It seems ironic that a man identified with the cause of states’ rights and the South’s quest for self-determination attended a school in the heartland of Yankee centralism.  Yet John C. Calhoun was Yale man, a graduate of the Congregationalist institution that formed part of the intellectual center of New England’s eventual domination over the rest of America—something that Calhoun opposed and feared.

Another Yale graduate student, Jason P. Sorens, is trying to carry on Calhoun’s work today, even if the Elis are loath to admit that Calhoun attended school in New Haven.

“My wife’s a South Carolinian, and she grew up not too far from where Calhoun lived and worked,” Sorens said.  “From that, and my time here at Yale, and through my own views on states’ rights, I’m quite aware of his legacy.”

That legacy of states’ rights and nullification is part of Sorens’ Free State Project (FSP), a libertarian group that has a plan to put into action Calhoun’s views on the states’ need to act independently of the federal government in defense of their own interests.  The FSP hopes to attract 20,000 or more liberty-loving people to join them and to agree to relocate to a single, small U.S. state in order to move that state’s body politic toward the principles of a free society.  The group was formed in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, as, once again, Libertarians were stuck in the mire of third-party politics.

“A column written by Walter Williams,” Sorens recalled, “which talked about the possibilities of secession, influenced my thinking in this direction, as did a round-table discussion in Liberty Magazine about what strategies the Libertarian Party should pursue.  I talked to friends and also wrote an essay in the Libertarian Enterprise, which is an online Libertarian magazine, and got an excellent response.”  And that’s how the FSP was founded.

There are currently 27,000 paid-up Libertarian Party activists, according to Sorens’ figures, and he believes that they are potential recruits for the FSP.  Sorens hopes they can form the activist cadre
of an existing state Libertarian Party, or a new political organization, or act in coalition with other existing parties in whichever state they choose.  The example of the Parti Québécois (PQ) is frequently cited on the FSP website, and Sorens estimates that the PQ had 100,000 paid members by 1976, when it won control of the provincial legislature.  At that time, Quebec’s population was 6.2 million, a ratio of one member for every 62 people.  Applying the same mathematics to a state with a population of 1.2 million or less, and where the two major political parties spend less than four million dollars each for political campaigns at all levels, Sorens believes that his group could achieve the same results as the PQ.

Utopian?  Naive?  Mad?  There are those who would think so.  But is the dream of the FSP any more insane than Libertarians or Constitutionalists or Greens trying to elect a president, especially one who will likely be without congressional or state-office support?  Is it any more insane than spending another year toiling in the political fields trying to cultivate another rich harvest of grassroots support just to elect an alderman?  Is it more insane than “working within our two-party system?”

“Third parties don’t work on a national scale,” Sorens asserted.  “Not just because the system is against them, but the culture is, too.  If you look around the world, the parties and movements that are new and dynamic are the ones promoting regionalism, local culture, separatism, and autonomy.”

And if you look back through American history, the idea of the FSP seems fairly sane after all.  The migration of 20,000 or so activists into a small state pales in comparison to that of blacks from the South to Northern cities during the first half of the 20th century.  It certainly would be on par with the migration of Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, to their desert kingdom in Utah, and at least on the level of recent political migrations of New York liberals to Vermont, which changed the political orientation of that state from cantankerous Yankee to Ben-and-Jerry hippie, or California conservatives to the Rocky Mountain states and Texas.

So what would the activists in the Free State Project do with their “freedom,” if they were elected to public office in the state to which they had migrated?  For starters, they would like to repeal state taxes and wasteful government programs.  Then they would end collaboration between state and federal officials in enforcing unconstitutional federal laws.  They would end asset forfeiture and abuses of eminent domain, privatize utilities, and revoke inefficient state regulations and monopolies.  They would negotiate directly with the federal government for more autonomy, opting out of national programs in favor of tax rebates or block grants, as some provinces have done in other countries.  And there’s more.

“There should be no federal role in land ownership, and we would give federal lands back to states and local communities for more productive use,” Sorens said.  “We also would want to give Indian tribes living within our states full autonomy.  Plus, we feel that states should exercise the right to control immigration.  States that would want to have a large immigrant population should have the right to do so, and those that do not wish to should have the right to put up barriers.”

Such autonomy, if attained, could go in fascinating directions.  Take foreign policy, for example.  A state that did not favor an undeclared war could prevent the members of its National Guard from taking part or prevent citizens from being conscripted unless war were declared by Congress.  They could also reject treaties that undermined their economic, political, or cultural interests, especially those drawn up in the United Nations.  They could negotiate trade agreements of their own with other provinces and states around the globe.

This kind of autonomy could catch on.  If the foreign-policy experts and bureaucrats in the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, Congress, White House, and United Nations knew that an unpopular treaty, trade agreement, or military adventure would be opposed by several states, they might think twice.  Such resistance could break the monopoly that the current establishment has on the foreign policy of this country and rein in the growing empire.

