Skip to main content

Secession, of all things, is back in the news. Residents of San Bernardino County, California’s largest, are debating whether to try breaking away and forming their own state. And there’s more: Last month, a New Hampshire Elections Commission refused to exclude from the ballot lawmakers who want their state to leave the United States entirely. A group of citizens had accused lawmakers, absurdly, of insurrection.

Secession movements are not new and punishing their supporters is a terrible idea. Their causes are complex and almost always point to problems that need to be taken seriously.

Let’s start with those who want their states out of the country. The last time this was seriously attempted, a divided nation fought a war that claimed 600,000 lives. President Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 proclamation calling on the militia to suppress insurrection is one of the great documents of political history. But it hardly follows that anyone advocating the creation of a new nation out of pieces of the United States is an insurgent.

Consider the issue of race. In 1917, inspired by the Irish Rebellion, crusading black journalist Cyril Briggs published an essay claiming that “reason and justice” demanded the establishment of a new black-ruled country within state borders. States, in exchange for “several generations of unrequited toil”. and half a century of contributing, as free men, to American prosperity. Eleven years later, the Communist International cited Briggs’ article in passing a resolution calling for black self-determination in the United States.

From the 1930s, a number of radicals would argue for the creation of a separate black entity. In the late 1960s, the New Africa Republic called for the establishment of a new country in what was called the Black Belt. (This may have been part of the inspiration for Fletcher Knebel’s 1969 novel “Trespass,” in which a group of black activists take prominent white figures hostage and demand the immediate creation of a Southern homeland for the descendants of slaves.) In 1982, James Forman, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, published “Self-determination and the African-American people“, in which he argued for the creation of a new country within the history” of the black belt. He wryly pointed out that with 958,000 square miles to choose from, there was definitely room.

As I have noted in this space before, until January 6, 2021, many black radicals proudly wore the insurgent label. Should they have been barred from running for office afterwards? Or should the nation have tried to better understand its grievances?

Examples also abound that have no connection to the nation’s history of racial oppression. I’m old enough to remember the Martha’s Vineyard secession movement in the late 1970s, which resulted in a 10-to-2 vote of elected officials to leave Massachusetts and either establish a new state or join an existing one. Some residents went further, proposing independence from the United States. You can still purchase the Seagull flag that some had hoped would fly over the island. All insurgents?

Chunks of California have argued for secession from the United States for years. Silicon Valley bigwigs, for example, have long talked about forming a new country, initially in search of a libertarian paradise, then to protest the election of President Donald Trump. In fact, Trump’s victory in 2016 had deep blue states crying out that the time had come to settle on their own.

Obviously not. We should not punish speeches of secession. Kudos to New Hampshire for figuring this out.

On the other hand, no one is trying to punish the leaders of San Bernardino County who are trying to secede not from the United States but from California. Maybe it’s because no one thinks they have a chance of succeeding. Under the US Constitution, the creation of a new state requires the consent of both the state losing territory and the US Congress. (Because of this, some scholars wonder if West Virginia is actually a state. Seriously.)

It’s true that in the 1960s, the California senate passed a bill that would have split the state in two. But it was a transparent effort to gain more power in Washington by doubling the number of senators, and it never came to fruition.

However, size can matter. Proponents point out that San Bernardino County is larger than the area of ​​Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island combined. Their substantive argument, however, has nothing to do with size. They claim that the urbanites who hold power in Sacramento are ignoring the concerns of rural counties. (Long before the Civil War, a similar claim was made by West Virginia state advocates, and the state’s first governor cited as justification for leaving Virginia to treat its region “as a kind of outer appendage – a territory in a state of pupil”. )

As legal scholar Glenn Harlan Reynolds (formerly my student) points out in his much-discussed 2019 essay on secession movements, the argument is commonplace. Whether we’re talking about people in eastern Oregon or upstate New Yorkers who want new states, the main concern seems to be that people feel ignored. Reynolds argues that states should either let go of their rural counties or take their concerns more seriously — in particular, that legislatures shouldn’t be so quick to assume that city-appropriate regulations also make sense elsewhere.

Fair enough. But would regulatory reform be enough? A new paper argues, based on a study of thousands of secession movements around the world, that a group’s sense of shared cultural identity is a more important predictor than economics. Philosophers have long debated whether the existence of a common identity built around culture creates a prima facie case for secession. Whatever the answer, the new research suggests that if we’re as hopelessly polarized as the experts seem to think, we’ll have a lot more discussion about secession in the years to come.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Even traditional Republicans are quite extreme: Jonathan Bernstein

• Trump and His Settlement Fake Deals: Timothy L. O’Brien

• You don’t want further abortions? Making the former more accessible: Sarah Green Carmichael

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A law professor at Yale University, he is the author, most recently, of “Invisible: the story of the black lawyer who shot down America’s most powerful gangster”.

More stories like this are available at