Florida seceded from the Union on January 10, 1861. We were the third state to do so, behind South Carolina and Mississippi. As a founding partner in the Confederate States of America, Florida helped to catapult the nation into a divisive and bloody Civil War.
When Florida seceded, the island outpost of Key West remained under Union control throughout the war.
Florida was readmitted into the United States of America on July 25, 1868.
More than a century later, Floridians from Key West would lead their own secession effort that was much more productive, successful—and humorous.
On April 18, 1982, the United States Border Patrol established a roadblock on U.S. Highway 1, just south of Florida City. The only access point by land from the Florida Keys to the mainland was closed, and people leaving the Keys were treated as though they were exiting a foreign country.
The U.S. Border Patrol claimed that the roadblock was established to stop “illegal” immigrants from entering the mainland United States from the Florida Keys. Every car leaving the Keys was checked thoroughly by the Border Patrol, including unlikely hiding places such as glove compartments and under seats.
The seventeen mile traffic jams that accompanied the roadblock had an immediate negative impact on tourism in the Florida Keys. Reservations were cancelled, hotels stood empty, and local attractions had no customers.
Community leaders from Key West filed an injunction against the U.S. Border Patrol roadblock in Federal Court in Miami. The court ruled that the roadblock could continue.
As Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow left the courthouse, he was greeted by press from around the world. When asked what would happen next, the mayor said, “Tomorrow at noon, the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!”
The press, and Federal agents, flooded Key West the next day. As promised, at noon on April 23, 1982, Mayor Wardlow read a Proclamation of Secession, declaring that Key West would now be a sovereign nation known as the Conch Republic.
Having changed his title from Mayor of Key West to Prime Minister of the Conch Republic, Dennis Wardlow followed his mock secession with a declaration of war on the United States. The “war” started and ended with loaves of stale Cuban bread being broken over the head of a man dressed in a U.S. Navy uniform.
After one minute of rebellion, Prime Minister Wardlow surrendered to Union forces at the Navy Base in Key West. He immediately demanded one billion dollars in foreign aid and war relief “to rebuild our nation after the long Federal siege.”
With their highly publicized mock secession and fake war against the United States, the residents of Key West successfully used humor to bring attention to a serious issue affecting the local economy.
Following widespread reports of the establishment of the Conch Republic, the U.S. Border Patrol roadblock was quickly and unceremoniously removed.
Today, the Conch Republic continues to issue its own passport. The republic has its own flag with the motto “We Seceded Where Others Failed.” In April each year, Key West residents and visitors celebrate the independence of the Conch Republic.
The 32nd Anniversary Conch Republic Independence Celebration includes a raising of the official Conch Republic flag, a parade, a Drag Race on Duval Street (high heels, not cars), and numerous other excuses to party through the end of the month.
For more information on the history and culture of Key West read the books “Key West on the Edge: Inventing the Conch Republic” by Robert Kerstein, and “Key West: History of an Island of Dreams” by Maureen Ogle.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers.” The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.