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United We Stand

Break It Up:
Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union

by Richard Kreitner
Little, Brown, 2020, 496 pages

“Is America a Myth?” So the New Yorker asked in the headline of a recent column by Robin Wright, a contributing writer to the magazine. And the answer, Wright proceeded to argue, was yes. In reaching this conclusion, she drew on a provocative new book by the author Richard Kreitner: Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union. Kreitner, a contributing writer to The Nation, stakes his argument on two bold assertions. “Secession is the only kind of revolution we Americans have ever known,” he says, and “disunion has been one of our only truly national ideas.”

Amid the stresses and strains of today’s America, with our national political fabric seemingly at the tearing point, the notion of disunion as our defining idea might seem ripe for embrace. Break It Up seeks to follow this thread from the journey of the Mayflower in 1620 (the voyagers were “un-united among ourselves,” Kreitner quotes an organizer of the passage as saying) to the discontents of the present times (which he treats in a chapter titled “The Cold Civil War”). By his telling, even the formation of the American republic, capped by the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 , was not a true moment of unity. “For nearly two hundred and fifty years,” he writes at his tale’s end, “we Americans have done whatever we could to avoid deciding once and for all whether we actually want to be one country.”

But is this, really, our national experience? The answer matters not just for the sake of historical accuracy but also for the sake of what American students are taught of their country’s saga and what narratives take root in the media. As has already been seen in the 1619 Project—the New York Times initiative that proposes to “reframe American history” by positing the arrival of slaves in the English colony of Virginia as “our nation’s birth year”—dubious revisionisms are seeping into our educational curriculum and our national conversation. Today’s purported history lesson can guide tomorrow’s political agenda. For all of these reasons, Kreitner’s thesis demands rigorous scrutiny.

The American Revolution

Let’s start with his contention that “disunion has been one of our only truly national ideas.” For the last word on this proposition, Kreitner selects for the epigraph to the book’s conclusion a one-sentence quotation from John Adams: “Divided we ever have been, and ever must be.” The line is from a letter that Adams, in 1813, at the age of seventy-seven, wrote to Thomas McKean of Delaware, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. Adams is responding to a letter from McKean of a week and a half earlier, in which McKean sweepingly asserted that in 1765, “the great mass of the people were . . . zealous in the cause of America.” Sweeping assertions were irresistible quarry for a verbal sharpshooter like Adams, with his zest for argument and trained lawyer’s insistence on particular truths over broad generalizations. He reminds McKean of serious political divisions in the colonies from the mid-1760s to the mid-1770s, including within Pennsylvania, New York, and the southern colonies. But with his correspondent duly corrected, Adams ends his letter in essential agreement with his countryman. The telling sentence, omitted by Kreitner, is this: “Upon the whole, if We allow two thirds of the People to have been with Us in the revolution, is not the Allowance ample?”

Indeed, what nation in the making does not suffer birth pangs, even violent ones? Kreitner also reminds readers of Shays’s Rebellion. In 1786, the year before the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia to try to patch together the fraying efforts of the Continental Congress, Daniel Shays, a veteran of the war against the British, led an armed march on courthouses in western and central Massachusetts, followed by an attack on the federal arsenal in Springfield at the start of 1787. It was an uprising by debt-ridden farmers against a state government controlled, in the view of the insurgents, by “thieves, knaves, and robbers.”  Still, the main thing to be remembered, as Kreitner himself notes, is that it was a “short-lived insurgency.” Massachusetts survived the insurrection, along with the sturdy state constitution, which John Adams and his cousin Sam had crafted seven  years earlier and which served as a model for the federal Constitution drafted in Philadelphia. There was a fierce debate over ratification of the Constitution, including in Massachusetts, but that was to be expected given the Founders’ important philosophical differences on matters like the balance of power between a federal government and the states. There was no greater patriot in the young America than Sam Adams, yet he was a fervent believer in strong state powers and only reluctantly supported ratification of the Constitution by his native state. The fact remains that the Constitution was ratified and the republic got off the ground.

What’s more, this triumph on behalf of unity was not merely the result of superior political maneuvering on the part of the pro-ratification Federalists, or even the collective joy taken in the military defeat of the mighty redcoats. Unity reflected an ideological consensus on behalf of the proposition—a radical proposition at the time—that power, exercised by the state without the consent of the governed, was illegitimate. The popular willingness to act on that idea was what made the American Revolution just that—counter to the claim in Break It Up that secession is “the only kind of revolution” America ever has experienced. Adams himself insisted on the term “Revolution” in his 1813 letter to McKean and, in a letter to Jefferson two years later, he elaborated:

What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.

This quote opens The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the classic published in 1967 by the historian Bernard Bailyn. In this spirit, Bailyn invokes Madison, too. As the “Father of the Constitution” wrote in a 1792 newspaper essay:

In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example . . . of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history. . . .

