A review of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union (Little Brown, 2020) by Richard Kreitner
Horrors! Richard Kreitner, a neo-Confederate? How will he, in the stable of Leftist The Nation magazine, founded as a successor to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, ever publish again!
One must admire Kreitner’s gift of writing in Break It Up – a most readable account of American history from the point of view of the latest revisionism. He is especially gifted in finding the telling detail in the mass of evidence that he has not glossed but carefully read, crafting an insightful, page-turning story. Most importantly, Kreitner is honest with the historical evidence. It is this honestly presented evidence that is a resource to the would-be secessionist or neo-Confederate – designations that, by a bit of magic as we shall see, most definitely do not apply to Kreitner.
But first, we should admire the author’s forceful challenge to the accepted history:
Tradition holds that the American colonists came together in 1776 to overthrow a detested king and form one nation, indivisible, intended to last for all time. They did nothing of the kind. The Revolution was a civil war [among the colonies. …] For a century and a half, the colonies had acted as if they were independent nations with little more in common than the wish to remain apart. (page 14)
In fact, referencing David C. Hendrickson, the U.S. Constitution actually came about more as a “peace pact” (p8) to avoid that feared civil war.
That first American revolution was fought not to create a union but to destroy one. (p21)
The first Union in America was among the Indians, when they started the Haudenosaunee Union of the five tribes (eventually six) of North America in the 15th century. (p26)
He gets to the heart of problem, the relentless fissiparous force driving a nation not fused on any principle of ethnicity, language, or even culture: “The states could be either closely united or democratic – not both.”(p92) That is, you can have Union, or Liberty – but never both in a country as large and diverse as the United States. Kreitner cites one patriot’s exasperation with the Founders’ many failed attempts to resolve this central dilemma:
Noah Webster confessed that while he had once been “as strong a republican as any man in America,” he now preferred monarchy, “for I would sooner be subject to the caprice of one man, than to the ignorance and passions of the multitude.” (p77)
But surely, a smaller union among like-minded colonists was possible, right? Not often, Kreitner reveals:
In 1643, delegates from the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven met in Boston to draw up terms of union. [Nine years later, t]he union collapsed into dissension and disuse. (p19)
Well, then, what about a temporary emergency union for common defense against Indians? Even that was difficult. In 1695, five years after the Indian massacre of settlers in Schenectady, William Penn proposed a “Briefe and Plaine Scheam” for just that purpose of common defense, but it went nowhere.(p23) In June 1754, the Albany Congress convened to consider mutual cooperation strictly for Indian affairs. Pennsylvanian Richard Peters proposed that the colonies separate into four divisions, reasoning that smaller divisions would have more coherence. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, drawing inspiration from his study of Cadwallader Colden’s History of the Five Indian Nations and their unity,(p28) proposed a similar and more lasting union – his Albany Plan – modeled on the Iroquois’ congress of 48 representatives.(p31) But those proposals also went nowhere:
Only in Massachusetts, where Governor Shirley supported Franklin’s plan, was the idea seriously debated. There, too, however, legislators objected to the “perpetuity of the proposed Union” – they preferred a temporary association to deal only with the immediate emergency. (p32)
Franklin concluded that only “the most grievous Tyranny and Opposition” would ever unite a people as diverse as the Colonial immigrants.(p36) But even that assumption was asking too much:
The Stamp Act Congress, like the Albany meeting of 1754, is often described as a landmark on the road to the Constitution. What it actually revealed were the conflicts and violence usually associated with later periods. (p40)
Even when facing a more dire peril, unified action was difficult. In September, 1774, 45 men from twelve colonies gathered at the City Tavern in Philadelphia to form the First Continental Congress. Kreitner cites John Adams:
The delegates were a motley crew. “Here is a Diversity of Religions, Educations, Manners, Interests, Such as it would Seem almost impossible to unite in any one Plan of Conduct,” Adams reported to his law partner in Boston[. It was l]ess a conclave of comrades than a meeting “of Ambassadors from a dozen belligerent Powers of Europe”[.] (p43)
Even the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation of 1776, under the need for union during wartime, took five years to be ratified. News of the fall of Charleston in 1780 did not secure ratification; that came about only because the holdout state (Maryland) was bribed by a foreign power. The French envoy in Philadelphia, Anne-César de La Luzerne, obtained the state’s ratification by offering French ships for its defense.(p57)