Autonomy and the right of dissent from federal policy is as American as apple pie.  The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions forswore compliance with the Alien and Sedition Acts that Congress passed in 1798.  It was upon these resolutions that Calhoun based his principle of nullification, explained in the South Carolina Exposition of 1828 and the Fort Hill Address of 1831.  Calhoun was not a secessionist—nor is the FSP advocating secession.  But both agree that states have the right to refuse compliance with policies drawn up in Washington that are ruinous to the interests of their people, and many Found-ing Fathers hoped that this refusal would be a check upon the growth of the federal government’s power.  While that check may have been removed after 1860, trying to restore it certainly cannot be a greater waste of time than trying to elect a representative, senator, or president in a system that has been bought and paid for.

Founded in the middle of 2001, the FSP has, as of December 2002, over 2,000 members.  The disaster of September 11 and the wave of nationalist feeling put a crimp in its membership drive for a while.  The group is using its website,, and word of mouth to spark interest.  It hopes to advertise in libertarian and other political and cultural publications, and members are trying to recruit at Libertarian Party conventions across the country.

“We’ve had good responses from some of the LP membership,” Sorens said.  “I think there are many Libertarians out there burned out with conventional politics.  They’re looking for something that has a chance to work.  Others are just ignoring us or giving us a polite nod and looking the other way.

“There were definitely some effects from September 11 to the FSP.  Some people who were interested dropped out.  Some people called us traitors and sent us death threats.  The rate of people signing up per day slowed for a while . . . but it began to pick up again in February [2002].  I think people are beginning to realize that not much in the country has changed except for the federal government trying to violate and take away our civil liberties in the name of our protection.  And yet, as 9/11 showed, it could not and did not protect us from Al Qaeda and their extremists.  So we are starting to gain members again.  We would like to reach 5,000 members in three years, because that would be a tipping point to show to people that we’re serious.”

The mixed response from Libertarians has led the FSP to look outside the party for others who share their hopes and dreams for state and local autonomy.  Anti-federal-government groups in the West, strict constitionalist groups like the Constitution Party, and political and cultural autonomists and secessionists such as the League of the South could provide members and inspiration.  New members get to choose the state in which they pledge to live.  The FSP website contains economic and political data on several states with fewer than 1.2 million people.  The list has been pared down, based on various criteria: Socialist voting preferences eliminate Vermont, Rhode Island, and Hawaii; heavy dependence upon government subsides and largess eliminates both North and South Dakota.  That leaves the Western states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana; the Eastern states of New Hampshire and Delaware; and Alaska.

Sorens and the FSP seem aware that simply moving 20,000 people to a state that many of them may never even have visited and announcing, like Marlon Brando’s motorcycle gang in The Wild One, that “We’re taking over!” may not sit well with the locals who have lived there all of their lives.  But so long as the FSP talks of “building a local culture of liberty,” “appeals to a state’s particularism and rights vis-à-vis the federal government,” and supports autonomy for such local groups as Native American tribes, it is on the right track.

“We’ve stressed on our discussion websites how best to integrate ourselves into the community we will eventually choose.  But we’re not sure how that will really work out,” Sorens admitted.  “In Western states, we have to make contact with ranchers, farmers, and miners and talk about gun-rights issues, property rights, and the ownership of federal lands.  In the East, we will have to take a small-business approach and stress the issue of taxes.  Obviously, if we locate in the West and Alaska, it will be to our advantage because it’s farther away from the central government, and that distance plays a role in issues of autonomy.”

Alaska already has a secessionist movement, or at least the remnants of one: the Alaska Independence Party (AIP), which elected a governor, former interior secretary Walter Hickel, who served from 1990 to 1994.  But Alaska or a Western state may present some problems for the FSP.  While both might be fertile ground politically, they are less so economically, at least for Libertarians and FSP members, many of whom work in the high-tech and financial-service industries.  Jobs in those areas are not exactly in great supply in the mostly rural and commodity-driven Western states and Alaska.  Some FSP members have made it quite clear that they would prefer not to live in Alaska or Wyoming.  That is why Delaware, the manor lawn of the DuPont family and home of the government-dependent credit-card industry, is still on the FSP’s short list.

The FSP looks to the Parti Québécois as a model of a successful autonomist political party.  Comparatively, however, the PQ had it easy.  All it had to do was to rally one homogenous ethnic, religious, and linguistic group to its cause.  Herding cats might prove easier than trying to build a coalition of libertarians, secessionists, constitutionalists, paleoconservatives, Greens, and classical liberals.  And if that succeeds, trying to assimilate into a particular state’s culture, making common cause with native political parties and interest groups, and building a cultural and economic base of support would be a task that would burden even a Bismarck.

“Education is going to be an important part of what we do,” Sorens stressed.  “Educating ourselves to the state that we choose to live in and educating the residents there as to what we stand for.  We have to focus our attention on those who don’t vote a lot or whose lives aren’t taken up by politics.  So much of our political debate is framed by elite opinion from pundits or experts or the media that it’s hard for regular people not to follow along, because nobody wants to be part of, or examine closely, something that polls just one percent of the population or is portrayed as being on the ‘fringe.’

“That’s why having so many activists in one single place, working together for what we believe in, will make people not only take a look at us, but look at us again and again.  It’s that second and third look that we need.”