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Could the United States Break Up?

A new book argues that the threat of secession has never left American politics.

Bridgeman Images

In the wake of Brexit and Trump’s election, many Americans began to ask if the United States might soon break apart. In 2016, progressive activists in Portland, Oregon, submitted a petition calling for a statewide vote on secession; that same year, a poll showed that 26 percent of Texans supported state independence. In a 2018 survey, 31 percent of Americans believed a civil war was possible within the next five years. A cohort of national security experts put the chances of a civil war within the next 15 years at 35 percent. And who has not entertained the possibility that, if Trump loses the election this fall, he might resist leaving office? Strange turnout patterns during the pandemic would certainly give both candidates a pretext for contesting the results—and what institution these days has the legitimacy to settle the question decisively?

Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union
by Richard Kreitner
Little, Brown & Company, 496 pp., $27.60

If the idea of the U.S. dissolving seems far-fetched, one reason is that we have been trained to think of secession and civil war as something long settled. The South tried it, they lost, and ever since disunion has seemed a practical impossibility. But in Richard Kreitner’s provocative 400-year history of America, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, he argues that the nation’s foundations have always been fragile. The threat of disunion has been raised or attempted in every region and by all political factions at some point in our nation’s past. If we ignore this “hidden thread” in our history and choose to believe in a mythic past when unity actually existed, we make disunion more likely, not less. To build a truly equal and lasting multiracial democracy, he argues, we must stop papering over the constant threat of disunion that haunts our past.

From the first colonial settlement in Plymouth, separatism has been a feature of our political life. The Puritans, Kreitner reminds us, called themselves Separatists, and founded their colony to escape Anglican control. The 13 colonies that eventually formed the United States shared no common identity or purpose before the revolution. “Everybody cries, a Union is absolutely necessary,” Benjamin Franklin bemoaned in 1754, amid a failed attempt at unifying the colonies. “But when they come to the Manner and Form of the Union, their weak Noodles are presently distracted.”

The most earnest attempts to unify have come only amid external threats, real or perceived. Fear, not patriotism, has historically bound the nation together. When Franklin convened delegates to form a colonial congress—the failed Albany Plan of 1754—its main purpose was to better negotiate with the Iroquois. Indeed, Franklin’s plan was partly influenced by the Iroquois’ own success, themselves a confederation of six once bitterly divided nations. Witnessing the colonies’ divisions in 1744, the Iroquois leader Canasatego offered a bit of advice: “We heartily recommend Union,” he told a group of colonial officials. “Preserve a Strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become stronger.” Franklin, reflecting the endemic racism of white settlers, used the Iroquois’ example to shame the colonies into union. “If Six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union,” he wrote in 1751, “we should be able to execute it” as well.

Franklin’s dream for a unified colonial government only materialized when war with Britain seemed imminent. Kreitner rightly sees the Continental Congress, formed in 1774, as a “spontaneous response to an emergency,” not born from widely felt national bonds. Like other recent historians, he depicts the War of Independence as being as much a “civil war”—colonist against colonist—as a war against Britain. South Carolina and Virginia fervently opposed the boycotts on British goods favored by New Englanders, knowing that Britain would respond with boycotts on slave-grown tobacco and rice, the latter making up 65 percent of South Carolina’s exports. There were fractures within each region, too. In 1777, colonists on the eastern border of upstate New York created an independent state—the Republic of Vermont—and flirted with joining the British province of Quebec. The sense of betrayal led the nation’s founders to refuse Vermont entry into the union until 1791.

The key episodes Kreitner retells from 1787 through the Civil War will be familiar to many readers. There are vignettes on the Burr Conspiracy, the nullification crisis, Texas annexation, the Mexican-American War, the New York City Draft Riots, and much else. At times it feels like we’re in an AP U.S. history class, but Kreitner makes these episodes new and interesting by reinterpreting them to fit his broader disunion thesis. Few will be surprised to learn that the U.S. Constitution was a deeply divisive document that left unresolved the core issue—slavery—that led to the Civil War. But general readers might be less familiar with the argument, borrowed from the scholar David Hendrickson, that the Constitution was, above all, a “peace pact”—agreed to not out of a shared national identity, but to prevent foreign powers from retaking the newly independent states.

