People read passages from the Federalist papers in school, or an ancient treatise on Stoicism or whatever, and it informs their sense of how things were in the past, forgetting (or worse, never realizing) that the works selected for primary education represent the advances of the age, usually by its greatest thinkers, and as such are closer to a modern university symposium or think tank white paper than everyday discourse.
Before the era of widespread literacy, little is recorded of the average person’s views. The glimpses we get are not appealing. During the American revolution, for example, there were a slew of pamphlets distributed. The reason your history teacher made you read Federalist versus any of those others is because it was actually comprehensible. In the years leading up to 1776, conspiracy theories (analogous to “Obamagate” or Russian collusion) abounded on the part of both loyalists and the independence movement. Some fraction of it was probably based in fact, such as the conspiracy to kill General Washington.
This is extremely important because our impression of the past — including from movies, which are almost always fake — directly informs our sense of whether things are better or worse now than they were before, or whether certain points of view are reasonable or accurate. It even bounds the range of possible solutions to contemporary problems that people will consider, all based on what are probably wholly misleading representations of what ordinary life, which is what we experience, was actually like back then.
For example, before everyone runs around all hoary and hoarse about recent events, be aware the following is not even a complete list:
The State of Franklin (1784-1788)
For a few years, counties now in eastern Tennessee but then part of North Carolina created their own state, ostensibly named for Benjamin Franklin (who declined to assist them). It ended in a fight that killed three men and wounded many others.
Formed during the California Gold Rush by ex-military, the town was named for Gen. Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough and Ready”) who had been recently elected president. The town seceded, forming its own republic, to avoid paying mining tax. It rejoined the union with a whimper three months later.
In 1848, the Mormon preacher james Strang fled with his 2,600 followers to tiny Beaver Island, near Mackinac, Lake Michigan. He later declared himself king of his church. Since the locals were outnumbered, King Strang was the de facto ruler of the island. Skirmishes were common. King Strang even fired a canon at local fishermen. The US sent a gunboat but preferred to resolve the situation peacefully. After Strang introduced a rule that required husbands to be beaten if their wives refused to abide by his dress code, he was killed by his own men. The island was retaken, not by the US military but by an angry mob from neighboring communities.
The State of Absaroka (1937)
Formed from parts of northern Wyoming, southern Montana, and western South Dakota, the state of Absaroka was proposed by anti-New Deal conservatives who were angry at the government in Cheyenne. The street commissioner of Sheridan declared himself governor. License plates were made and a “Miss Absaroka 1939” pageant was held, but nothing ever came of the movement.
The McDonald Territory (1961)
After the Missouri State Highway Commission left the tiny town of Noel off its “Family Vacationland” map, officials in McDonald County announced their plans to secede and form the 51st state, along with Benton County, Arkansas (home of Wal-mart) and Delaware County, Oklahoma. The nascent territory formed a government, complete with separate postal service that printed its own stamps. The local militia stopped visitors at the border and issued tourist visas.
The Conch Republic (1982)
Angered by a US Customs and Border Patrol roadblock on US Highway 1, the Mayor and City Council of Key West, Florida declared the island independent in 1982, entirely for publicity. They argued that if the US government was going to treat them as a foreign country, they may as well become one. The island was declared the Conch Republic and a flag was made.
And that’s not even mentioning the second-largest secession, the Confederate States of America, or the first, The United States of America, which unilaterally seceded from the Kingdom of Great Britain, or the sovereign citizens’ movement or any number of active secessionist movements.
This is what we do, people. Relax.
cover image by a user on Reddit.