What would happen if a state (RI, purely for the sake of argument) were to secede from the US?
September 23, 2008 11:39 AM   Subscribe

What would happen if a state (RI, purely for the sake of argument) were to secede from the US? Brainstorming for an alternate-future-history book and more after the jump.

What would happen if a state (I'll use Rhode Island for the sake of argument) actually were to secede? A thousand questions stem from this one - please forgive me in advance if it's been answered elsewhere. Also, please forgive me if someone else out there might have a better idea - just steer me to the resources / people with thanks in advance.

The 'crazy idea' for a book would use an 'alternate-future-history' perspective - set in the world of today, tomorrow, next year, etc. Something (I'm not sure what) would happen in Rhode Island (or Texas or any other state for the sake of argument), and literally overnight the state government would lose control. Maybe it's a complete state government shutdown over a lack of money - whatever the case, it's as if people's eyes were suddenly opened, hastily remember the Declaration of Independence, rise up by the tens of thousands and take control of their own state.

Going forward from there - I could see a protracted legal battle, but in the meantime a number of other matters become increasingly crucial. Getting recognized as sovereign by other countries, having dealings with the U.S. whilst breaking free from their bounds (business transactions, etc. - the world we live in today is far more connected than any in previous civilization), creating a stable form of currency / money, creating a form of government that balances state / individual power, allows for productive members of society to be.... well, productive members of society :) And so on and so forth. Conceivably speaking, I could see the end of this fictional (but highly plausible) book to see our new nation-state being recognized as a sovereign nation all its own, beginning to assist other states in their own quests.

I've read enough legal talk about secession and the various legal arguments as to why if they could get in power they could potentially win... But then what? Presuming the US military doesn't get too enthralled with a second civil war or an invasion force of it's own people, how does a seceded state in this day and age co-exist peacefully with the union it once belonged to? Brainstorm with me!
posted by chrisinseoul to Society & Culture (33 answers total)
Ecotopia talks about how Oregon/Washington/B.C. secede from Canada & the U.S. Maybe that's a start?

Alternatively, look up various places that have seceded and see how that's gone for them? East Timor, Eritrea, etc.?
posted by Lemurrhea at 12:00 PM on September 23, 2008

Not possible. Secession isnt this high-brow philosophical and legal concept. It doesnt happen peacefully. Historically its a military action. The more powerful the country the harder it is. RI or any state pulling this off is silly. Half the states in the 19th century US couldnt pull this off with all their pooled resources.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:33 PM on September 23, 2008

Rent "The Second Civil War."
posted by WCityMike at 12:38 PM on September 23, 2008

You might try looking into some of the history of the Shadowrun RPG universe. In that perspective of the future, the South secedes, most of the western U.S. gets taken over by the Native American Nations, and the rest of the U.S. joins up with Canada. None of this happens peacefully, but the end result is the nations co-existing in an uneasy peace (mostly because there are bigger problems to deal with, I think). The Shadowrun universe throws the possibility of magic into the mix and runs with some of William Gibson's megacorporation ideas, so you'll need to take it with a grain of salt, but I've always felt that the premise was pretty interesting.
posted by ashirys at 12:44 PM on September 23, 2008

Canada has codified their Quebec secession scenario in the Clarity Act. I'm not sure how much would apply to the USA's situation.
Assuming the US doesn't just invade and take the state back, I would imagine that all federal assets (federally owned real estate, infrastructure, air & sea ports, prisons, military bases, etc) would need to be fairly paid for, and military and trade relationships set up.
posted by rocket88 at 12:46 PM on September 23, 2008

In terms of brainstorming and researching similar fictional treatments of this sort of subject, you might really enjoy José Saramago's novel The Stone Raft, a kind of fable in which the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) literally breaks off from the rest of Europe and begins drifting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It's a fantastic book.

Additionally, you might take a look at the Quebec sovereignty movement, which very nearly attained sovereignty for Quebec in 1995, with the referendum results just 50.58% opposing and 49.42% in favour of secession. I'm not sure what kind of contingency plans were in place in the event of a "Yes" victory, but many people at the time would have been examining this type of event very closely.
posted by oulipian at 12:52 PM on September 23, 2008

You could also take a look at the current arrangements in the UK -- for example, the Scottish government and the Scottish sovereignty movement -- for ideas.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:56 PM on September 23, 2008

I came here to tell you to google the Quebec separation issues as well. Not all of Quebec's issues are applicable for your example (language notably, also heritage, etc) but the economic angles might be.
posted by cgg at 12:57 PM on September 23, 2008

You definitely want to look at what the money is coming in to the state from the feds and how much is going out, and figure out what would happen if both those pipelines shut.

