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.
JESSICA SURIANO: Why did you think it was important in this book to address all of these other separatist movements that have happened in the past and across the political spectrum?
RICKY KREITNER: Of course everybody’s heard about the Confederacy and slavery, and it started my historical research, but that’s not really where the book came from. It came from this late-Obama-era moment where the thought occurred to me just based on things I’d been reading: What if the United States broke apart? Would that be such a bad thing? Is it possible that the progressive policies and programs that I wanted to see put into place might be easier to enact in a smaller entity than the United States, with its 330 million people and the need to always convince people with very different attitudes and interests? So with that question, I was curious if anybody else in American history had favored secession for noble or progressive reasons—not to perpetuate slavery but even to oppose it.
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.