New Englanders were upset with the direction the country had taken.
They believed that politicians elsewhere were beguiling the masses with talk of liberty while perpetuating racism, inequity, and oligarchic rule. These politicians had gamed the electoral system and were using their power to persecute judges and curtail the political influence of the New England states — whose people still stood for the rule of law. The politicians also opposed federal investments in infrastructure and indulged the worst instincts and narrow self-interests of their white, rural base.
The American Experiment in republican self-government was clearly failing, and the shadow of tyranny was falling across the land.
And so, in the closing months of 1803, some of the most influential political and cultural figures in New England decided that there could be only one solution: The region must secede and create a new northern confederation built on “the steady habits and Federalism of the Eastern states,” in the words of Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire.
This scheme, which was to be put into motion in 1804, was but the first in a series of Yankee contingency plans to save the American Dream by calving New England from a union believed to have lost its way. During the War of 1812, the slavery crisis of the 1840s, and the final months before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, politicians, public intellectuals, and media commentators agitated for the creation of a new New England-led nation freed from the taint of human bondage, hereditary aristocracy, and crass frontier values.
Today the Union again stands at a precipice, riven by political fault lines that are geographic as well as ideological. Eleven months ago a University of Virginia poll found 59 percent of Biden voters and 77 percent of Trump voters agreed that red and blue states should secede to form separate countries. These numbers may be even higher now that the overturning of Roe v. Wade has widened the gulf between the states and now that efforts to hold former President Donald Trump accountable to the nation’s laws have shown that many of his supporters think he should be above them.
To be clear: A breakup would be a disaster of monumental proportions. It would turn the middle swath of North America into an unstable region of feuding, mutually hostile microstates and a stage for great-power rivalries and military conflict. The successor nations would have to devise a massive range of institutions and policies on the fly, including border control, customs defense, and international diplomacy.
But if the United States should shatter, history suggests that New England or a Greater New England federation would emerge. Indeed, one has been waiting in the wings every time the Union has approached the brink.
‘A fairer prospect of public happiness’
Since the mid-17th century, New Englanders have had a sense of being part of a distinct nation. The early Puritans who colonized Eastern Massachusetts in the 1630s and would bring most of the region under their effective control by that century’s end believed themselves to be a chosen people tasked by a Calvinist God to create a more perfect society in the New England wilderness. They were to accomplish this task collectively through public institutions controlled at the local level — the town meeting, the meetinghouse, the taxpayer-financed public school — which imbued Yankee culture with a greater faith in the possibility of beneficent government than was present in other American regions. Their ideology prioritized the good of the community over the freedom of the individual, which by the Revolutionary period had created one of the transatlantic world’s most literate and egalitarian societies.
Many New Englanders made the mistake of assuming the rest of the British-American colonies were like their own. They decidedly were not. Virginia and the southern parts of Maryland and Delaware were modeled on the conservative, aristocratic society of the English countryside, where manor lords controlled policy, politics, and the administration of justice and expected total deference from their underlings, including peasants in England and slaves in America. The Carolinas, Georgia, and Caribbean colonies were despotic oligarchies where armies of enslaved people were worked to death to maximize private profits from sugar, rice, and cotton. The Dutch-settled area around New York City was commercial, tolerant, and ribald, and the Appalachian backcountry was dominated by Scots-Irish, warrior peoples whose cultural experience led them to distrust government and authority of all kinds. The differences between these regions — and the areas each of them later colonized — remain.
In the Revolutionary period and the Early Republic, New Englanders saw themselves as America’s leaders and their region as the model for the American republic. Because the region had most of the federation’s colleges, libraries, printing presses, and public intellectuals, it dominated the discourse of nation-building. One of its own, Worcester-born historian George Bancroft, would draw on his Puritan cultural heritage to essentially create the national story of the United States as a people chosen by God to spread human freedom across a supposedly virgin continent and around the world.
In this country’s early years, it came as a shock to many New Englanders to discover that much of the rest of the federation had different ideas of what the United States should be and resisted Yankee ideas. Each time 19th-century Southerners managed to win control of the federal government and remake it in their image, New Englanders contemplated creating a smaller federation where their values would dominate.
