When Martha’s Vineyard Tried to Secede, and How That Worked Out


Secession: Some work, most don’t

For Americans, the most well-known, successful secession took place in 1776 when the Continental Congress unanimously passed the Declaration of Independence, thus inaugurating what became known with the misnomer of the American Revolution. Those who signed the document had no intention of overthrowing the British government, which would have made it a true revolution. They just wanted, as the Declaration put it, “the thirteen states of the United States of America to separate from the British Empire.”

That it was triumphant had little to do with American military prowess. There was very little of that: General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, decided early to fight a “war of posts.” This meant he avoided direct encounters with the enemy at all costs. The British possessed the largest, most well-trained, professional military force in the entire world. The Americans? A bunch of ragtag, ill-equipped, poorly trained militiamen living in a backwater country with few resources.

The Americans can thank France for the successful outcome that came in 1781 with the defeat of the British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown. Indeed, more French soldiers and sailors were present at that battle than American troops.


But we’ve tried it before (several times)

My research tells me that the Vineyard seceded from what was then the colony of New York in 1692, and joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colonists were denied direct representation by the New York royal governor, but Massachusetts Bay granted that to the Islanders. It was the same issue in 1976–77 — loss of representation in the assembly (General Court).

In his “History of Martha’s Vineyard: How We Got to Where We Are,” Arthur R. Railton recounted other successful secessions: In 1880, Oak Bluffs (then called Cottage City) seceded from Edgartown, and 12 years later West Tisbury (Middletown, at the time) from Tisbury.

A successful Civil War–era secession occurred in 1861, the year General George McClellan drove the forces of General Robert E. Lee from the western counties of Virginia. Without a governing authority there, Unionist sympathizers formed a new state, West Virginia, to which the U.S. granted statehood status in 1863. The surveyors were in such a hurry, they misplaced the state line on the western border of Pennsylvania: Even today there is a sliver of West Virginia that runs between the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders.

But what of the 1976–77 attempt by Vineyarders to consider secession from Massachusetts or, in the minds of some at the time, from the United States? The cause echoed that of the Americans in 1776, but only a little. The rebellion exploded after Massachusetts leaders decided to reduce the number of representatives in the General Court (the state legislature): The change in the commonwealth’s constitution reduced the number in the lower house from 240 to 160.

Vineyarders were vulnerable. The reduction in the number of representatives meant that while Islanders would be taxed and have representation, they would no longer have their own delegate. Now, just one person would represent not only the Island, but also Nantucket and parts of Cape Cod. Massachusetts leaders argued that Dukes County contained only 4,000 voters, whereas most legislative districts in Massachusetts had about 10,000. Hence, the “one person, one vote” requirement, originally set by the Supreme Court in 1964, was not met.

The reapportionment plan that went before the General Court was designed to create districts containing about 34,000 people in each. All the towns, including Gosnold, voted for secession, and soon, so did the All-Island Selectmen’s Association. Nantucket also agreed.

The New York Times reported on Feb. 18, 1977, that the towns’ selectmen were sending a list of grievances to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. “We’ll be disenfranchised,” The Times quoted Massachusetts State Rep. Terrance P. McCarthy (from Oak Bluffs) as saying; the paper went on to report, “The secession was Mr. McCarthy’s idea. He said he was not sure on the procedure for pulling out,” but that they’d start with the list to the governor. “Mr. McCarthy said he might ask U.S. Rep. Gerry E. Studds, in whose district the island is situated, to file federal legislation to make Martha’s Vineyard a separate state. On the other hand, he said, ‘Maybe we should secede from the country. That way we’d get all sorts of foreign aid.’”

Beverly Sills, the opera singer who was a summer resident, was quoted as hoping for full and total independence: “If we do secede, I’m putting in my bid for Minister of Culture.” Art Buchwald, whom everyone knows, hoped for foreign aid as an independent nation: “We’ll split it up, of course, and deposit it in numbered Swiss bank accounts,” which you could do at the time. The Swiss no longer allow secret accounts.

Two months later, the New York Times led its story with these words, “Insurrection is sweeping the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.”

The towns of the Vineyard and Nantucket voted to leave Massachusetts, and join together in a new state with a flag designed by artist Fran Forman. Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island invited the islands to join them. Incredibly, Kansas did as well. There was also a declaration of independence and a national anthem.

Unsurprisingly, the effort failed. After all, Congress would have to approve it in a bill ratified by the Massachusetts General Court and signed by the governor, though Gov. Dukakis promised to veto it.


Still, the Vineyard experience echoes throughout American history

Early in our history, we have the events surrounding the curious character Aaron Burr. He served in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, in the United States Senate, and as Vice President of the United States in Thomas Jefferson’s first administration.

His major achievement was that he managed to irk everyone who met him. He tried to displace Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, so Jeffersonians despised him. He shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804 in a duel in New Jersey, so the Hamiltonians hated him. In 1807, he stood trial in federal court for treason when he was accused of trying to sever the western territories of the United States and create a new nation with himself as leader. He was acquitted.

Seven years later, a group of disgruntled Yankees wanted New England to break off from the Union, led by people like Timothy Pickering, a U.S. senator, and Harrison Gray Otis, both of Massachusetts. Otis eventually became a United States senator and mayor of Boston. They opposed the War of 1812 (“Mr. Madison’s War”) against Britain. As Anglophiles, they opposed Jefferson’s admiration of France, now that his protégé, James Madison, was president.

Though the movement lasted less than one month, they were especially irked over the Southern control of the federal government.

