Nothing Secedes Like Excess

Christmas 1979. Soviet tanks rumbled through the streets of Kabul. A group of Islamist students occupied the American Embassy in Tehran. And Robert Ben Madison of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, resolved to start his own country. At 7pm on December 26th, fourteen-year-old Madison placed an antique fire department dress hat on his head and delivered his first Speech to the Nation, claiming independence for his bedroom on the second floor of a turn-of-the-century house near the University of Wisconsin, and bestowing upon himself the title of His Royal Highness, King Robert I. The secession met with no reaction from Washington, and the Kingdom of Talossa was born.

The phenomenon of micronations—a term Madison claims to have coined—pushes to an extreme the right to self-determination. From nineteenth-century communes to offshore tax havens to seaborne pirate radio stations, small communities have long struggled to exempt themselves from rules they hadn’t consented to. Madison’s tongue may never have strayed far from his cheek, but his dedication to Talossa was resolute and profound. With greater panache than the kids who start rock bands or run away from home, Madison found his own adolescent way to freedom. And ultimately, his fate played out in miniature the story of so many other would-be statesmen and founding fathers.

Having seceded from the United States, Madison set about the busy work of nation building. He designed Talossa’s red-and-green flag, drew up its laws, and published the national newspaper, Støtanneu, on a weekly basis. He granted citizenship to interested friends, family, and teachers, and bestowed knighthoods on a worthy few. To keep things interesting, Madison staged occasional revolutions. The 1980 coup by which untitled Robert Ben Madison overthrew King Robert I to found the Communist People’s Republic of Talossa was swiftly followed by a restoration of the monarchy. Both revolution and counter-revolution thankfully transpired without bloodshed.

The 1980’s witnessed a surge of US states adopting English as their official language, but neighboring Talossa moved in the opposite direction: within a year of its founding, the nation had its own language. An amateur linguist, Madison devised Talossan as a Romance language most closely related to French and Occitan, but with influence from Celtic and Germanic languages as well. A single word—fieschada—translates as “love at first sight.”

Talossa’s Royal Highness maintained his dual citizenship with the United States, and visited the neighboring country frequently—the lack of toilet facilities in Talossa, for instance, meant a trip abroad whenever nature called. Madison soon discovered that in America his status as a visiting dignitary was met with just the kind of gruff indifference one might expect from a superpower toward a humble statelet. For the most part, Americans showed even less awareness of Talossa than they did of Canada.

For a few weeks in 1981, Madison stepped down from his lonely throne and dissolved the Kingdom. After all, explaining that you’re the king of a literal bedroom community isn’t the best gambit in the awkward game of teenage courtship. Fortunately, Madison soon recognized that his Declaration of Independence had called into being something far greater than football fields and school dances, and he remained true to it well into adulthood.

Talossa might have remained a quiet hobby had it not been for Madison’s fateful decision, in late 1995, to give his nation a presence on the nascent World Wide Web. King Robert’s bold statement of autonomy resonated with other budding micronationals, who found in Talossa an identity more authentic than the one thrust upon them by the accidental fact of their being born within one set of borders rather than another. Talossa became an early and minor Internet meme: citizenship applications ballooned and virtual citizens from around the world embraced their new nationality with enthusiastic civic engagement. Collaborative work expanded the Talossan dictionary to 28,000 words and composed an elaborate mythic prehistory of Talossa and its origins among North African Berbers who crossed the Atlantic a millennium and a half before Columbus. Multi-party democracy flourished in the upper and lower houses of Talossa’s legislature, the Senäts and the Cosa, respectively. Once a year the Talossan diaspora gathered in Milwaukee to celebrate TalossaFest, and rejoice in its shared heritage.

Talossa’s online citizens, or cybercits, quickly became dominant, and parliament relegated the king to a mainly ceremonial role. Talossan parliamentary proceedings were rowdy affairs, full of overblown rhetoric and heated denunciations. Madison’s attempts to reassert control over his creation met with staunch resistance. In keeping with the spirit of its founding, Talossan national identity included a stubborn independent streak. Talossans wouldn’t tolerate an absolute monarch any more than they tolerated the restrictions of traditional nationality. Accusations of tyranny led an anti-monarchist faction to split from King Robert in 2004, founding the rival Republic of Talossa. A further row, this time over immigration procedures, finally pushed King Robert to abdicate in 2005, passing the crown to his wife’s eight-year-old grandson, the new King Louis I. Parliament determined that Louis was too young to rule without an adult Regent, and by 2007, Louis had been replaced by King John, who had first discovered Talossa two years earlier on Wikipedia.

The price of sharing your dream, often, is losing control of it.

Madison and a handful of other long-standing Talossans re-founded a separate “Kingdom of Talossa,” raising the number of rival Talossas to two kingdoms and one republic. Ultimately, however, the middle-aged Robert Ben Madison had neither the time nor the enthusiasm for the role as his younger self. On the 4th of July, 2011, Madison formally rescinded Talossa’s Declaration of Independence, dissolved the Kingdom, and returned to civilian life in the United States. King John’s Kingdom of Talossa and the rival Republic both maintain a presence on the Web. Neither has received official recognition from any other state — not even each other.