An Alternative America
January 30, 2014 § 4 Comments
A couple of days ago, an interesting article appeared in the Des Moines Register. I knew of it because my social media friend, and a geographer at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, Andy Shears, had a map published with the article. Andy’s map is an alternative United States, based on historically proposed states, none of which came into existence. He created the map 2 1/2 years ago for his own blog. The Register also mis-identifies Andy’s map as one of what the country would look like if all the separatist movements in history had actually worked. But, either way, it’s actually a really interesting map, put together in what I image was after agonising research, Andy came up with an alternative United States based on a country of 124 separate states, all based on proposals that never came to be. In the case of Massachusetts, there would actually be two states: Massachusetts and Boston. Of course, anyone who lives outside the Hub, especially in Western Mass, would say there already ARE two Massachusetts. Cascadia, in this version, is a state that straddles the mountains of eastern Washington and Oregon. And then there’s a wonderful little state called Forgottonia carved into what is today the border between Illinois and Missouri, just north of the hypothetical state of St. Louis.
But I digress. The column in the Register was written by Steffan Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State. In it, Schmidt ruminates on an apparent proposal in California to split the state into six smaller states, based on a proposal from Silicon Valley. Schmidt notes that this would give the general California region 12 senators compared to the 2 it has now, which means that it would have much greater power in Washington. Schmidt, though, seems to assume that the 6 Californias would all elect Democratic senators, which is incredibly unlikely.
Schmidt’s larger point is about the apparent immutability of the United States, that Americans consider the national boundaries to be sacrosanct. He ties that back to the Civil War, just another legacy of that war in American life. But then he goes on to note that countries fracture into newer ones continually, pointing to various examples from Slovakia to Scotland to South Sudan. Interestingly, he does not mention Québec and Canada. But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish (though, interestingly, both Canadians and Quebecers consider their national borders to be sacrosanct). But it is a point well worth considering, at least to a degree.
The difference between, say, Scotland and the United States is simple. Scotland was annexed by England to create Britain in 1707. The United States is comprised of states that all chose to be part of the Union. By that I mean the European settlers of the territory that is now the United States of America all petitioned to Congress to be admitted to the Union. And even if the Confederate States were defeated and then had to be re-admitted to the Union, they also did so willingly (or at least as willingly as they could). In contrast, Scotland was annexed. Slovakia was annexed. We all know how Yugoslavia was formed and what happened when that came apart.
So there is a huge difference between the American model and those Schmidt offers in comparison. Similarly, Canada was formed in a manner very similar to the United States. But Schmidt is correct to note that it is remarkable how resilient the American state has been since 1776. I was recently thinking about this when I saw news that the population shift in the United States, based on recent census data, will make the South and the West stronger politically, at least in the House. This led me to think about my current research, of course (The far right of American politics and history), and I began to wonder if the relative decline of New England and the Northwest in favour of greater power in the South and Southwest would lead to separatist movements throughout the nation. Not that I think they’d ever be successful, any more than I think Québec will ever separate. But it’s fun to have such idle thoughts.
And then I got one of the great classics of punk rock in my head, “Alternative Ulster,” by Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers. The song dates from 1978, the height of the Troubles, and the Stiffies, two Catholics and two Protestants, simply wanted a different future for themselves.
Though one could argue Scotland’s incorporation into Great Britain was voluntary, since it was arranged by treaty between the two governments. Bribery? Sure. Popular support? No one with influence cared back then.
While secessionists (except for Vermont and West Virginia) have had little luck, there have been some important interstate boundary disputes. Supporting your analysis, most have ended up ratifying the de facto border, which typically was incorrectly surveyed: e.g., Ohio-Michigan, Kentucky-Tennessee, Tennessee-Georgia, and Idaho-Montana. The resolution of the Massachusetts-Rhode Island dispute is a notable exception.
And a question: is Quebec still disputing the border with Labrador?
Really, until the advent of mass media and the extension of the franchise in the late 19th century, popular opinion was irrelevant. But, personally, I think the average Scot in 1707 didn’t care about the Union, it would change nothing for his life whether the government was in Edinburgh or London.
Anyway, yeah, border disputes. The great thing for we Canadians is that every boundary dispute with the US was solved by a tri-partite committee of a Brit, a Yank and a Canuck before the Statute of Westminster in 1931 gave Canada control of its foreign affairs. The Brits were always careful not to upset the Canadians, so every dispute (most notably Alaska/British Columbia and Maine/New Brunswick) ended up in favour of the US.
As for Québec and Labrador, yes, to a degree. But Québec also figured out in the 1970s the best way to win this dispute was to develop the hydro-electric power of Churchill Falls in Labrador and then screw the Newfoundland/Labrador government out of a fair deal in terms of royalties. Québec is still disputing the boundary, sort of, and Newfoundland/Labrador is still disputing the fact it is getting screwed at Churchill Falls. Tant pis.
Whereas in American accounts of the Canadian disputes, they are all described as reasonable compromises, though more detailed accounts generally agree that the U.S. won the Oregon dispute, since there was very little American presence north of the Columbia. Maine/New Brunswick is described as a military trade-off, with the British getting their road to the Maritimes, while the U.S. got the Vermont boundary pushed northward to include the fort they’d built on Canadian soil due to a surveying error.
Sorry this is getting away from your original theme, but I was intrigued that the Canadian view and American view of these disputes are at variance.
The British response is pretty similar, frankly, so, in that sense, in terms of geopolitics, it was, the British got what they wanted, the Americans go what they wanted. Take Maine/NB, the British got their road to the Atlantic and the Americans got part of Québec. But what did Canada get out of that? What did the aboriginals who wanted to be part of Canada on the Maine border get? Oregon was another matter, as it was all just British colonial land, but for the disputes settled between 1867 and 1931, the pattern was always the same for Canada.
Interestingly, I think the only boundary dispute within Canada I can think of in the past century is that Québec/Labrador one, but Newfoundland/Labrador is also the most recent province, having only joined up in 1949, 44 years after the Prairie provinces.