One of the Constitution’s major debates at the 1787 convention was how to undertake the 10-year census. Are all people counted? What about slaves? How are they counted? Southern delegates wanted to count slaves as whole persons, whereas their Northern counterparts argued that planters treated slaves as commodities, not human beings. Therefore, they should not be counted at all.

The compromise was the infamous rule that considered a slave three-fifths of a person. With this decision, the South was guaranteed control of the House of Representatives and pretty much the presidency. The result: From 1789 to 1837, with the brief exception of the John and John Quincy Adams, Southerners were elected president. The men at the Hartford Convention deeply resented this, and wanted out. They gave up almost as soon as they first began to discuss the matter.


Half the country wanted to secede at one point

For Americans, of course, the quintessential secession was the decision by 11 Southern states to withdraw from the Union in 1860–61 after the election of the antislavery candidate Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. South Carolina was the first to exit the United States in December 1860, the state where four months later, the first shots were fired in the Civil War when Southern troops seized the U.S. military post Fort Sumter.

Everything Lincoln did was wholly improvised to preserve the nation. He had to claim his own constitutional authority. Only later did Congress retroactively confirm most of his decisions and actions. This was a lesson hard learned in the midst of harsh and screeching political and military division: He grasped executive power unlike any president before him.

Without congressional authorization, Lincoln sent troops into battle, instituted military rule, and allowed his commanders to create military tribunals to try civilians. A year after his assassination in 1865, a Supreme Court justice, David Davis, who had served as a Republican Party campaign manager, in his opinion for the court chastised him with words that resonate today.

Even presidents, he wrote, are under the law and the Constitution: “The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances.” When presidents overstep their constitutional authority, “republican government is a failure, and there is an end of liberty regulated by law.”

Great men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln might well know how to conduct themselves during perilous times like a civil war, during an invasion, or when the nation is threatened. The United States, however, cannot count on always having great men in office. There may well come a time when “wicked men … ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law” will subvert the freedom and rights that the Constitution guarantees.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that once states have entered the Union, they may never leave it. The court declined to recognize Southern secession. By a vote of five to three, the justices concluded that the State of Texas and all the other states that formed the Confederate States had never left the Union at all.

The court has, however, addressed secession: not just a state or set of states leaving the nation, but, indirectly, portions of states breaking off and forming new states.

Writing the opinion of the court in Texas v. White (1869), Chief Justice Salmon Chase famously wrote memorable words that deserve to be quoted at length.

The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States. When, therefore, Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. All the obligations of perpetual union, and all the guaranties of republican government in the Union, attached at once to the State. This which consummated her admission into the Union was something more than a compact; it was the incorporation of a new member into the political body. And it was final. …

… [T]he ordinance of secession, adopted by the convention and ratified by a majority of the citizens of Texas, and all the acts of her legislature intended to give effect to that ordinance, were absolutely null. They were utterly without operation in law.


Texas did it for nine years!

And yet, this ruling has not stopped states, or alternatively parts of states, from trying. Texas, for example, occupies a unique position in the United States: It is the only state to have once been an independent republic for nine years, 1836–45. The California republic does not count, given it lasted a mere 25 days in 1846. Does this mean that Texas has a claim to independence? Some Texans recently have argued that it does, because their state is a captive territory, illegally and imperialistically annexed by the U.S.

As Texas governor, Rick Perry, now Secretary of Energy, hinted at a Tea Party protest that Texas had such a right of independence. He never directly advocated secession, but did tell the Associated Press that “when we came in the Union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that [secede].” He continued, “If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that?”

A Reuters poll found five years ago that 34 percent of all Southerners support their states’ secession from the U.S.


California would like to leave now, please

Within the past five years, some Californians have sponsored ballot initiatives to secede from the Union. A group calling itself Yes California (#Calexit) opposes high taxes, especially federal income taxes, and wants smaller government. The leadership claims that Californians are culturally different from the people in the rest of country and thus have a right to be independent. They also contend that the California economy is huge compared with most other states: It is larger than that of France, and the state is more populous than Poland.

Some news reports [bit.ly/CalExit2] claim that Russian trolls used the #Calexit and the Texas secession hashtags tens of thousands of times during and after the 2016 presidential election. This effort is reminiscent of an earlier attempt by Northern California to secede from Southern California, 50 years ago. That too failed, but it raises interesting questions about whether parts of states can leave a state.

In 2013 and for a couple of years afterward, folks in Western Maryland made noises about seceding from Maryland, which is probably the bluest state after Massachusetts. But Maryland is not uniformly blue — parts are quite red: Western Maryland is politically very conservative. The goal of secessionists was to break off the five most western counties and form a new state, kind of the way West Virginia broke from Virginia during the Civil War.

The main triggers, if you will, of the movement were Maryland’s high taxes and the passage of a gun safety law, which, like that of Massachusetts, is one of the most restrictive in the nation. The leaders were careful not to call it a secession. They referred to it as a divorce.

Placing the failed effort of Vineyarders 40 years ago in this long historical context leaves us with one major conclusion: It didn’t work in 1977. Nor would it work today.

But if we ever succeed at seceding, at least we’ve got the national anthem ready. Those lyrics, by the way, according to an article in Time magazine on April 18, 1977:


“T’was the big freeze of ’77,

Numb’ring ’bout eleven;

The farmers, the fishermen, John Alley too

Compatriots all, to decide what to do.

A rallying cry was heard the isle through,

It’s time to secede from you know who!”

“Martha’s Vineyard Bumper Sticker”

Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University.

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