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The rise of secessionist movements

Secession in modern America 08:08

(CBS News) What citizen fed up with the doings in their state capital hasn't daydreamed of living in a state of their own? Turns out, some of our nation's discontented have been doing a lot more than daydreaming. Our Cover Story is reported by Barry Petersen:

The map says this is northern California, so mapmakers and visitors might be a bit confused about a sign claiming this is the State of Jefferson.

"The State of Jefferson, as originally envisioned, would be the same size as, say, New Mexico," said Geri Byrne, Chairman of the Modoc County Board of Supervisors, which passed a resolution in September to leave California and help form the State of Jefferson. "It would be, like, the 44th largest state, and the 44th largest by population, too."

A newspaper poll in Siskiyou County next door showed overwhelming support after that county's board also voted to leave California: 66 percent for secession, 22 percent against, 11 percent not sure.

And the sentiment is spreading to other counties across northern California.

It is fed by anger across rural America . . . a mood of us-against-them, against big cities that increasingly dominate state legislatures, passing laws some say ignore rural needs.

Bryne said that regulations on agriculture and timber harvesting have a direct impact on their community. "Our local economies in rural California are basically dependent on ranching, farming, timber, hunting, fishing. And every time, you know, we make bureaucratic decisions that impact that, we destroy the economies of northern -- the North State."

This isn't their first try. The people in northern California and southern Oregon tried breaking away once before, in 1941, even setting up roadblocks on the borders of a State of Jefferson. It fizzled out with the beginning of World War II.

And it turns out that breaking away from one state to form a new one is as old as the United States, beginning in 1776 when the colony of Delaware broke from Pennsylvania. Maine was once part of Massachusetts. West Virginia and Kentucky were once part of Virginia, and Tennessee was a breakaway from North Carolina.

And, of course, much of the South seceded and called itself a separate country, until it was defeated in the Civil War.

"Secession is with us, a tradition almost like Thanksgiving -- well, except Thanksgiving stays and secession comes and goes," said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University and a CBS News contributor. He says the founding fathers made sure rural America was listened to, starting with the way we choose a president.

"That's why we have an Electoral College system, that we don't forget rural people," Brinkley said. "That system of having two senators from every state, regardless of population, is a gesture -- a big one -- to rural populations that they are being listened to."

Listened to or not, these modern-day movements are popping up from Maryland to the upper peninsula of Michigan to northern Colorado.

In northern Colorado this Tuesday, voters in 11 counties will decide about letting their county commissioners explore breaking away from the state. Opinions are mixed.

"It's divisive," said one man. "Pretty soon, we'll have 100 states, potentially."

Joy Beuer told Petersen the Colorado counties should be allowed to secede. "Because we are not getting heard," she said.

A forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, drew a full house in Weld County.

"Something's changed in the last decade," said county commissioner Sean Conway. "The Colorado we grew up in, the Colorado we love, has changed."

Chuck Sylvester's family started a farm in 1869, which he and his wife, Roni, still run. Now he lives in a Colorado with legalized marijuana, new gun control regulations, and civil unions for gays.

"In my job that I had, I had many people of different sexual preferences," Sylvester said. "And some of them were like sons and daughters to me, I thought so much about. But it is defined by God in the Bible that marriage is between a man and a woman. Don't change that."

"So that wasn't your culture when this was being dealt with, as in your beliefs?" asked Petersen.

"Yeah, that's very correct," he replied.

Petersen asked Brinkley, "When I hear the word 'values' by people in rural areas, is this part of what's at play, that our culture has really changed dramatically?"

"Absolutely," he replied. "Anybody who's a hardened secessionist, in the end, you're going to find just doesn't like 'the other.' And 'the other' tends to be people with different colored skin or different cultural values than the ones they grew up with in their particular county."

But values are beside the point for Roni Sylvester

For her the driver of secession is economic: "We see a lot of economic decisions being made by the populous that have a direct negative impact on those of us in the rural areas."

Weld County is rich in oil, and that means "fracking." Some want fracking banned because of potential environmental damage.

"If you have property," Sylvester said, "for example, with gas, oil and mineral rights on it, that you should have the right to allow that to be explored. And I know a lot of people are dependent on their royalties now, particularly our senior citizens. It's their security."

But the constitutional hurdles for breaking away were set high. First, a state's legislature must approve, and then the U.S. Congress must vote to accept, the new state.

Dave Young, a native Coloradan, represents part of Weld County in the Colorado House of Representatives, and opposes secession. Young doubts that secession would fly in the Colorado legislature.

"If we just build walls and refuse to talk to each other," Young told Petersen, "that's the dangerous piece. I think we lessen our power as a country. When we split off in different directions, are we really as powerful as we were before?"

"We pride ourselves in this country on a willingness to hear everybody out," Petersen said to Brinkley. "Is it kind of a good thing that these people are saying these things?"

Brinkley said, "I don't find the attention good, because you're leading people down a garden path to nowhere. It never ends. If you start indulging one secessionist movement, then you'll have to indulge another, and there would be no United States."

In northern California, they feel they no longer have a choice.

"We're so outnumbered, I don't know that politically there is another viable way," said secessionist Geri Byrne. "You know, I mean, this at least focuses the attention on the problems that exist. Is it something that's going to be easy to do? No. You know, is it something possible? Maybe. There's a lot of people behind this movement."

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