The schoolbook saga of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys fighting the British did not tell the whole story. Allen, piqued by New York’s refusal to recognize Vermont statehood, told the governor-general of Quebec in 1782, “I shall do everything in my power to render this state a British province.”(p67) The territories west of the Alleghenies were open to becoming Spanish citizens, since their commerce did not flow east, but south to Spanish-held port of New Orleans.(p67)
Even after the victory at Yorktown, dissolution remained a live option. An 1842, 46 businessmen of Haverhill, Massachusetts petitioned to dissolve the United States.(p153) The Aaron Burr-James Dickinson plot to rule the West – masterfully retold in the chapter “The Lost Cause of the North” – was not an exception to the thinking of the time. Kreitner explodes the myth hatched in Kennedy’s (or Ted Sorensen’s) 1956 Profiles in Courage of Sam Houston’s support of the Union: In fact he favored a Texas empire reaching from Oregon to Cuba (pp189-190), and favored importation of Mormons as a buffer between Texas and Mexico(p194). No scheme of division was too grandiose:
In 1837, Memucan Hunt Jr., the Texan ambassador in Washington, suggested the arrangement [to annex the Southern states to Texas rather than the other way around] would have “incalculable benefits “for both regions, as the new slaveholders’ union, bound “by the strongest ties of a common interest,” would be able to “overrun all Mexico” and replace its mixed-race inhabitants with whites. The new South-facing republic might even become “the greatest nation on earth.” (p189)
And of course, the writer employed by The Nation has something to say for the minority carve-up of America: The 1969 manifesto El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán for the Mexicans,(p340) and the Republic of New Afrika, made up of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, proposed in 1968 for the blacks.(p339)
Kreitner’s honest assessment of American history forbids him any temptation to defend the myth promoted by Justices Joseph Story and John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, and Salmon P. Chase. He forthrightly concludes that the United States was only a compact – never even a “nation,” and certainly never a “perpetual Union”:
[Andrew Jackson’s] argument that the adoption of the vague handle “the United Colonies” a year before the Declaration of Independence somehow bound Americans living and unborn in a union unbreachable to the end of time would have alarmed even the most far-seeing patriot. […] On the contrary, the word nation was so feared that the framers in Philadelphia ensured it and all its cognates were nowhere in their final product. From John Witherspoon’s pep talk to the Continental Congress in 1776 to Washington’s Farewell Address twenty years later, the Union’s perpetuity was spoken of, even by its warmest partisans, as something to be wished for by all Americans, not as an unalterable certainty. (pp167-168)
In fact, he goes beyond that fact, asserting that the compact itself was only a frail expediency – never binding because it could not possibly bind such a sprawling, diverse agglomeration of peoples:
Most Americans associate secession solely with the South and the slavery-serving Confederacy. That lets the rest of the country off the hook, as it attributes the impulse to break up a divided, deadlocked Union to a single movement in a single region at a single time, freeing other sections that dabbled with disunionism – New England, the Midwest, the Pacific Coast – of any blame (or depriving them of credit) for bringing on the fatal fracture. […] Behind the oft-told tale of monolithic Northern nationalism and Southern sectionalism is a more complicated reality, a richer tapestry of stories and characters, with messier morals to teach us today. (p216)
Now, one wonders whether Kreitner suddenly pulled himself up here, seeing the weight of evidence dragging him into a “states rights,” “neo-Confederate,” position. For at this point, Kreitner introduces a very curious twist of logic. He writes:
Rather than a tale of Southern extremists fed up with federal overreach, the coming of the Civil War can be told as the story of a Northern resistance movement, of Northern citizens weighing the meaning of hand-me-down loyalties, questioning whether the Union was still worth preserving at any price the South chose to name. […] Because the antislavery movement openly rejected the slave owners’ stated reason for entering the Union in the first place (to protect their property in the form of men, women, and children), Southerners saw Northerners as the real disunionists. And in a sense, they were right. […] The real revolution was in the North. (p218)
In other words, according to Kreitner, the South gave the North an “ultimatum”(p219): Union with slavery, or no union at all – a baffling formulation, in that it reintroduces the notion of two monoliths that he has so assiduously demolished. For instead of a “monolithic Northern nationalism and Southern sectionalism,” he has suddenly asserted a monolithic anti-slavery North facing an evil South ruling a perpetually enslaved underclass. Has Kreitner not read the Corwin Amendment, the original Thirteenth Amendment promoted by Lincoln – ratified not by the South but by five Northern states – that would have made slavery perpetual? Nowhere in his work is this document ever cited. His twist is a sudden abandonment of the “more complicated reality” that he had up to that point striven so admirably to describe.
