“One nation, indivisible…” It’s right there in the Pledge of Allegiance that is repeated in classrooms and government events every day. Of course, at one point the nation did divide, and it was a horrific mess, but we pulled it back together. Still, there are other ways that the various states can be reorganized, and it has happened four times over our history. In the 1790s, Vermont broke free of New York, and Kentucky separated from Virginia. In 1820, Maine, once a part of Massachusetts, became its own state. And during the Civil War, West Virginia split off and rejoined the Union, departing what had become Confederate Virginia. In all of these instances, the new states joined the Union and were not looking to be sovereign nations. Now we’re all one big happy family, sort of. But there are always malcontents who pound the drum for the secession of various chunks of U.S. territory to create new mini-nations, no matter how quixotic the effort.
Recently, apparently fired by the British vote to leave the European Union, five states have revved up their desire to leave the rest of the U.S. behind altogether. Riffing off Great Britain’s “Brexit,” Vermont is thinking about Vexit; ever-independent Texas looks to Texit; and NHexit cropped up just last year. Of longer standing is the sentiment behind Hawexit, where native Hawaiians have long sought to reclaim the autonomy that American forces stripped from them before later granting statehood. And as usual, California, now the sixth largest economy in the world, is ready to escape Trumpworld through a movement named Calexit—or Caleavefornia, as some call it. Despite the feel-good energy that proponents gin up over leaving “those people” behind in all of these schemes, none has a great chance of success given the strength of laws binding the Union, and the futility of armed insurrection.
Of slightly greater likelihood, and certainly of more widely accepted and legally defensible stature, are the many plans for the splitting-up of particular states into areas of like interests, to make new U.S. states. In the current political climate, notions of radically changing just about everything in government have gained greater prominence, but some of the plans to break states into smaller pieces have been on the table for some time. At least 30 of the states of the Union have or had movements to break things up during the two-plus centuries of our country’s history. Some involved only a few counties and sputtered out of steam long ago. A half-dozen were active in the 1990s and early 2000s, or had been reactivated from earlier proposals. South Florida has expressed its desire for more autonomy over its considerable tax revenues, but no real action to secede followed. Some in Maryland’s Delmarva Peninsula would like to abandon the rest of the state. A set of counties in northeast Colorado got serious enough about separating from the liberalized cities in the rest of the state that they got a referendum on a “North Colorado” state onto some county ballots in 2013. It even passed in about half the places where it appeared. So far, though, Colorado is still one state. Discontent over taxes for schools motivated a blocky area in southwest Kansas to want to turn away from their state in the early ’90s, but the energy ran out and nothing happened. Always-feisty Arizona took a shot at breaking off what they called “Baja Arizona,” to consolidate the liberal south, but it fizzled at the ballot box in 2011.
California is no stranger to efforts to break up its enormous acreage into enclaves of like-minded citizens. As recently as 2016, a scheme to make six parts out of the state came fairly close to getting on the statewide ballot, but ultimately didn’t garner enough valid petition signers. Other activists have promoted a raft of different re-arrangements over time. One ongoing movement looking to avoid messy revolution and separate all nice and legal-like, is the State of Jefferson. The idea of independence has been kicking around Northern California and Southern Oregon for a long time—as far back as 1852, not long after California’s statehood. Oregon was still a territory at the time. The effort didn’t come to much until 1941, when ranchers and farmers in the region got organized over their weariness of what they felt was underrepresentation in government in the states’ two capitals of Sacramento and Salem. Coordinating stunts like an “official” roadblock at the State of Jefferson border, with media coverage by a San Francisco paper and newsreels, the movement drew attention. Weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and there was suddenly something much larger to be concerned with.
The issues motivating the organizers didn’t go away, though, and in recent years the movement has gotten more cohesive again. At this point, 21 Northern California counties have at least taken the proposal of a State of Jefferson under consideration. Only a handful of Boards of Supervisors have expressed approval, some have rejected it, and most have taken no action. Tehama County has gone so far as to put it on the ballot and approve joining, but Lassen County’s voters gave it a thumbs-down last June. So the going is slow for Jefferson. If the counties eventually shift into support mode, the issue will of course have to find a majority in Sacramento, and ultimately Washington, D.C. Somehow, the hurdle of getting anything through Congress these days, let alone creating a new state, seems awfully high.
In the meantime, the push to create a new state brings intermittent media attention to the complaints of the Real NorCal, where logging, fishing, mining, and other earth-based economic ventures labor under lots of state rules and regs that the locals don’t much care for. Mostly (though not entirely) right-of-center, self-sufficient, and well-armed, the 21 counties are nonetheless outgunned in the halls of the legislature because of their small populations. The feeling is that only a separate state will afford the populace the ability to govern for themselves. Unfortunately, Jefferson would become one of the poorest states of the Union from day one. Though rich in water that the southern part of California covets and has appropriated for years, there isn’t much industry or tax base for a government. And water rights laws preclude usurping that water and selling it to a smaller future California to fund the new state. As things stand now, the counties comprised by Jefferson get more financial help from the state than they pay out in taxes. Despite that, many there say they’d rather be poor and self-governed, than aided by but under the thumb of Sacramento. So feelings run deep, while impediments stand high. Those dreaming of a 51st star on the flag to represent Jefferson will have to plan for the long haul.