Secession by the Sea: The Forgotten Rebel History of the Seacoast Region

Mike VineFreecoast History

This Washington Post article has been going around. It examines a map made by a fellow named Andrew Shears which seeks to show what the United States would look like today if most historical secessionist movements had been successful:

The States That Could Have Been

Click To Enlarge

Now, these are generally movements in which activists are seeking to create new states within the Union, not to withdraw from it. Also, speaking as a secession-tracking hobbyist, I can say that there are some glaring omissions and misplacements – but hey, it was a big job and it’s easy to be a critic.

What’s most interesting from our perspective at The Freecoast is that the map includes two distinct new states within our Seacoast region: “Newington & Rye” and “Essex”. As I mentioned, I’m a bit of a secession buff but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of either of these efforts in my adoptive homeland. Fortunately, Mr. Shears provides his sources, primarily this Wikipedia article: List_of_U.S._state_partition_proposals. So let’s dive in…

The State of Newington & Rye

At first, I wondered why Portsmouth’s outlying districts of suburban big box stores and foofy beachside mansions, respectively, would warrant their own state over Portsmouth itself or the Seacoast area as a whole; but a look at Mr. Shears’ source revealed an admirable early-aughts effort by those towns to secede from New Hampshire over the passage of a statewide property tax.

The Newington Board of Selectmen invoked Article X of the New Hampshire Constitution as “a constitutional right that would allow the Town of Newington to secede from the State of New Hampshire.” [1] For those who don’t know, Article X is the Right of Revolution written into the NH Bill of Rights.

Gosh, I have such warm feelings for this place.

The efforts of those towns (joined by Portsmouth and others) resulted in the tax being overturned by the Rockingham Superior Court, though this ruling was later reversed by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. This was the same court that caused the funding crisis in the first place by mandating higher spending on public education than many municipalities wished to provide. Still, Newington’s and Rye’s efforts were admirable and surely sent a message to Concord that they better not push New Hampshirites too far.

The State of Essex

Essex County covers what is commonly known as the Massachusetts North Shore. With its crown jewel of Newburyport, I’ve always felt that this area had more of a spiritual connection to the Seacoast than to Greater Boston. Well, it turns out they even share our Arcadian independent streak.

Essex County has served as the home base of significant secessionist efforts on three separate occasions.

First, during the era of the Founding Fathers, a group called the Essex Junto pushed for the Northeastern states to declare independence and join with the Province of Canada in a new federation. This was due mainly to shared economic interests in finance, trade, and shipbuilding, as well as a distinctive culture from the Southeast. [2]

Second, after the War of 1812, Essex County activists called the Hartford Convention, which was the first official meeting of states to discuss withdrawing from the Union. It was concerning enough for the Madison Administration to re-deploy troops from the Canadian border (a front in the war with the British) in order to be prepared to occupy New England in the event of a rebellion! (How different would that Civil War have been written in public school textbooks?)

Finally, during the rise of abolitionism, Newburyport-born William Lloyd Garrison – considered the first man to devote his life to the cause of ending slavery – inspired his local supporters to threaten secession of Essex County as a safe haven for escaped slaves, and then used the area as his base to repeatedly urge the Northern states to divorce themselves from the slave-driving South.

Given that history, I’d welcome a rambunctious State of Essex to our south, or a new Essex County within New Hampshire.

What’s more, all three efforts utterly demolish the common myth of secession being a tool of racists and yokels. In fact, it was wealthy urbanites and abolitionists who were long considered Most Likely to Secede. This history is now being revived by the Tenth Amendment Center to teach today’s abolitionists – whether they’re trying to end drug prohibition or warrantless wiretapping – how to use the federal system to check Washington’s growing power.

A Region of Rebels

Taken together, these two state proposals shed light on the freethinking and resolute culture of the Seacoast region. While Boston, Providence, and Hartford were founded as religious colonies, the Seacoast was settled by traders who sought to get out from under the thumb of an authoritarian church. Their live-and-let-live ethos still persists in the cultural DNA of New Hampshire, and throughout Arcadia.

While some objected that the Free State Project chose a “conventional New England state” for its destination, I take a lot of inspiration from the history of this territory right up to the present day. If Newington & Rye could pressure Concord to back down on a statewide sales tax… if Essex County could rile up President Madison and strike the opening blows toward the abolition of slavery… maybe we do have a shot of achieving Liberty In Our Lifetime by making New Hampshire as free as it can be.


UPDATE: Forgot to mention, if you happen to be a modern-day Seacoast Secessionist, be sure to check out the Foundation for New Hampshire Independence, which accepts donations which are deductible on your federal taxes (ha!).

CORRECTION: An astute reader pointed out to me that NH does have an effective statewide property tax, collected by the towns, to fund a public education requirement mandated by the state supreme court. Paragraphs 3 and 4 of “The State of Newington & Rye” were amended to reflect this new information.