Break It Up; by Richard Kreitner; Little, Brown and Company; 497 pp., $30.00
Stamped on the United States’ three-dollar Continental bill in 1783 was the phrase, “The Outcome Is in Doubt.” A more appropriate phrase for our own time could hardly be found. It also serves as the subtext of journalist Richard Kreitner’s fascinating new book, which chronicles the rocky history of our union and the many secession movements that have arisen from colonial times to the current day.
Kreitner describes Americans as a people ever in search of a unifying purpose, whether it be shared history, common enemies, territory, or even in devotion to political documents such as the American Constitution. Even before the 2020 electoral crisis, Kreitner wondered whether the trajectory of our troubles would lead to another disunion.
One begins to think the current American story is playing a rerun when reading Kreitner’s account of the country’s long conflicts over race, immigration, impeachment, presidential elections, and Supreme Court decisions, as well as historical instances of riots, massacres, populist movements, “fake news,” and conspiracy theories.
The author begins with the Iroquois, a collection of tribes, who he thinks could have taught us a thing or two about getting along. Quoting historian Daniel K. Richter, Kreitner describes the Iroquois as a flourishing civilization where “the coercive exercise of authority was totally unknown.” Tribal life was not entirely void of conflict, however. Iroquois towns were fortified, with entrances “adorned with carved wooden heads topped with the scalps of enemies.”
In contrast to their own equanimity, the Iroquois observed that the young European colonies—founded as they were by different peoples with different interests, charters, and currency—bickered constantly. Ben Franklin shared their observation and lamented that the so-called ignorant savages could form a union while the colonies couldn’t.
England’s King Charles II tried to unify some of the colonies so that his empire might run more smoothly. But later British monarchs began to think that colonial disunion served England’s interests better by discouraging any action by the colonies to unite against it and leave the empire. Not until relations between the colonists and the Indians began to fray in the 1750s, and the British got nervous about the Indians’ making common purpose with the French, did the British get serious about trying to impose some organization. Plans offered by Franklin, William Penn, and others to unite the colonies had all failed, though, and the colonists remained defiantly disunited.
Ironically, Britain did end up successfully uniting the colonies after it won the Seven Years’ War and had war debts to pay. It imposed taxes on the colonies, assuming that they were too independent to put up a unified resistance. Protests spread down the Atlantic coast, and the colonies united against British tyranny. The disintegration of relations with the Crown continued, and in May 1776, Virginia became the first colony to propose independence from Britain. John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton University, remarked that the union between the colonies and Britain was not intended to last forever, but only “as long as the nature of things will admit.” The right to secede was established early in American history, and would be crucially tested less than a hundred years later.
Kreitner traces the beginnings of hostilities between the Northern and Southern regions of the United States to the period before the Revolutionary War. In 1774, the first Continental Congress passed the Articles of Association, including a universal boycott on Britain, a policy that would have disproportionately hurt the South. Later, New Englanders wanted to arm the slaves to fight the British in the South—a nonstarter for Southerners. Charleston fell to the British in 1780, and the South survived the Revolutionary War with assistance from France, but remembered its seeming abandonment by the North.
After the war, leading figures among the founders such as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton who favored a strong national government observed with alarm some states electing populist leaders who encouraged them to try to strengthen the federation of states. They felt a common currency would help to secure what Hamilton called a “solid, coercive union.” But separatist insurgencies arose in Vermont and Kentucky, and western expansion caused division among the states, as did foreign agitation.
As American pioneers pushed west, they became dependent on Mississippi River trade and the New Orleans market. Britain squeezed the eastern merchants, and western settlers had no place to market their goods when Spain closed the Mississippi River to Americans in 1784. Agitation for statehood in western territories continued provoking resistance from the established states.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia the founders were drafting a governing document that was compromised in more ways than one. Ratification, Kreitner asserts, was an exercise in deceit. The Federalist Papers were written to sell the Constitution to the people, but the Federalist faction suppressed pamphlets critical of the document and conspired to prevent people in opposition, mostly living in and representing rural interests, from reading or criticizing the Constitution’s text.
A subtext in Kreitner’s book is that the moral and procedural weakness in the creation of our Constitution continues to cause discontent up to the present day, even as the founding document serves as a national unifier of sorts. Anti-federalists among the founders complained that the document gave too much power to the federal government and favored the wealthy. Others objected to its protection of slavery. In addition, the right to secede was not addressed—delegates from New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island would not have ratified the Constitution if they thought that it prohibited secession. Whether the South’s Civil War secession was legally legitimate under the Constitution continues to be debated today.
Perhaps because of the book’s theme of secession, Kreitner’s narratives read as if the population of the United States had nothing in common. Divisions over taxes, resident aliens, and application of federal law to the states caused hostilities hundreds of years ago that still resonate today.
Nevertheless, the Constitution did hold the country together at critical points, most importantly in the contested election of 1800, which resulted in the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another and to Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. The “Spirit of ‘76” proved to be a unifying source of national pride.
The incorporation of the West into the United States is an incredible story in itself and took on the character of an unceasing catastrophe. Total disaster was averted in part because conniving foreign powers underestimated the unity of the people of the United States. For example, Napoleon, who effectuated the Louisiana Purchase to Jefferson in 1803, felt that the United States would never become a rival power because its structure was too ungainly. Even United States citizens, such as Aaron Burr, contemplated carving separate nations out of the American West.
