Ever had a moment when you said, ‘If that person wins the presidency I’m leaving?’
When Barack Obama was president, the governor of Texas talked vaguely about the state’s right to leave the union. After Donald Trump’s election, people talked of California’s exit.
This is mostly fantasy — but Americans have had such ideas for a long, long time.
In his new book, Break It Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, Richard Kreitner explores the history secession movements in the United States — which are as old as the country itself.
On early separatist movements
The first people try to conquer the country after the Declaration of Independence, where Westerners, really, in the Appalachian settlements in Kentucky and Tennessee who doubted that they really wanted to remain united with their brethren back east — who they had already bothered to leave behind, when they when they crossed the mountains. It all depended on which way the rivers ran, basically because they needed to trade in order to survive. So they wanted to send it down the rivers to the Mississippi, to New Orleans and then out to the world. But Spain controlled New Orleans and they used that as a sort of lever to undermine the unity of the American states and to attract the Western settlers away from their loyalty to the new Union. So there were separatist movements in Kentucky and in Tennessee. And this was all going on right when the constitutional convention was meeting.
On patriotic or nationalistic instincts being tied up with economic interests
That can undermine the ideals or the patriotism that people think that they have to the union. They can really change on a dime, you know, to skip ahead. The Confederates were ardent patriots right up until they weren’t, you know, and then we could see a similar thing happen today.
On the downside of unity as it was practiced in the years after 1865
I think reunifying the country after the Civil War would have been wonderful and there were a lot of visions for how to do it in a just and truly united way. Frederick Douglass, you know, people like that. But the way that it actually happened was that the country reunited on the basis of the very principles and philosophies that the Confederacy had rebelled on behalf of in the first place. So the Compromise of 1877, which ended a contested presidential election that looked close to tipping over into political violence — you know, perhaps a case study for the present moment — the only way that they ended that was with a compromise that essentially said to the South, ‘OK, you can — the white south, of course — you can arrange your domestic institutions, as they euphemistically called segregation, however you want.’ And we of the North are not willing to go to war again for the sake of meddling in your affairs, which is the way it was spoken of. And that’s essentially the compromise that that held until the 1950s and 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement broke it apart — and in a way that our politics have never really recovered from.
On secessionists being defeated in virtually every case
The country has survived up to now. I don’t think that’s any guarantee that it’s going to survive to this point. I suppose the Confederacy was humiliated. We still have people marching around holding their flags, however. And again, you know, the American Revolution was itself a secessionist movement, which we celebrate only because it succeeded. And in other ways, I think secessionists have gotten what they wanted over the years, even if they didn’t go through with their threats. Certainly the Federalists, the New Englanders, in the War of 1812 were humiliated and rejected and the party disappeared. But at other times, if you make a secessionist threat and it’s plausible, you tend to often get what you want even without having to go through with it.
On whether there are occasions when unifying the country is not worth it
… what I’m basically trying to argue here is that the costs of holding the country together may not be worth it. And perhaps we would do better breaking apart. And I wanted to do a study of all the people throughout American history who have had that idea and to really investigate whether any had done so for noble purposes. You know, of course, we’ve all heard about the Confederacy. I’ve no sympathy for that, of course. But my heroes of the book really are the abolitionists before the Civil War who wanted the North to secede from the Union as a way to protest and ultimately undermine slavery and eventually lead to its evaporation from the continent. And I think that, in a sense, they were right. The union had to break apart in order for slavery to end. And I wonder, you know, what injustices we tolerate today, what evils are perpetrated today for the sake of national unity?
On who he imagines seceding from whom — and what the country would look like afterward
Well, I think the obvious one would be California, our largest state. They have the same two senators that Wyoming has, even though they have 68 times the population. I don’t see why that is a tolerable or a long-lasting arrangement. So it might be the case that California — at some point in the future, in a country even more divided than today, wracked by climate change — issues an ultimatum and says ‘abolish the Senate or redistribute power proportionally to population or we’re going to secede.’
On whether he can imagine a world in which New York (he lives in Brooklyn) secedes and becomes part of some other country
I would not like that idea. … This is, you know, a thought experiment. I didn’t start writing this book as a prescription for what I wanted to see about the country. I wrote it as unearthing this idea that I saw had shaped all of American history and that had not yet really been accounted for. And people had sort of limited it to the Civil War era, when I think it was actually there from the beginning and it’s still there today. So I did not start this book trying to write a program for disunion. I hope not to see that. I love this country. I’ve traveled all around, to 49 states, and I do see people in other parts of the country who vote for different presidents as my fellow countrymen. And I don’t want to wave goodbye to them, but I do think that this needs to be an option available to us in the future. You know, a lot of people are throwing around pretty weighty terminology these days — fascism, authoritarianism. You know, Trump’s moves with the election in November are extremely worrisome. And seems to me that if we are talking about the end of democracy in America and the permanent establishment of minority rule in this country, I think we need to have all options on the table.