Speaking of pipelines, an analysis of what natural resources the state has along with infrastructure to enable exploiting it would be in order.

Think about the legal gap between the US and the seceded state; i.e. what if posession of tobacco was illegal in New RhodeIslandistan but not in the US, how does the state secure its borders.

Your biggest challenge would likely be figuring out a scenario in which the US and other countries recognize this place as a legitimate sovereignty.
posted by mattholomew at 12:58 PM on September 23, 2008

Also relevant to your interest would be the Callenbach prequel, Ecotopia Emerging. This book (written 20 years after the first) deals much more specifically with the process of the Northwest's secession than the first one, which mostly explored the social results 10 years after the fact.
posted by Aquaman at 1:15 PM on September 23, 2008

I can't imagine a scenario in which Rhode Island could secede from the US. Even if you can figure out some crazy reason that the US military wouldn't just go in and take it back, what the hell would they eat? Most states have a monoculture agriculture to begin with, and I doubt like hell that a tiny state like that would have anything of great worth to barter with (and if they did, please refer back to US military action). I would have a hard time accepting the premise of your story, I'm afraid.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:21 PM on September 23, 2008

Were such a thing possible, I suspect it would involve a strong and critical economic link with the countries that would first recognize the new nation. Also important is water. The state must have its own, and not threaten the water going to neighboring states.
posted by Goofyy at 1:31 PM on September 23, 2008

As everyone's been saying, not possible. In 1865 half of America banded together and seceded as a whole, and they still failed. One tiny state wouldn't have a chance.
posted by Autarky at 1:32 PM on September 23, 2008

Since it's the geopolitical "thing" these days, it seems like you ought to put thought into how the seceding state or states would procure energy. Perhaps you could have a former-Soviet-republics type scenario where the U.S. turns off gas, oil, and electricity when political clout is needed.

I bet Chavez would wade in and supply Venezuelan gas and oil to spite the U.S. Perhaps the Russian Federation would too. Maybe Russia would form some sort of NATO-like mutual defense agreement with the new nation in retaliation for NATO putting the missile defense shield in Poland and making overtures towards Georgia and the Ukraine.
posted by XMLicious at 1:35 PM on September 23, 2008

For further real-life reading, look into the political organization of Spain, which has several groups seeking various levels of independence, most famously the Basques. It's an ongoing issue there.

I'm going to agree with the others here and say that I can't see any state seceding as completely as you're thinking without military involvement. At some point, one or another branch of the federal government is going to say, "No, you're staying. We're sending the Marines."

You might be able to make a more believable case with, say, Puerto Rico or something.
posted by echo target at 1:35 PM on September 23, 2008

With slightly different geopolitical circumstances I could see Alaska pulling it off, or Hawaii.
posted by ian1977 at 1:36 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

The velvet divorce of the Czech and Slovak Republics, was aided by the existing political and economic division between the two nations.

The British Empire gave many former colonies independence after WWII. A primary reason is that the UK didn't have the economic, military or political will to maintain the unity of the Empire against increasing local resistance.

Secession is viable provided that the parent government doesn't have a big economic, cultural, or ideological interest in unification. When you consider that the United States is even more interdependent, and mobile than at any point in history, I have strong doubts that a succession movement is viable.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:14 PM on September 23, 2008

To get around some of the issues during the war, you'd need to pick a state that has lots of in-demand natural resources, ports that could be protected, preferably a border with another country, and people who have a strong sense of statehood. In addition to ian1977's suggestion of Alaska or Hawaii, may I also put forth California and Texas?

I think this would be an interesting story! Ok, what if... Democrats take Congress and the Presidency and Texans get mad. Texans secede from the states, and then are forced to make alliances with Mexico (tearing down the fence! speaking Spanish! oh, horrors!) and other oil-rich countries (Venezuela! Bush's friends in the Middle East!) to successfully fight against the States?

To me, the interesting part would be the alliances that must be made -- that may not exist now -- and how that would strengthen/weaken/change the citizens of the "new country".
posted by Houstonian at 2:25 PM on September 23, 2008

A state may not secede from the Union. Lincoln had it right: no union of peoples contains the seeds of its own demise in its organizing document.

the result would be quick invasion to take over all federal property within the state.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:35 PM on September 23, 2008

Houstonian: I don't buy it because I don't think the demographics are there in the same way that they were in the 19th century. Just looking at the political spectrum, Texas and California are both politically purple. There currently is no hot-button political deal-breaker that threatens the fundamental economic development of any US geographic region. States are going to become more interdependent and affected by job mobility as time goes on.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:44 PM on September 23, 2008

In 1865 half of America banded together and seceded as a whole

It was 1861, but who's counting?

