Richard Kreitner’s fascinating 2020 book Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union begins by reminding us that the passengers on the Mayflower were not the Pilgrims of myth, but Separatists who wanted to break off from the Church of England. Once they landed in the New World they began doing what they did best, separating into multiple sects and small, isolated communities.
They set off a “perpetual war for the soul of America,” Kreitner writes, “an ever-present battle over the past and for the future — usually metaphorical but constantly threatening to turn into fact.”
For those who do not explore the depths of our nation’s history, the idea that the “United States of America” is perpetually roiled in turmoil and in danger of breaking apart is ludicrous. To those who study and understand our past and what it means for the present and future, that narrative is there for all to see. Kreitner has performed a great service in bringing so many of the individual parts of the story of our imperfect union to light.
Contrary to our national myth, disunion was not something undertaken just once by a group of disgruntled Southern slave-owners. Kreitner shows time and again how different segments of our country were brought kicking-and-screaming into the Union (e.g., Rhode Island’s admission was more like a “forced annexation”); and how so many others see break-up as the best way forward to resolve long-standing and seemingly intractable conflicts (e.g., those who point out that today California has sixty seven times more people than Wyoming, yet both have just two Senators). Secessionist movements from New England to California, and virtually everywhere in between, are examined with Kreitner’s skillful knack for scholarship and storytelling.
Compromise is at the heart of the nation’s obsession with unity, and Kreitner makes this point in different ways throughout this work. Many would suggest rightly that compromise is required for a democracy to function. But Kreitner’s thesis — supported with in-depth accounts of the backstory to this history — is that the compromise we have accepted to keep the country unified in name if not in spirit is a compromise too far.
“The compromise tradition — the fetishization of consensus, the national obsession with unity — had always been predicated on violence against marginalized groups, especially people of color.”
Nowhere is this seen better than in the approach to, and in the aftermath of, the Civil War. Frederick Douglass famously asked at the end of Reconstruction, “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” We found out the answer to that question in the KKK and Jim Crow. Southerners who believed in white supremacy realized that whites in the North would do almost anything to maintain the Union — including giving those who rebelled against the country virtually everything they wanted. Kreitner describes their revelation this way:
“After Appomattox, Southern whites recognized that rejoining the Union was the surest path to getting back their prewar privileges. They rediscovered what generations of their forebears had known: the Union offered the best possible protection for the racist political and economic system they cherished and sought to reestablish in all but name.”
Kreitner works his way through all the greatest hits of succession and nullification — the Articles of Confederation, Aaron Burr, the State of Franklin, John C. Calhoun, the Mexican War, Mormons, West Virginia, the populist revolt of the Gilded Age — and also highlights many lesser known examples. I was especially enlightened by the section on former president John Quincy Adams, who brought a petition for disunion from abolitionists in Haverhill, Massachusetts, to the floor of the House of Representatives, where it inflamed passions across the institution and the country.
“It’s strange the Haverhill petition isn’t better known (writes Kreitner). Here was a group of small-town Americans pleading to destroy their country rather than allow it to continue enslaving their fellow human beings. In a different America, one proud, rather than ashamed, of having fought a war to free people from bondage, it would be on display in some grand building in the capital, a testament to the deeper meanings of patriotism; instead, it is stashed away in the storage room of an obscure local museum, its story seldom told.”
Why is this important? Understanding history gives us a sense of the real challenges we face, instead of relying on pundits “blithely” describing fractured Syria or Sudan’s struggles to maintain arbitrary borders without realizing how “well that description applies to the United States itself.”
Kreitner likes to highlight the “post-Appomattox orthodoxy” often shrouded in “complacent, consensus-minded clichés.” It is only by understanding this history as it really happened that we can be encouraged to think again of our “continent-spanning federation as a means to certain ends — such as those specified in the Declaration of Independence — rather than an end in itself.”
Accepting compromises in 2021 that keep people of color subdued through violence and voter suppression is to many Americans no longer negotiable. Recognizing the breakdown in constitutional government that places almost insurmountable hurdles in front of democracy and majority rule comes when we fully understand the reasons for the compromises made in the past and the horrible consequences of decisions around slavery and wealth. Change will not be easy, and as Kreitner says, even if we can agree “that we want to preserve the Union and sort through our whole collection of gripes and grievances within the current systems,” it will require significant changes in our political and social behavior. We will have to fight against monied interest and foreign powers that benefit from our division. It will not be enough to “overturn the results of unfavorable elections; we must address the underlying causes of our cleavages.”
Kreitner says it clearly: “We need to recreate our country.”
As Abraham Lincoln told Congress at one of the darkest moments of our nation’s most violent period of disunion,
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
At that period of time, abolitionists predicted that either slavery or the Union might endure, but not both. Kreitner, in this highly recommended book, makes the same case today of the Union or minority rule: we can have one or the other, but we cannot have both.
More to come…