IN THE AFTERMATH of the 2020 election, a chorus of voices, both right and left, has been raised either supporting or anticipating a partition of the United States. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that they were part of a movement that is “trending toward secession,” and Allen West, chair of the Republican Party in Texas, warned that “perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”
From the other side, Michael Tomasky, in The New York Review of Books, emphasized that the election has sharpened the question of whether we can all live in one country. The debate in the House concerning Trump’s second impeachment and his defenders’ comments since then confirmed that exhortations to unity serve to defend those who sow division when it becomes clear that their efforts have led to riot and sedition.
Richard Kreitner’s Break It Up exposes the deep roots of this rhetorical tactic, and even more importantly, the continuous history of disunion in the Union. His comprehensive survey provides an original and illuminating perspective on frequent attempts at secession or disunion, mostly preceding the Civil War.
Kreitner recounts how close New England came to splitting off as the War of 1812 ended. Delegates from the Hartford Convention set out for Washington, DC, in December 1814 with demands that Congress would certainly reject, and whose rejection would trigger New England’s secession from the Union — these included eliminating the three-fifths clause that gave the South disproportionate power in Congress and the Electoral College, as well as instituting a requirement for a two-thirds majority in order to declare war or impose tariffs. But before they could present their demands, news arrived of the war ending with a peace treaty favorable to the United States, and, in January 1815, victory at the Battle of New Orleans. They left having accomplished nothing.
In 1842, leading abolitionists in Haverhill, Massachusetts, sent a letter to Representative John Quincy Adams, petitioning Congress to allow the town to secede. Adams’s reading of the petition in the House sparked days of virulent attacks on the former president, including calls for him to be hanged. Northern abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Horace Greeley, and Frederick Douglass, wanted a split just as much as pro-slavery Southerners. One of Kreitner’s principal contributions is to draw attention to the forgotten prominence of Northern breakaway sentiment — a sentiment found even among “Peace Democrats” like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote in a letter in May 1861, a month after the attack on Fort Sumter: “I rejoice that the old Union is smashed. We never were one people, and never really had a country.”
Five years earlier, William Seward, one of the first Republicans and an anti-slavery senator from New York, expressed his impatience with slaveholders who insisted on the South’s dominance of national politics as the price of maintaining the Union: “If we have suffered our love for the Union to be abused,” he said, “we have discerned that great error at last.” Seward later became an expansionist secretary of state and negotiated Alaska’s purchase in 1867, but in the years preceding the Civil War, he believed that the relationship between the slave-owning South and anti-slavery North was an abusive one.
After the slaughter of the war, the idea of secession was banned from respectable public discussion and replaced by an uncritical celebration of the Union and the Constitution, with all its flaws, including the Electoral College, the Senate’s unfair composition, and a Supreme Court that has given its imprimatur to large corporate interests as the heirs of the Southern slave-owners. Equating secession with support for slavery preempted considering a people’s right to separate from an unjust government. Calls for national “unity” helped silence those who critiqued ongoing inequalities.
Despite its considerable merits, Break It Up has limitations. Kreitner occasionally extends the idea of secession beyond what is reasonable or supported by the evidence. He frames Texas independence (1836–1845) as the result of an urge to separate from the Union that, in fact, Texan leaders yearned to join. Andrew Jackson, who blocked their plan, judged that the time was not right for a war with Mexico over a disputed annexation. Kreitner often cites 18th- and 19th-century writings from secondary sources rather than primary sources or standard editions, making it difficult to trace quotations in context.
But then he opens an intriguing idea that bears comparison with other scholars’ work. Division didn’t always mean separating North and South or left and right, but could also involve multiple semi-autonomous political units. Kreitner notes two proposals that were briefly advanced in 1860–1861: a plan for a Central (mid-Atlantic) Confederacy, and one by General Winfield Scott to divide the country into four regions — the Northeast, South, Midwest, and Pacific Coast.
Colin Woodard’s 2011 book, American Nations, provides a way to think through the possibilities for a multipolar division today. Elaborating a more historical version of Joel Garreau’s presentist but suggestive 1981 The Nine Nations of North America, Woodard works from the principle that a regional culture’s identity is strongly shaped by the geographical, cultural, ethnic, and other circumstances of its founding and early history. He characterizes the 11 units that he describes as “nations” — including the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, Yankeedom, the Midlands, Far West, and Left Coast, as well as New Netherland (the New York City tri-state metropolitan area) and New France (which includes Quebec as well as southern Louisiana).
Some of his nations are rather extensive: Greater Appalachia reaches into northern Texas; and the Midlands wraps from Pennsylvania through northern Ohio and Illinois, then up through the Dakotas, before turning east to encompass much of the province of Ontario. It is doubtful that parts of any Canadian provinces would want to be united with political entities newly formed from their southern neighbor.
The borders of Woodard’s large cultural units do not coincide with state boundaries but instead run through many states, dividing them into two or three culturally distinct parts. If political institutions were reorganized following such cultural divisions, more than half of current states would cease to exist as such. Rather than being nations made up of states, the new political units might more accurately be termed culture-regions, since they are defined by geographical region as well as their distinctive political cultures.