The secession plotters of 1803 and 1804 were reacting to Virginian Thomas Jefferson’s narrow victory over Massachusetts’ John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, made possible by the inflated Electoral College votes granted slaveholding states by the “three-fifths” clause, whereby enslaved people partially counted toward those states’ political representation. Jefferson and his allies then introduced the 12th Amendment, whose immediate effect would be to deny the New England-dominated Federalists the vice presidency, closing them out of the executive branch. The Jeffersonians then boosted slaveholders’ political power via the legally questionable annexation of the Louisiana Territory. By 1802 interregional tensions were so high that former Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames predicted that an “American Peloponnesian War” might break out between New England and Virginia.
The secession plot that New Englanders cooked up involved elections in 1804. They sought to win pro-secessionist control of New England’s legislatures and to see outgoing vice president Aaron Burr made governor of New York and lead that state out of the Union with them. It was no fringe movement — it was led by Senator Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, who had been John Adams’s secretary of state; Senator Plumer of New Hampshire; four New Hampshire and Connecticut congressmen; and both of Connecticut’s senators. Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong was reportedly on board, and Burr, briefed on the plot, had agreed to his role, though the excited plotters later realized the vice president had never actually said whether he was for or against their ultimate design. Pickering believed if New York joined the plot, Vermont would follow “and Rhode Island of necessity.”
“A Northern Confederacy would unite congenial characters and present a fairer prospect of public happiness; while the Southern States, having a similarity of habits, might be left to ‘manage their own affairs in their own way,’” Pickering explained. “That this can be accomplished, and without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt.”
The plot fell apart when the intended candidates lost their elections. Burr’s defeat came after Alexander Hamilton had gotten a whiff of the scheme and personally lobbied against his candidacy, which spurred Burr toward the duel in which he would kill Hamilton.
Secession raised its head again during the War of 1812, a conflict waged by another Virginian, President James Madison, that was economically devastating to New England. Boston bankers refused to loan the United States government money to fight the war. Massachusetts officials thwarted federal efforts to liberate the eastern half of the District of Maine from British occupation — they didn’t want federal troops there — and Massachusetts Governor Strong sent an emissary to British Nova Scotia to secretly discuss the possibility of making a separate peace.
The resistance culminated at the 1814 Hartford Convention, where New Englanders threatened to secede unless their demands were met for constitutional reforms that would, in effect, restore Yankee power and influence over the federation. Unfortunately, the delegation they sent to Washington to deliver these demands arrived to the news that the war had ended and US forces had triumphed over the British at New Orleans. New England’s Federalists never recovered from the humiliation.
No compromises with tyranny
As Southerners went from apologizing for slavery to championing it, New England became the center of the abolition movement. In 1843, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society resolved that “the compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell involving both parties in atrocious criminality and should be immediately annulled.” The group’s influential leader, William Lloyd Garrison, burned a copy of the Constitution at a rally in Framingham on July 4, 1854, under the watchful eyes of fellow abolitionists Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, and Henry David Thoreau. (“So perish all compromises with tyranny!” Garrison proclaimed as the document turned to ashes.) He organized a National Disunion Convention to be held in 1857, but a national financial collapse that year forced its cancellation.
In early 1861, after the Deep Southern states seceded, many observers expected that the United States would peaceably divide into three confederations plus a city-state around New York City. The country’s largest newspaper, the New-York Tribune, promoted a plan for the northern tier of states to merge with British Canada to create “a great free soil homogeneous nation, extending from the Ohio to the North Pole.” But the South Carolinians’ attack on Fort Sumter that April rallied the middle states to bring the rebels to heel.
Today, as in the 1850s, signs of disunity abound. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has sought to create his own military force separate from the National Guard. The new Texas Republican Party platform calls for a referendum to determine if the state “should reassert its status as an independent nation.” And 13 New Hampshire legislators recently tried to pass a bill that would have their state leave the Union. Last November, a Dartmouth University survey found that 37 percent of Americans, 44 percent of Southerners, 66 percent of Southern Republicans, and over a third of Northeasterners supported the idea of seceding to establish a new union of states in their region.
A breakup would be terrible. Americans should fight to hold the United States together under the terms and ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence: the inherent equality of humans and their natural rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and representative self-government. Without the United States, liberal democratic ideals might well perish from the earth at the hand of their adversaries.
But if tragedy comes to pass and we fail to rescue America, a movement for an independent New England or Greater New England is almost certain to arise. Indeed, such a movement has sprung up each time the Republic has been under internal threat.
Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America” and “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.” He is a visiting senior fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University, in Newport, R.I.