Life

The Country That Was Built to Fall Apart

Why secession, separatism, and disunion are the most American of values.

Black-and-white photo of William Lloyd Garrison in semiprofile.
William Lloyd Garrison. Southworth and Hawes/Wikipedia

“We must dissolve all connexion with those murderers of fathers, and murderers of mothers, and murderers of liberty,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison in 1842. “Are not their principles, their pursuits, their policies, their interests, their designs, feelings, utterly diverse from ours? Why, then, be subject to their dominion?” Garrison was an abolitionist, but this, Richard Kreitner argues, was a sentiment that Americans with all types of political commitments have voiced over the years. Kreitner’s new book, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, is an extremely readable, ambitiously wide-ranging history of all the times Americans have seriously contemplated breaking free of the United States.

Of course, the conflicts over slavery that led to the Civil War loom large in his narrative. But Kreitner found many types of stories of times when groups of Americans—reactionaries and progressives—seriously contemplated calling it quits. “Secession,” writes Kreitner, “is the only kind of revolution Americans have ever known, and the only kind we’re ever likely to see.”

We spoke recently about whether separatist thought is particularly American, the heroic dis-unionism of the abolitionists, and how this history applies to our present-day crisis. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: Can you talk about the chronology of disunionist thought? The book concentrates on the 18th and 19th centuries—I got to about Page 300 and thought, “Huh, we just got out of Reconstruction!”—so is it fair to say that the ideas you’re talking about are most active, more influential, before the 20th century?

Richard Kreitner: I think most people portray secession as something that was settled at Appomattox. I really don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think that’s how history works. Of course, the 20th century is a more difficult chapter to write about—there are no major secessionist movements in the 1940s. But I think the disunionist thought of the previous centuries lived on under the surface of American society, in American culture.

Take the conservative, especially Southern, opposition to the New Deal, where they’re comparing the Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal programs to another invasion of the South, and predicting that if things go on like this, there will be another Civil War. That’s where modern conservativism comes from—opposition to the New Deal. In the 1950s, there was massive resistance to federal authority in the South, and the more you look at it, it feels like this much-lauded midcentury consensus wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be.

There were actual separatist movements, but fairly small and didn’t get anywhere, mostly because the federal government meddled in them—like, the Black nationalist movement that wanted to build a Black republic in the South, in the 1960s and 1970s, as a form of reparations for slavery.

But it says something to me about the United States that separatism is the form that our more radical protest movements often take, and it makes me question how united we really are.

This is a book about fractiousness—petulance, dissatisfaction. How do you discern, when historical actors are talking about wanting to exit the union, whether they’re serious or whether they’re simply venting? Whether the separatism is real or rhetorical?

I definitely think of those as two different strands of the idea. But the two represent the same tradition. Going back to the colonial era, American dissidence often takes the form of separatism. I think there’s something innately fractious in the American character. Just saying, you know, “This isn’t working for me. I want no part of it.”

There’s a whole idea I didn’t really explore in the book, that’s the idea of individual secession—people just saying, “I remove myself from politics and American national life.”

Like sovereign citizens?

Sure, but also the 70 percent of Americans who don’t vote. A tendency to want to remove yourself from an existing political community when it doesn’t work for you—I trace that back to the Colonial period, when these early colonists were just constantly fracturing into different townships. Anytime they don’t like the decision-making where they’re living, they just move to live a different place. I think that’s always been our tendency.

I do want to ask about American exceptionalism—whether this story about secession thought is particular to America.

I did sort of casually begin tracking secessionist movements around the world, and no, obviously this isn’t a particularly American problem; what we’re seeing right now is the disintegration of the nation-state, these kinds of arbitrary creations of the post-WWI era that never really made sense in the first place. So you’ve got separatism in Scotland, in Catalonia. There was a time last summer when it seemed like every news story was about separatism in one place or another. Kurdistan, India, Nigeria, China with Hong Kong. Lots of countries have the issue. Which is interesting, because we tend to think of ourselves as exceptional, but I think we’re actually participating in this larger global historical development when we talk about separating now.

