The United States has never been an equal, peaceful, or functional nation, despite what the history textbooks say. It was built from genocide, slavery, and stolen land. This year, the Black Lives Matter protests and the abolition movement, coupled with a pandemic that preys most on people consistently excluded from the broken health care system, demonstrate the lie of our “more perfect union” even more. Will there ever come a time to abandon this myth and the 50 “united” states altogether? If so, is that moment already here?
These are just some of the questions Richard Kreitner invites with his new book, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union. While secessionism is probably most commonly associated with the Civil War, Kreitner shows that support for disbanding the union has always been present throughout the country’s history and among Americans with contrasting political beliefs, including abolitionists. As Kreitner notes in the book, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison considered the Constitution “a pact with the devil.” While opposition to the idea of a union existed even within the original colonies, Donald Trump has highlighted the fault lines and contradictions in federalism significantly over the past four years, causing many, including Kreitner, to reconsider the value in staying together.
We talked to Kreitner about why he thinks the left should stop dismissing secession as a relic of right-wing America and whether collective action through local rather than national channels might be the only way to rehabilitate the country’s political, social, and economic landscapes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The answer, I quickly found, is yes: There were disunion abolitionists who were fiercely against slavery and who wanted the northern states to secede from the union in the 1840s and 1850s as a way not only to protest slavery but to undermine it. Taking in their arguments and their rhetoric was really, really interesting. One of the places I started was with this convention that took place in Worcester, Mass., in January of 1857. It was summoned by a bunch of abolitionists right after the first presidential election in which the Republican Party ran a candidate, John C. Fremont, who was opposed to slavery. A lot of Republicans had said that the fate of the Republic, of the union, and then of freedom itself depended on Fremont’s victory. When that didn’t occur, the Republicans were ready to just try again in four years, but the hard-core abolitionists said, “Well, what about everything you were just talking about?” They thought the fate of the Republic was at stake; if so, maybe it was time to end the union. That rhetoric really appealed to me in the fall of 2016, when Trump won, and it was like, “Wow, is a country that elects Trump possibly worth saving?”
JS: Do you think that people who support the abolition movement today should also at least see the value in having a conversation about secession?
RK: That’s a really good question and a really, really hard one. The one important moment in the formation of my thoughts that led to the book was when I was researching in the library one day in the fall of 2014 about the union and the founding and the Constitution and slavery and who the country really served. I was already thinking about this as I walked down Sixth Avenue downtown, and this was right after the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was acquitted. There were protests going on all across the country. I passed a sign that said, “The system isn’t broken, it’s fixed.” That just really lodged in my brain, because it seemed to describe not only the systems of police brutality and white supremacy that the protests were about, but also the Constitution that I was reading about and trying to really grapple with, with its effects on present-day progressive movements and ideas.
It did strike me at that moment that maybe the union is our enemy. We have this idea—this fantasy, it seems sometimes—that federal power is always going to be on our side. And I think that’s kind of an inheritance from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that the federal government is on the side of civil rights. But I’m not so sure. Especially after 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and various other instances, it really seems like the Supreme Court is not our friend, and I’m not sure that the federal union is, either. I’m not really sure whether the modern abolitionist movement wants to be talking about state secession, but I think that it might be time to start talking about other things like localism or regionalism—the idea of devolving power from the federal government down to a more local level, where perhaps we can more easily enact truly reformist and radical changes to a totally broken so-called justice system.
JS: In the protests this year, you would see a lot of signs along the lines of “A better world is possible.” Could the secession of states or a breaking apart be almost contradictory for people who want to see more collectivism? Is there a way for us to all work together to accomplish that better world, or do we have to separate to do that?
RK: The idea is kind of predicated on the hypothesis that maybe collectivism and working together is more possible and more feasible at a smaller scale than a national one. My first choice would be to have an effective national government, a strong united country. I would abolish the Senate, and I would have a constitutional convention. That not being likely, or should it turn out in 10 to 20 years to not be possible, then I think we need to radically reconsider whether a different federal arrangement, a different framework for our politics than arguing over everything in Washington, D.C., might revive democracy and make collective action more possible, at least in some places. Is that defeatist? Is that pessimistic? I suppose so, but I look around and see a lot of cause for pessimism. You mentioned the signs at the protest, but one that really stood out to me is from a scholar named Chenjerai Kumanyika. The sign that had the quote from him says, “We are trying to make this country something it has never been.”
