Journalists, scholars, politicians, and citizens often assume that calls for secession are political or historical aberrations. Our founding myth is that the Civil War divided an otherwise united nation and we soon reconstructed the United States to form a more perfect union. But Richard Kreitner’s provocative new book,
Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union (Little Brown, 2020), argues that “disunion” is the hidden thread in the history of the United States. Kreitner is a contributing writer to The Nation who has also published in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, USA Today, Slate, Raritan, and The Baffler.
American politics from colonial times to the present, Break it Up argues, has always included “forces that have conspired to divide it” and Kreitner insists that we get a more nuanced and comprehensive “understanding of both our contentious past and our uncertain future” if we confront that history. Drawing on rich scholarship from multiple disciplines Break It Up argues that the United States has “always been riven by race and religion, cleaved by class and culture, sundered by section, and fragmented by geography.” The United States was always a “tentative proposition” – an “experiment that might fail at any time.” The book insists that asking questions about unity is the “prerequisite for serious discussion about what we Americans want the future to hold for ourselves and this perennially divided union.” Moreover, facing disunion assists in the work of building an inclusive, multiracial democracy capable of combating climate change or racial equality. As the book starkly puts it, the U.S. should either finish the work of Reconstruction or give up on the idea of the “united” states as currently conceived.
Break It Up uses four eras to trace the theme of disunion. “A Vast, Unwieldy Machine” deals with the colonial and Revolutionary periods with Kreitner arguing that resisting a common enemy in the British should not be mistaken for unity. For example, the process of unification was characterized by bitter disagreements over representation and the protection of enslavement in the proposed Constitution. Here, Kreitner reviews some of what is well known in the literature but also smaller (and heated) controversies that may surprise those who think they know the period well. The second era highlights the disagreements in the early Republic over the increase in land (e.g., the Louisiana Purchase) and Aaron Burr’s attempt to break off parts of the country to form an independent Empire. For Hamilton: An American Musical buffs, Kreitner challenges some of Chernow’s assumptions to create a more nuanced understanding of the first Secretary of the Treasury. Kreitner’s third era documents the increasing appetite for disunion in the years before the American Civil War – and the ultimate schism. The fourth period is less defined by chronology. “Return of the Repressed” ranges from Reconstruction to 21st century plans for secession. Kreitner argues that Reconstruction’s failure to resolve fundamental conflicts leave us with a nation perpetually split over race and class.
Written before the 2020 elections or the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. capitol, Break It Up aims to free Americans from the “shackles of post-Appomattox orthodoxy” and “complacent, consensus-minded cliches” so we can have serious conversation about the ever-present fissures in the United States – and consider concrete structural changes. In the podcast, Kreitner reflects on these more recent events and how they flow from the history he documents. Kreitner – who frames the book using Walt Whitman’s poetry – insists that a “reckoning is coming” and, as Whitman put it “not for what came to the surface merely, but what it indicated below, which was of eternal importance.” (Walt Whitman, Memoranda During the War, Camden, NJ, 1875–1876).
Susan Liebell is an associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Why Diehard Originalists Aren’t Really Originalists recently appeared in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” was published in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @SusanLiebell.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.