But at the same time, the American Revolution was really the first important separatist revolt of modern times; the Netherlands had declared independence from Spain in the late 16th century, but independence movements ever since have pointed to us as their example. So I do think there’s something particularly American about separatism.

I was interested in the times in the book where you explore how contingency and chance thwarted a few separatist movements, making the point that if things had gone a little bit differently, our Union would not have the same shape. It made me think, “Huh, this has all been much more tenuous than we commonly believe.”

A lot of people have been writing books in the last couple of years arguing that the soul of America is strong … we’ve been divided before, but we got through it, “the mystic chords of memory,” “the better angels of our nature”… we’ll get past it [the crisis of Trumpism]. But I think that is absolutely not necessarily the case, and I think it can make us far too complacent and comfortable, especially given what may lie ahead over the next three to six months.

An example of a time chance and contingency made a big difference was in the War of 1812, when New England Federalists—who were opposed to Jefferson, Madison, the Republicans, and the war with England, with which New England was still quite close commercially—were objecting to the war. They refused to participate, refused to submit their troops to federal commands.

Toward the end of the war, Washington, D.C., was burning; Britain had occupied certain towns in Maine; Nantucket had declared a separate peace with England. … There was a popular groundswell in New England for some kind of action, whether that be forming a peace with Britain until the end of the war, or even outright secession. Politicians formed the Hartford Convention of 1814, early 1815, and they didn’t threaten to secede from the union, but they issued a set of demands, including for amendments to the Constitution, which they said, if they didn’t pass, they would seriously consider seceding from the union.

They sent three emissaries to D.C. to deliver the demands to Madison, who was living in rented quarters because the White House was still smoldering, and they very well may have gone through with it, if the news had not come that a peace treaty had been signed in Europe, and then the news that Andrew Jackson had won the Battle of New Orleans.

And so the New Englanders looked horrible! And the Federalist Party died. But if those things had not happened, I think it’s very likely they would have gone ahead and seceded, and who knows what would have happened?

What were your favorite episodes, or people, to write about, in this history?

For me, the heroes of the book are abolitionists before the Civil War, like William Lloyd Garrison, who propose disunion. The people who are so opposed to slavery and so object to the support that they believe the Constitution gave it that they wanted the Northern states to secede from the union to protest slavery. They believed that without the federal government and the Constitution there to protect slaveholders, then the system would start to collapse under its own weight. I think that was a very bold, very heroic stance to take, very unpopular even in the North at the time, but one that took a lot of guts.

I try not to draw it out too explicitly, but I think this kind of parallels today, where those of us who believe in equality and freedom and progress like the abolitionists did should think about whether the union is currently advancing those goals.

I hear your hesitancy in saying this and I wonder—I think, My God, you’re going to be put on some kind of watch list for the press you do for this book! But your whole point is that it’s an American tradition to think about separating.

I think it’s not only an American tradition but actually a patriotic position. I think questioning the value of the union is arguably the most patriotic thing we could do. The whole point of the country when it was founded was to be the means to some kind of ends—to serve a purpose. The best American tradition continues to treat the union as a means to those ends, and I think those are in the Declaration of Independence—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Lincoln himself actually thought that, and that’s why he didn’t compromise on the eve of the Civil War. He could have said, OK, we’ll give up our plank in the Republican platform that says, “No slavery in the territories.” He could have made the offer, to keep the Southern states in the union. They might have rejected it, but it would have served the American political tradition of compromise, no matter the cost. But Lincoln rejected it, and said No, if we give in now, they will be able to hold us hostage every election. Let’s take a risk of fighting a war to preserve the union, and hopefully if we win, we will have done so for a purpose worthy of it. I feel like that’s Lincoln using a little piece—an atom—of this same disunion logic.

I think there’s always been a tradition, a radical one but definitely patriotic one, that holds the country to high standards and says, We should hold this thing together, but only as long as it’s going to serve some purpose.