But it was not just the likes of Adams and Madison pronouncing in this heartfelt if grandiose vein. The great value provided by Bailyn is his exhaustive reading of the pamphlets and related writings of the age—the innumerable screeds of a long list of authors relegated to obscurity. And what these scribblings had in common was an acquaintance with the idea of natural law as laid out by British thinkers like John Locke—the notion that the right to life, liberty, and property was divinely ordained. Even many loyalists in the colonies subscribed to this axiom. And as Bailyn also notes, this ideological wave was long in the making, spanning more than a generation. In 1750, the Puritan minister Jonathan Mayhew preached to his Boston congregation that “an absolute submission to our prince . . . may not be justifiable in some cases”—a sermon which, in published form, John Adams of Braintree, at the age of fourteen, committed to memory. “[T]he Substance of it was incorporated into my Nature,” as Adams later put it. By the time that Jefferson, eight years younger than Adams, sounded the now-familiar Lockean notes in the Declaration, more than a quarter century had passed since Mayhew had delivered his sermon. This “ideology of the Revolution,” in Bailyn’s summation of the “cluster of convictions focused on the effort to free the individual from the oppressive misuse of power from the tyranny of the state,” was in the lifeblood of the infant nation and in all likelihood ineradicable.

Nowadays, a revolution is typically thought of as a top-to-bottom overturning of a political and social order. The American Revolution, unlike the French Revolution that followed, was not quite of this character, yet it was a revolution nonetheless, made possible by the belligerent like-mindedness of its makers.1 Disunion could not have given birth to this revolution.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

In his plunge into the nineteenth century, Kreitner dusts off mostly forgotten episodes, as in a chapter titled “The Lost Cause of the North.” Nowadays, who remembers that, in the War of 1812, a rowdy band of anti-war Yanks all but declared for secession from the republic? Kreitner does:

The vast majority of New Englanders opposed the war. Caleb Strong, long-serving Federalist governor of Massachusetts, proclaimed a day of fasting to lament the hostilities “against the nation from which we are descended.” He and his counterparts in Connecticut and Rhode Island refused [President] Madison’s requests that they lend their state militias for federal service. A crowd in Plymouth seized its pro-war congressman and kicked him through the streets.

This is good material for an American history class of today, though New England, of course, stayed in the Union.

The “secession locomotive,” in Kreitner’s perhaps over-energetic term, at last reached a bloody destination in the civil war between North and South. True to his theme, Kreitner focuses on divisions within the respective camps. In the North, Peace Democrats known as Copperheads strenuously opposed the Republican Lincoln’s aggressive and uncompromising war policy against the Confederacy. In the South, there was opposition to the military draft declared by the Confederate government in the spring of 1862, with the Georgia governor calling that step a “dangerous usurpation . . . at war with all the principles for which Georgia entered into the revolution.” The people of western Virginia rejected their state’s exit from the Union and broke off to form their own separate state.

Yet Lincoln’s soldiers fought on and so did Jefferson Davis’s, all the way to Appomattox. Kreitner’s postwar chapter is called “The War Was Fought in Vain,” but that wasn’t the sentiment of the time, certainly among the slaves, who were deemed “forever free” by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, a declaration secured by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. On Union troops entering Charleston, South Carolina, the seat of the secession movement, black residents paraded in the streets with a “Slavery is Dead” coffin and a delegation of black women presented the federal commander with an American flag. Never in the American experience, before or after this time, has the cause of secession attracted such a dedicated following, but even in this exceptional instance, union prevailed.

The New Nationalism

Break It Up marches into the Gilded Age and highlights that era’s discordant notes, among them “the rise of anarchism . . . the return of disunionism in a new and more appalling form.” The tale moves from the bloody riot at a labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886 to the formation of the Populist Party in 1891. A Union veteran called this populism yet another “rebellious effort to overthrow constitutional government.” This section of the book winds up with the presidential campaign of 1896, pitting the pro-business Republican William McKinley, the winner, against the populist-tinged Democrat William Jennings Bryan. A McKinley supporter, New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt enters the story with a warning that populists are “plotting a social revolution and the subversion of the American Republic.”

Roosevelt enters the tale—and just as quickly exits. Chapter eleven ends with the 1896 campaign, and chapter twelve begins, sixty-five years later, in 1961, at the start of the John F. Kennedy Administration. Kreitner proceeds to backtrack some years, but he never makes it as far back as the Theodore Roosevelt presidency, from 1901 to 1909. This is a striking omission for a book asking us to accept disunion as America’s signature theme, and it’s worth recalling just what the reader is missing.