I wouldn't worry about nay-sayers that contend Rhode Island, politically cut off from the rest of the U.S., couldn't sustain an independent economy or even feed itself. Rhode Island is bigger than San Marino, Liechtenstein, Andorra and Malta. These countries do fairly well for themselves. Moreover, Rhode Island is not exactly landlocked -- it has a deepwater port, and sits astride the major north-south highway linking Boston and New York City.

If were already entering into fictional fantasyland with a secession movement, it's not altogether absurd to think Rhode Island could do just fine all by itself.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:45 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Texas is a purple state? Then why do we feel so red?

Point taken, though, that there is no issue big enough. But, I assumed for the story that the reason for secession is somehow taken care of... maybe an economic issue? Entering speculation just for brainstorming's sake, what if it is Peak Oil time, and Texans have economic reasons for wanting independence? Then, they look back at the oft-quoted Treaty of Annexation and think they have a cause? THEN, let's say, they are forced to make alliances, which may very well result in them changing their minds about many other issues (because they need the alliances)... which could result in The Country of Texas splitting into the five states it was allowed when it re-entered the US?

Hmm, sounds like I want to write this book. :)
posted by Houstonian at 3:10 PM on September 23, 2008

Houstonian: Texas is a purple state? Then why do we feel so red?

Scroll on down to see the HoR and the county-by-county breakdown. The basic problem is that for secession to even be a possibility you need geographic, cultural and economic isolation that just doesn't exist within the 48 contiguous states except perhaps with the Native American Nations who have an extended history of grievances. Now 20 years after Peak Oil time, we might be talking.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:21 PM on September 23, 2008

Texas is a purple state? Then why do we feel so red?

If you look at the cartogram by population in that Wikipedia article's section about purple states, yes, Texas does look purple. California, however, is pretty blue.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:25 PM on September 23, 2008

I grew up in Texas, and I think I remember learning that since Texas joined the US as an independent country, it retained the right to secede from the union should it so choose, but there's actually no clause allowing that in the congressional act accepting Texas into the union, and Texas vs. White rules that no state can legally secede from the union. (Texas can, however, divide itself into as many as six states, if it decided to do so. Go figure.)

Have you considered reservations for Native Americans? What if they were to set up treaties with Venezuela, Russia, China, Iran, et al, as well as with each other across the country?

Or maybe China comes to finally collect all of it's money, and the government is too poor, so it sells some land to China? (Kinda how we got Alaska from Russia). It could be a territory to China, but still retain it's own gov't, ect...and then you could have torn loyalties between the people who still want to live in the US, the people who want to be completely sovereign, and the people who are kinda excited for Chinese rule.
posted by jnaps at 3:34 PM on September 23, 2008

The practical answer to your question:

The state that claimed it had seceded would face argument from Washington telling it that it hadn't, and telling its government to knock off the bullshit. If negotiations didn't work, the President would order in the Army.

Which has happened in the 20th Century, though not directly in response to a claim of secession. In 1957, a federal court ordered Arkansas to integrate its schools. The Governor refused to do so, and used the National Guard to prevent black students from entering a previously white-only school.

President Eisenhower sent in elements of the 101st Airborne.

So there's legal precedent for using the Army to enforce federal supremacy over the states. And of course with the Civil War there's also precedent for using the Army to force seceding states to rejoin the Union.

So that's what would happen in your hypothetical case.
posted by Class Goat at 4:32 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Class Goat, for the win.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:49 PM on September 23, 2008

Just in passing, the Army division best qualified for this job would be the 10th Mountain Division.

In the recent past, the 10th was used in Haiti to maintain order. For a while. They've also done that kind of operation in Somalia and Bosnia, Kuwait and Kosovo.

Another possibility is the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The main problems here are that their nominal base is in Italy, so they'd have to be brought home across an ocean for this. Also there is the question of whether a brigade would be a large enough formation for this job.

The 82nd Airborne would be next choice. This would be a job for a light infantry, not for armor or mech-infantry. And the 101st Air Mobile Division is also a bit too vehicle-heavy for this kind of operation.

Any Army unit would serve and do a good job, but light infantry would be the best choice.

I'm sorry to toss a bucket of icewater all over your speculation, but the situation would be resolved by force and the secession crushed long before it ever got to the point of the state government making an attempt to be recognized by foreign powers, or any of the other stuff you posted about.