The nation’s eventual conquest and unification of the West thus seemed improbable to most. Spain, France, Mexico, and Britain all owned parts of it, and some settlers, notably the Mormons, moved into areas held by foreign countries to escape the United States. Texas, and even California for just under a month, experienced short periods of independence that still excite the pride of those states’ current residents.
Thanks to the completion of the intercontinental railroad, California became a truly integrated part of the United States nearly 20 years after statehood, an absolutely critical annexation to the future of the United States, given California’s ports and its attractiveness to competing powers. Independence movements remain active even today in both Texas and California, with the subtle and not-so-subtle encouragement of America’s international rivals.
The Western story aside, the tension between America’s North and South, culminating in the South’s secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, is the centerpiece of Kreitner’s narrative. He makes clear his contention that slavery was the true source of those hostilities, even when other economic or political topics seemed to be at issue.
The Constitution’s “Three-Fifths Clause” regarding the counting of slave populations to determine representation in Congress gave the South a population advantage in the House of Representatives that worked against Northern interests. In 1807, those Northern interests worked in Congress to ban the foreign slave trade, and soon the South lost its population advantage in the House as the North welcomed new populations of voters from the ranks of European immigrants.
Shortly thereafter a New York Congressman unsuccessfully proposed banning slaves in the western territories. But Southerners feared slave uprisings and needed the option of selling surplus slaves to western pioneers. The North and South thus raced each other to populate and thereby control the western territories.
Next came the tariffs that the North pushed through Congress to help pay down the national debt. The South attempted nullification—the legal concept that the states could declare federal laws void if they felt the federal government had overreached its authority. The Northerners who argued against nullification changed their tune and adopted the strategy for their own after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which would have required Northerners to return escaped slaves to their Southern owners.
Like nullification, secession held attraction at various times for both Northerners and Southerners. Some Northerners wanted to rid themselves of slaves and slave owners as countrymen, but weren’t otherwise interested in abolition. Other Northerners vilified the Constitution as an immoral document that made the unwilling complicit in slavery and reasoned that if the South seceded, the North would no longer have to return slaves. Conversely, some Southerners feared secession because the Constitution would no longer protect their ownership of slaves who fled north. Alas, the argument wasn’t resolved before April 1861, when shots were fired at Fort Sumter. The Union conquered, and a “union without unity” continues to this day.
One digression on this topic that Kreitner discovers is the tale of Robert Purvis, an early American of shifting racial identity along the lines of contemporary America’s Rachel Dolezal, who, though white, chose to live as a free black. Purvis, like real free blacks, prominently supported secession for African-Americans, declaring that any self-respecting black had to view the United States with “contempt, loathing, and unutterable abhorrence!”
Kreitner’s book also covers numerous smaller secessionist movements of varying significance. His work was written too early to comment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, which declared itself separate from the United States in June 2020. He also leaves out two relevant modern quasi-secessionist movements that I would have liked to see him address. The first is the idea outlined in American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option (2017), in which Christians would form likeminded communities within the United States, but apart from the mainstream culture.
The second, more important omission, and the one most instructive under our current circumstances, is the totalitarian socialist Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, more commonly known for the massacre of its followers in Jonestown, Guyana, after they left the United States. Begun in 1955 as an example of what its leader, Jim Jones, called “benevolent communism,” the Jonestowners claimed to practice complete social equality and became politically influential with national and California Democrats. The latter included Governor Jerry Brown, as well as Senator Kamala Harris’s future boyfriend, Willie Brown, both of whom attended a testimonial dinner for Jones in 1976.
A year later, Jones and his cult fled to Guyana, allegedly to escape racism. In 1978, on orders from Jones, a follower shot and killed a visiting California congressman. Jones then facilitated the deaths of 909 of his followers there, including more than 300 children. In light of this history, it is difficult to look at the Democratic Party’s current infatuation with violent Marxist movements like Black Lives Matter and Antifa and to not be frightened for the future of the United States.
Unfortunately Kreitner concludes his otherwise impressive and compelling book with unwarranted gloominess and an off-base analysis driven by his personal politics. Denouncing our Constitution as facilitating white, wealthy, conservative minority rule via the Senate and the Electoral College, he declares, “The breakdown in constitutional government is nearly complete.” In particular, Kreitner finds the American Constitution completely inadequate for addressing climate change. He thus recommends a constitutional convention to expand the House of Representatives and eliminate the Senate.
However, Kreitner’s contention that a conservative minority is ruling America is not at all obvious given recent election results.
These points are moot, anyway. There isn’t going to be a constitutional convention in America and there isn’t going to be a secession. Fully a third of Americans depend upon the federal government for health care and entitlement income, not to mention the other domestic outlays, and the national debt equals $69,000 per person. Given the enthrallment of many Americans with the current system, a continuing uneasy coexistence appears likely.
What might be desirable is more regional autonomy within the current constitutional system. We see this flexibility currently in sanctuary cities, states’ marijuana legalization—a throwback to nullification, albeit with federal acquiescence—and individual state environmental standards. So things are likely to bump along as they always have. Perhaps the outcome is not really in doubt at all.