In the first instance, in the figure of Theodore Roosevelt, America is in thrall to possibly the most exuberant nationalist who has ever made it to the presidency. In one of the first big speeches of his career, on the occasion of a July 4th celebration in the Dakota Territory in 1886, he declared: “Like all Americans, I like big things; big parades, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads—and herds of cattle too; big factories, steamboats and everything else.” He stood, too, for a larger America—an imperial America with overseas possessions, taken by martial conquest. Although Roosevelt became president as a result of the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Americans three years later voted by a wide electoral margin to keep him in office and he almost surely would have won another four years in the White House had he run in 1908—as suggested by the triumph of his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, in that election. All through his years on the American political scene, he was a voice on behalf of what he explicitly labelled, in his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in 1910, a New Nationalism: 

The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from over division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.

This was not mere rhetoric intended to spur applause, but a coherent approach to national governance, an ideology, even, fulfilled with substantive deeds, namely a raft of popular Progressive Era reforms. On Roosevelt’s urging, for example, Congress in 1906 passed, by huge majorities in both chambers, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the law on which Washington built an enduring system of consumer protection enforced at the national level. Moreover, the New Nationalism provided the ideological foundation for what later became, at a time of national economic crisis, the New Deal, delivered by Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In Kreitner’s narrative, the “new emphasis on economic consolidation” of the FDR years was undercut by the “backlash from states’ rights zealots” who viewed the growth in federal power in this era as a perversion of the original constitutional compact. There were such “zealots,” but their influence proved limited. Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president to take office after the enactment of the New Deal, embraced its fundamental tenets, including Social Security. In 1956, he coasted to reelection by winning all states but seven. And with a Cold War with Moscow seemingly without end, Americans of both major parties rallied around a new global role for America, the goal, as declared by Ike’s predecessor, Harry S. Truman, to support “free peoples” against “totalitarian regimes” everywhere.

Harmony versus Hubris

Break It Up, then, gets the overall story backwards: The American saga tends not towards division but towards unity. Had the ideological consensus that Bailyn demonstrated in his analysis of the American Revolution been absent, the colonial rebellion might never have occurred. The problem of slavery was left unresolved. But had the will to keep the South in the Union been absent, the Confederacy would have been allowed to go its separate, slaveholding way. Instead, the Civil War served to extinguish slavery and, as set forth in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to recommit the nation to the ideal of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal.” The dramatic expansions of federal powers undertaken in the Progressive and New Deal eras have endured because Americans are to this day largely in favor of them. This broad agreement might be seen as the second big ideological consensus achieved in the American experience, after the first on behalf of Lockean liberty formed in the revolutionary period. Both affirm the strength of the unifying principle in American life against balkanizing tendencies.

To understand the American story as, on the whole, one of unity is not, though, to offer a resounding three cheers. It’s tempting to venture, as a counter to the idea of disunion as our bane, the thought that an excessive harmony has on more than a few occasions been our curse. The Salem Witch Trials come to mind—the trials themselves, of the 1690s, and the reappearance of the paranoid mindset they represented in assorted disturbing episodes over the centuries. The early phase of the Cold War produced a surplus of national purpose with a Salem-like fixation on rooting out Communists whose numbers were nowhere near as great as fear mongers supposed. Then, too, a chest-thumping, flag-waving jingoism—“Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”—sometimes gets the better of us. It is hard to fathom now, but the 9/11 attacks of not even twenty years ago produced a moment of national unity so ferocious that the idea of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq engendered widespread popular backing.

This doesn’t mean America can’t ever break up. Today’s divisions are real and must be taken seriously. But for an understanding of the current predicament, the focus belongs on our more recent history. It might be that today’s fault lines can be traced to the upheavals over Vietnam and rancorous cultural battles in the sixties—with the coming together after 9/11 just an interlude in a period defined generally by dissension. In this account, the financial crisis of 2008–9, which stoked rage at Wall Street and the political class, can be seen as a compounding antagonism. The Founders always feared that corrupt ruling elites could be our ruin.

Then again, the problem could be one of scale. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, George Kennan suggested that a sclerotic America, just like its adversary, had become a “monster country,” possibly even doomed by the “hubris of inordinate size.” Other interpretations no doubt will be forthcoming the longer our present strife continues. There is no reason, though, to revise the telling of the story of America according to a claim, not proven, of congenital and chronic disunion. Break It Up deserves a place on the shelf for its reminders of sideshows like the New England protest of the War of 1812. Yet the main drama, of the ties that have knit us together for all this time, is as worthy of center stage as ever.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published November 11, 2020.

1 Gordon S. Wood, in his classic work, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1991), departs from Bailyn in arguing that the revolution was “a momentous upheaval” that “fundamentally altered the character of American society.” But whether on Bailyn’s or Wood’s terms, the point remains that America experienced a revolution.

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