Of course, arguably it would depend on the character of the President. A secession during Carter's presidency might have succeeded. A secession during Reagan's presidency would have been crushed in days.

I joke. Not even Carter would have stood by in a situation like this, but he might not have responded as rapidly, nor with as much force. But respond he would have. He'd have felt the ghost of Abe Lincoln standing behind him in the Oval Office, just as would any other president in this situation. 600,00 American soldiers died in the Civil War (on both sides), more than in all our other wars put together. No president could waste their sacrifice by letting the Union dissolve without a struggle.
posted by Class Goat at 5:54 PM on September 23, 2008

If you haven't chosen a state yet for the scenario you're working on, you might also consider California. =)

It seems to have enough resources to survive on its own, it pays far more federal taxes than it receives back in federal benefits, and it has somewhere between the 7th and 10th largest economy in the world when compared to other countries.

I don't live there, but I might consider it if they seceded. =)
posted by joquarky at 9:03 PM on September 23, 2008

Comments from the OP:

Thank you all for your wonderful ideas and resources - I have much more to read about than I thought I would ever get from a single MeFi post :) So many very good answers - I'll probably have about 5 or 6 'best answers' once I can really read them more thoroughly (just a quick break from work)

I chose Rhode Island as the potential ultimate 'underdog' - in any sort of military invasion they'd have no chance... How outraged, however, would the other 49 states really be? Would they be more outraged at the secession of the state or their government's reaction to it? I would picture a large outrage (and subsequent 'well, what do we do about it?') by the American people when the violence against Americans ensued. It's one thing when it's Vietnam or Iraq or Iran - I would think it's a totally different story when it's your aunt and uncle, your brother and sister.

Choosing a state like California would make lots of sense - perhaps the dreaded uber-powerful earthquake tears a portion off the coast. Texas and several other states would also have a certain character of credibility because of the culture. I also like the China / debt angle, the ecology as set forth in Ecotopia

Presuming the military action didn't immediately take everything and everyone down, I see a hastily formed meta-government of the original leaders establishing trade, protecting borders, enabling emigration / migration.... The problem with most alternate-history books is that they're HUGE - needing more than a Cliff's Notes to keep things straight. Ideally I'd love to write a readable book with a plot and sweeping story over a 800 page volume that answers every conceivable question...

Any more comments and ideas are welcomed - I'll be marking the best answers tomorrow :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 10:36 PM on September 23, 2008

If you haven't chosen a state yet for the scenario you're working on, you might also consider California. =)...I don't live there, but I might consider it if they seceded. =)

We're working on it. Let's just see how this next election goes.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:56 PM on September 23, 2008

How outraged, however, would the other 49 states really be?

Obviously that question can't be answered without knowing a lot more about the situation, but in general I think the answer usually would be "not outraged at all." I think the reaction would be more along the lines of "The morons had it coming."

Would they be more outraged at the secession of the state or their government's reaction to it? I would picture a large outrage (and subsequent 'well, what do we do about it?') by the American people when the violence against Americans ensued.

When Eisenhower sent the 101st into Arkansas, there was no outrage about it, or at least none that rose to the level of inspiring armed rebellion. I think it was generally supported in most of the country. (Probably not in the other states that were segregated, of course.)

No, I don't imagine that there would be objections by the rest of the American people if a President used the Army to stop an attempt at secession. They, too, remember the Civil War dead. (Or at least some of them do.)

Anyway, reestablishing federal supremacy with the Army doesn't automatically require that shots be fired. So far as I know, there was no gunfire involved in Arkansas.

I think you vastly overestimate the extent to which Americans hate and fear their own government. I know that in some circles it is fashionable to pretend that you're living in a police state which is borderline fascist, and to think of the US government as the worst, most awful, most terrible in the world, but most Americans don't think that way.

I don't think that the vast majority of Americans would interpret it as "the iron boot of the Fascist American Government tromping on the freedom-loving and all-around-nice-guys of poor little seceding Rhode Island" etc. (Yeah, I'm exaggerating, but you understand the point I'm trying to make.) The vast majority of Americans would support military occupation to end insurrection. Those who didn't would bitch and moan but otherwise not do anything effective.
posted by Class Goat at 12:30 AM on September 24, 2008

As I recall, the novel "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress discusses this, when a group of people create an orbital to live in, and yet it's registered as being in NY State, and they decide to secede. The main character was a lawyer and she did some legal analysis on how it's illegal for anyone to secede, period.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:17 PM on September 24, 2008

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