Break It Up is at its best when it highlights the vocal threats of disunion that emanated not from the proslavery South—a well-known story—but from the anti-slavery North. “The first popular disunion movement in American history developed in the North, not the South,” Kreitner writes. During the War of 1812, New England states held a convention at Hartford to debate whether to secede, out of opposition to the war with Britain. By contrast, Southerners craved war, and in large part because they felt Britain ran roughshod over slaveholders’ economic interests. In 1842, William Lloyd Garrison, the most prominent white abolitionist of the day, began to call for the “REPEAL OF THE UNION between the North and the South,” seeing the Constitution as a proslavery document. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which forced Northerners to help the federal government track down Black people who escaped slavery, Northern cities across the country passed “personal-liberty laws”—the equivalent of today’s sanctuary-city laws. Radical anti-slavery Northerners, not Southerners, Kreitner shows us, sometimes claimed the mantle of states’ rights themselves.

It is here, however, where the limitations of Kreitner’s argument become clear. Kreitner takes a kitchen-sink approach, one where every separatist movement, every prophecy of civil war, and every threat of disunion or secession, is given equal weight. What he does not do is assess the seriousness of each threat. As the historian Elizabeth Varon has shown, calls for disunion were certainly ubiquitous before the Civil War, from all sections, but most of these were rhetorical; popular support for secession was actually limited. Kreitner’s discussion of anti-slavery disunionism is a good example. While he is correct that Garrison advocated tearing up the union, he obscures the fact that most abolitionists rejected Garrison’s disunionism in favor of forming political parties. By the time the Republican Party was established as an anti-slavery party in the mid-1850s, most abolitionistsincluding Black abolitionists—supported ending slavery by working through the political process, not against it, sapping anti-slavery disunionism of what little support it had. 

There are, however, virtues to Kreitner’s wide-angle sleuthing. Most rewarding is his integration of the West into the national narrative. Drawing on recent scholarship by Heather Cox Richardson, John Craig Hammond, and others, Kreitner argues that western calls for secession have been as much a feature of our national history as have calls for secession in the North and South. That would include Aaron Burr’s failed attempt at creating a western empire in lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. It would include the bloody conflicts between Mormon militias and federal troops over control of the Utah Territory in the 1850s. And it would include separatist movements in California and Oregon. In 1859, proslavery Los Angelinos supported a bill calling for a new proslavery state carved out of Southern California. In 1879, a contingent of California lawmakers threatened the “right to secede” if the federal government did not ban Chinese immigration. Those threats, Kreitner argues, pressured Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the nation’s first race-based anti-immigration law.

Kreitner acknowledges that threats of disunion became less frequent by the end of the nineteenth century, but he insists that fears of disunion remained ever-present. Yet one senses an unresolved tension. His desire to acknowledge disunion’s slim chances from the late nineteenth century onward clash with his desire to tell an up-to-the-minute history. Too many instances of political violence, protest, and even real separatist movements over the past 120 years are cast as more serious threats than they were. For instance, Kreitner uses the Haymarket Riots of 1886—bloody fights between striking workers and police in Chicago—as evidence that the nation remained on the precipice of collapse. While the riots certainly provoked widespread anxieties of anarchism, Kreitner provides no evidence that anarchism had popular support, or that Washington was preparing for the nation’s imminent demise.    

By the late 1960s, he argues that while the “topic of disunion was banished from acceptable discourse,” the “impulse was sublimated into all kinds of protest movements, antiestablishment politics, and cultural phenomena.” We are then treated to a litany of radicals who, at some point, floated or even attempted to create separate states: from black nationalists’ attempt to create the New Republic of Afrika in the Deep South in the 1970s, to certain feminists calling for autonomous “womyn’s land” communities, to the Weather Underground. Conservatives are not let off the hook either, with nods to ongoing Republican threats to nullify Democrat-backed federal laws, Western ranchers threatening to seize federal land, and neo-Nazis calling for separate white states. 

But not every publicly expressed fear of disunion should be counted as evidence of a real and imminent threat. And not every attempt to bring about secession—no matter which partisan side supported it, no matter the morality (or immorality) of the cause—should be considered equally plausible. Rather than lump these more recent separatist movements in with genuinely destabilizing ones from our deeper past, we should ask why these more recent efforts failed. One simple answer is that, after the Civil War, the federal government emerged more powerful than it ever was before. No threat of disunion, even ones with considerable support, could challenge the behemoth that Washington had become—a behemoth, we should add, that has been propped up by liberals as much as by conservatives, the latter’s cant about small government notwithstanding. 

Break It Up is less interested in these changes than in what has remained the same, and its main point is certainly worth heeding. To fully understand our current political divides, we must stop telling ourselves that there was ever a moment in our past when we were not seriously divided.