For Kreitner, the evil South is a one-dimensional slave society, with every other alternative unthinkable. Nowhere does he mention historian Thomas E. Woods’ reference that “[a]s of 1827, there were more than four times as many anti-slavery societies in the South as in the North.” There is no mention of the many – admittedly illegal – attempts to educate slaves and prepare them for emancipation, nor any discussion of the racist Free Soil ideology that Northerners advocated to preserve the territories for whites only. Even the tariff question – unaccountably referenced with a policy never offered by any political party of the time – bows to the obsession with slavery:
Southerners also worried about the nefarious ends to which the new revenue [from the 1828 Tariff of Abominations] might someday be used – like federal compensation to masters for slavery’s abolition. (p162)
Kreitner also contradicts the very heart of his theme. At the outset he asserts that “[s]ecession is the only kind of revolution we Americans have ever known and the only kind we’re ever likely to see.”(p6) And yet in his concluding chapter, he rightly observes that our divisions are no longer bounded geographically, but ideologically: “If the Union again dissolves, it will not be along one clean line but everywhere and all at once.”(p369) In these terms, how can a modern breakup be visualized as anything but a violent revolution – the very opposite of secession?
Again: Throughout the book Kreitner relentlessly drives home his theme that not only has every historical appeal to “Union” been fictitious temporizing, but that a breakup should be embraced as a viable solution to irreconcilable differences – here, over a divisive (and gratuitously introduced) policy issue:
Should America keep thwarting international action to address climate change, destroying the Union rather than preserving it might become, as Lincoln put it, “the last best hope of earth.” (p374)
And yet suddenly in his concluding chapter, he claims that “[t]o avoid that fate, we will have to find a way to truly and thoroughly unite – not again, but for the very first time.”(p377) Once again, a notion assiduously demolished throughout the entire book emerges in the concluding chapter as a solution, with no discussion of why it might be so. In view of his preceding chapters, which are we to accept as the more viable prospect – dissolution or union?
Indeed, the concluding chapter appears as so much a contradiction to the foregoing book as to have been written either by another person, or by another compartment in Kreitner’s brain. His most egregious blindness is to the failures of democracy. In defiance of virtually every Founder’s distrust of democracy, and in defiance of the abundant evidence he himself provides of its failure, he paradoxically champions it! For him, the failure of democracy is not “the ignorance and passions of the multitude” that repelled Noah Webster, but that we haven’t had nearly enough of it!
There’s no saying what will happen as the unstoppable force of democratic politics crashes into the immovable object of oligarchic control. Growing talk of abolishing the Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court is only a taste of the norm-smashing to come.(p375)
So, is the 435-member House of Representatives an ungovernable institution in which each member pretends to represent some three-quarters of a million Americans? Why then, says Kreitner, let’s make it bigger! It “will have to be radically expanded”(p377) – And while we’re at it, he says, let’s abolish that reactionary artifact, the filibuster(p84), and “that useless leftover of colonial-era divisions,”(p377) the U.S. Senate! Such a sprawling direct democracy with no institutional checks is not a solution, but a fetish of the most leveling aspect of egalitarianism, where every media-fueled caprice would successively come to life in the police power of the state.
This very disappointing concluding chapter – with its vacuous appeal to a hitherto failed Union, and to an even wider application of the failed panacea of democracy – brings to mind Whittaker Chambers, in his 1952 Witness, and Czesław Miłosz, in his 1953 The Captive Mind. Both men describe the very subtle influence of ideology on the psyche, even among those who have a capacity for compartmentalized objectivity in areas outside the dictates of that ideology. Kreitner should be widely read for the observations of his keen historical eye – and completely ignored for his egalitarian clichés of the Left.
As regards the notion of expanding democracy by expanding the Congress, we wonder if Congress is really a representative body at all, or a parasite that distorts federalism into particularism. Maybe monied interests and self-enrichment of our representatives are the basis of today’s ‘Union’ and essentially have been from the very beginning. The concept of political parasitism deserves a reading in it’s own right.
Yes, yes we need to bark up. I love the South.
I have loved the SOUTH since I was in school.
I love the South
I love the South and since I knew any of my Great Grandfathers fought for the South. Two Great grandfathers, one Grandfather, and several Great Uncles and several cousins. I am a member of the Sons of the Confederate.
Wow. Brilliant book review and analysis.