150 years later, would Lincoln be okay with secession?

It was in 1863, during the heat of the Civil War, that 50 counties in the western part of Virginia decided to secede from the commonwealth and form their own state called West Virginia. That was the last successful creation of a new state out of part of an existing one.

Over the past 150 since the establishment of West Virginia, various regions of other states have tried to separate themselves from a state to which they feel unfairly tied. Anyone who looks at a map of the United States can see the almost random delineation of state boundaries, and why parts of states would want to secede.

Now some citizens in the western part of Maryland want to follow what their forbears to the south in Virginia did a century and a half ago. A new group called the Western Maryland Initiative says that the western sovereigns are fed up with the liberal majority in Annapolis, the state capital. It should not be a surprise that a secession movement would start in Maryland. After all, the state is known as “America in Miniature.” It has seacoasts, mountains, prairies, a large city [Baltimore] and extensive suburbs around Baltimore and Washington, DC. In a word, it is diverse.

Some of the nation’s finest farmland is in Maryland, as well as some Rust Belt factories that are still producing necessary products. But the differences that have spurred the secessionist movement in western Maryland are not necessarily geographic or economic. What perturbs many citizens in the western part of the state is how they feel left out from much of Maryland on issues such as gun control, taxes, energy policy, gay marriage and immigration. All of these issues have been subjects of recent legislative efforts at state and federal levels. The notion of compromise is a non-starter with the western Marylanders. With secessionists, the term “final straw” comes up a lot.

The frustration of the ruralists from western Maryland should resonate clearly with “cosmopolitans” in non-rural areas of many states. Progressives in particularly are upset about how gun control laws cannot be expanded either at the federal or state level in most of America. They are also deeply perturbed by the loss of voting rights that has occurred over the past three years in over a dozen states. This is particularly harmful to those who are poor, members of minority groups, and senior citizens. Recent immigrants do not care for those who are trying to disenfranchise them from voting.

Maryland has company when it comes to modern movements to secede. Nearly a dozen counties in northern Colorado are the furthest along, with nonbinding referendums set for November ballots. Michigan cannot fully decide if it wants to be one state or two. After all, it’s already divided by Upper and Lower Michigan.

California is our largest state by population. Most Americans are aware of the differences between northern California and southern California. In the 1950s, Northern California tried to form the state of Shasta to protect its fresh water. This issue is still a hot one throughout the state, and separation and secession are continuous in policy discussions.

The historical consensus is that President Abraham Lincoln and the “unionists” did not want the country to fall apart. Their reasons were several: (a) they felt that there could be a “domino theory” once one or several states or other sub-sections of the union seceded; (b) they thought that Americans were homogeneous enough to remain under one federal government, and (c) they did not want slavery to further tear the country apart.

What is different now is that with the growth of new technology over the past thirty or forty years, we are much more aware of the presence of different factions within our country. The citizens in western Maryland have much in common with people living in the Ozarks of Missouri or Arkansas or those living in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho. And those in Baltimore share much in common with those from virtually any other metropolitan area, at least those above the Mason-Dixon Line.

Both the federal government and the states are ill-equipped to deal with these differences. In a hypothetical world, we would have governmental units that include rural areas but not metropolitan ones. And we would have metropolitan governments without rural ones. These would not only be geographic or economic different; they would be culturally and politically separate. It’s nice to muse about this, but it’s hard to think of a practical way to restructure the country to reflect these differences. It seems that Lincoln and his progressive contemporaries had the right idea about working to keep the country together. The alternative to unity (wholesale secession) might even be a less desirable choice for conservatives among us. If we are going to achieve unity, the kind for which Lincoln wished, liberals and conservatives must join together to reconstitute a modern unity.