I keep thinking about that because, yeah, that is what we’re trying to do—but the problem is, that’s how the other side sees it as well. That’s how the white supremacists see it as well. We’re trying to make this country something it has never been, and they want no part of it. I want to defeat them, I want to crush them, but I think if you look at the country that we have, I just don’t know if that’s going to be possible. So if it’s not going to be possible to make this country something it’s never been, maybe we need to start a new one.
JS: So the idea is, why not think really big if the country is so broken?
RK: I’m in touch with people all the time who are talking about localism and cooperative movements. It’s kind of a ’70s “small is beautiful” idea. But after Trump’s election, it really is gaining a lot more adherents in one way or another. You’re kind of landing on the idea of the book, which is essentially an argument for the left to start talking about these things and to embrace ideas—and really a whole worldview—that is largely rejected or relegated to the right. It is kind of a radical thought, but I also think it might be one of the only things that we can actually get both sides in this country to agree on, because there are people on the right who also favor secession and devolution or even disunion. Often, the one thing we have in common is the desire to have nothing to do with one another, and it seems to me that’s the case right now.
The modern left, we kind of have these blinders on where we’re only thinking about this kind of inherited way of looking at things that began with the Progressive era in the 1910s or so and culminated with the civil rights movement. We made a lot of progress, but I’m not sure that—at least with the present Constitution, which I think is really the problem—we will be able to make much more.
JS: Throughout the book, it seems like capitalism, or at least what we now call capitalism, has always been tied hand in hand with all of these political disagreements. Do you think devolving into these smaller communities is a way that we could finally break our society off from a capitalism dependence?
RK: I would hope so. It might be the case that the West Coast or the Northeast could institute certain policies for economic redistribution or even capital controls or something that the country at large is never going to do. I did find throughout the book that capitalism—it wasn’t called that in the 1780s—and the union often go hand in hand. The union began essentially as a common market that would allow merchants to trade their goods across state lines without paying tariffs. That’s all it was. Nobody really wanted it to be much more than that. In the 1780s, the push toward a stronger union, a more perfect union, a stronger Constitution, came from people like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, who were deeply invested in state securities and western lands and whatnot, and whose investments, they believed, would only appreciate and bring them great profits with a strong federal government in a more closely integrated union.
People who are for economic redistribution and the abolition of debts are against that; they’re against the stronger union and for states’ rights and local self-government. There are some interesting rebellions in the 1780s, of course—Shays’s Rebellion most famously—where these people are calling for the state government to see to their demands for debt relief and tax relief. The more national-minded politicians are totally against that, and that’s a major impetus for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Skip ahead almost a century, to the 1870s, and I also find that capitalism and the needs of the wealthy are behind the push for reunion after the Civil War at any cost. They’re basically the ones who pull the plug on Reconstruction and say, “This isn’t worth it. It’s cutting into our profits.” I wonder if the populists and the egalitarians of our own day will come to see the union as a force of economic oppression.
I should say there’s another school of thought, which says that in a dissolved United States, corporations would have even greater sway, and right now only the federal government is protecting us from their depredations at all. That may well be the case.
It’s hard stuff to think about. And honestly, what is the union doing for us, and would we be better off without it? I could have written a book about that question. This is actually not a book about that question; this is the book that I wrote to avoid having to answer that question. It’s essentially a historical investigation instead of a political manifesto. I’m hoping that it will give readers food for thought to decide for themselves what they think of the union and whether it’s serving their purposes, and then to ask if they see themselves in any of these movements and people who questioned it before and argued in favor of secession or disunion.
JS: Toward the end of the book, you repeat its central questions: What are we risking by staying together, and what could we be risking (or gaining) by separating? Now that the book is published, do you feel any closer to having an answer to those things?
RK: I don’t want the country to break up today—I feel pretty comfortable and confident in saying that. I don’t think the moment has come, but I think that it might. As I was saying earlier, I think that this needs to be basically a live option that we have available to us. We need to not dismiss it as solely the province of the Confederacy and of slave owners. I think it would be extremely messy and unfortunate, but ideologically, I think that the option of devolution or even of disunion needs to be available for us. I find it totally conceivable to imagine moments, really in the not too distant future, in which I would wholeheartedly support breaking up the country. I’m basically trying to provide a history that suggests that we shouldn’t be so scared of the idea.