pond. Other "reform" communities in
New York's "burnt over" district sought the protection
secession offered for their way of life. Secession need not come
from an established political entity to exist in fact. These groups
in many ways viewed themselves as autonomous and democratic societies
operating in disobedience of laws they considered unjust. John
Noyes and many of his followers were eventually run out of Oneida,
New York for partaking in group marriage, a practice that violated
the moral sensibilities of the rest of the state, but something
the community believed was perfectly justifiable and natural.
By flaunting their independent religious community and thumbing
their nose at the state government, the Oneida community ultimately
practiced a form of de facto secession from New York.
could be said for many individuals who headed west in the nineteenth
century. Several towns operated outside the limits of the law,
and federal or state power was often non-existent. "Boom
towns" often exemplified the anything-goes spirit of the
West, though in time churches, banks, schools, and other civilizing
entities would show up. Even then, things remained fairly "rough"
as long as the gold and silver kept pouring out of the mines.
These were virtually independent communities and many of the people
who resided there were interested in evading government for one
reason or another. The West offered anonymity and protection from
government abuse. The Mormons, who headed to Utah after being
kicked out of Illinois, chose the West for that very reason and
ultimately went to war with the United States — and threatened
secession — after they were placed under the federal heel. But
in spirit, they were already independent and had their own laws
and government in place.
not "right wing" groups by modern standards, particularly
the "reform" communes in New York and Massachusetts,
but they understood that decentralization offered a hedge against
alien threats to their society and lifestyle. Thomas Naylor of
Vermont, hardly a "right winger," has been trumpeting
the idea of an independent Vermont for almost a decade. He has
recognized that the lifestyle Vermont citizens want to enjoy will
be consistently retarded by imperial bureaucrats in Washington
D.C. This only makes sense. If Californians, for example, want
universal health care, have at it, but don't expect the people
of Alabama to pay for it. If New York wants to severely curtail
private gun ownership, go for it, but don't subject the people
of Georgia to the same loss of civil liberty. That is how federalism
should work and is how the founding generation designed it to
would do well to remember that their complaints about a slow and
unresponsive federal government could be solved by decentralization.
They have more control over state and local governments and could
implement their utopian vision of an egalitarian society more
quickly and easily. And, if you don't like where you live, you
can always move to a more suitable republic of your choice. There
would be plenty of "conservative" and "liberal"
republics to choose from in North America.
as we all know, modern state socialism is an ideology of power,
money, and statism, which is why its "champions" at
the federal level, the "progressives," will never allow
decentralization to infiltrate their political vocabulary; however,
if enough Americans could be rightly persuaded that Washington
is not the answer, either for "conservative" or "liberal"
causes, then maybe the people would be willing to part ways and
allow the Left to dominate the Northeast and West Coast and the
Right to control the South and Mountain States. This is a peaceful,
just, and democratic solution to a centuries-old problem. Let
the people of each sovereign state decide their own fate. As Thomas
Jefferson said in 1801, "If there be any among us who would
wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form,
let them stand undisturbed as monuments to the safety with which
error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to
[send him mail] received
his Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina
and is a History Professor at Chattahoochee Valley Community College
in Phenix City, Alabama. He is the author of Politically
Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009).