Joining Kreitner’s analysis with Woodard’s thesis brings into view a model for a new American federation as a loose association of culture-regions resembling the European Common Market or the original association among colonies through the Articles of Confederation.
It’s an attractive concept at first sight. There would be no tariffs or constraints on people’s movement. Each culture-region would pledge to retain the Bill of Rights and a democratic-republican form of government. The federated government would be responsible only for conducting defensive wars and levying taxes for that purpose; a majority popular vote in two-thirds of the regions would be required to declare war. The Supreme Court would only decide cases of conflicts between culture-regions. Most land in the United States national parks would be returned to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples who lived on or near such lands, and reparations would be made to African Americans. The restored land and reparations, of course, would be inadequate to compensate for the historic crimes of American settler colonists, states, and the national government in stealing Indigenous peoples’ lands and defining African people first as property and later as subordinate human beings.
Decision-making would be redistributed from federal and state governments, with their systemic sclerosis, to the regional and local levels. Only skeletal or vestigial branches of a federated government would continue to exist. Such a political reorganization provides latitude, in some culture-regions, for stronger action to rein in climate change, to address racial injustice, and to move from a model of capitalism based on unsustainable growth and indefensible inequities to a low-growth, circular economy.
Indeed, such a shift has already begun to take shape. Some regions have formed compacts to pool resources for fighting environmental damage and COVID-19 (as Kreitner has noted). In the absence of federal leadership, local associations have innovatively established policies and practices for people to live more sustainable, more just, and healthier lives — constituting what Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak have called The New Localism in their 2018 book of that name, although they consider only urban examples, while rural communities are developing similar policies and structures as well.
Portions of culture-regions would be able to vote to change their affiliations every 20 years because changes in identities do take place; political cultures do not always persist unchanged. In recent years, Virginia and Arizona have shifted to become more progressive, while Ohio and Michigan have tilted in the other direction. If portions of one or more culture-regions decide to join another with which they are not contiguous, they might be connected by interstate highways constituting neutral zones in which no culture-region would exercise sole authority. Neal Stephenson satirically imagines such a division of the country in his recent speculative fiction Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, where educated travelers from one coast to the other remain safe from religious fanatics in exurban areas, known as Ameristan, by keeping to the highways or cities between the coasts.
Envisioning greater autonomy for local and regional political structures can proceed from both conservative and liberal grounds. The Nation and Jacobin have featured pieces on progressive federalism, while two books published in the last year express conservative views favoring a devolution of authority. David French, in Divided We Fall, designates his preferred model as “healthy federalism,” and F. H. Buckley, in American Secession, suggests a similar vision of “secession lite.” However, these proposals maintain current state boundaries, as well as an inflexible, bipolar division of the political and cultural landscape.
It is true that reorganizing political spaces carries both dystopian and utopian potential. Breakups along ethnic or religious lines can result in widespread suffering. The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 led to widespread atrocities and the deaths of more than a million people. The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 resulted in ethnic cleansing, civil war, and mass rapes before international intervention brought the violence to a halt. In similar circumstances, one or more culture-regions might adopt policies that expel political and ethnic groups, scapegoat minorities, imprison immigrants, or prosecute whistleblowers, journalists, and dissenters. Arguably, however, that state of affairs may not differ much from conditions under the Trump-McConnell-Roberts regime or those that would result if a more competent authoritarian took over the executive branch while his party retained systemic advantages in an unreformed Senate and Supreme Court.
However, it is necessary to retain hope for a better framework for public life in the mid-future. I imagine that dividing the United States into eight to 12 constituent parts might be brought about largely peacefully, through negotiation, agreement, and luck. In “Divided We Stand” (New York Magazine, November 14, 2018), Sasha Issenberg lays out one scenario for peacefully splitting the Union into a Red, a Blue, and a Neutral Federation. Kreitner’s Break It Up suggests that disunity could serve progressive purposes and planetary ends, loosening the grip of a neo-Confederate minority over the last 40 years.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the Civil War showed that the Constitution does not protect a right to secede. However, Thomas Paine argued that one generation cannot bind later generations to a political settlement to which they have not agreed. Each generation is free to determine the most suitable form of political organization for its needs. Otherwise, later generations are not free but rather in thrall to the solutions of the past. When Paine made this case in the 1790s, he was responding to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. But two decades earlier, defending the American colonists’ desire to separate from their country of origin, Burke himself had tellingly remarked that “[b]odies tied together by so unnatural a bond of union as mutual hatred are only connected to their ruin” — an observation quoted in 1861 by Delaware Senator James Bayard who favored the South’s right to secede. Just as the American nation was originally constituted by an act of secession and division, so too could a new association be formed by constituent parts of the United States agreeing to another division, and to a devolution from federal and state political structures to cultural-regional and local levels of authority.
Frank Palmeri is professor of English and Cooper fellow in the humanities, emeritus, at the University of Miami. His most recent book is State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse (Columbia University Press). He is a regular contributor to History News Network.