Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, by Richard Kreitner, Little, Brown and Co., 496 pages, $30
The late Thomas Naylor, gentle godfather of the modern Vermont independence movement, used to sign off with “God bless the Disunited States of America.”
Naylor attracted a stalwart and colorful band to his project, ranging from the diplomat George Kennan (the author of the Cold War “containment” policy had come to view the United States as overly confining) to a delightful mélange of populist “woodchucks” (native Vermonters), organic-farming greens, Ethan Allen impersonators, and more. Naylor’s Second Vermont Republic had a merry, slap-happy, larkish feel, but Naylor, who died in 2012, was dead serious. And now, barely two decades since secession talk first scented the Green Mountain air, the entire country is getting an invigorating whiff.
Break It Up—a book about America’s episodic secessionist flare-ups, by Nation contributor Richard Kreitner—may well be a firebell in the night, to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase. Secession, after all, is our heritage and our probable future. It is as American as applejack, runaway slaves, and prison baseball. His fellow progressives, says Kreitner, “too hastily dismiss one of America’s founding principles—the right to alter or abolish a destructive form of government—as irreparably sullied by association with slaveholders.”
Kreitner argues that disunion “is a hidden thread through our entire history, from the colonial era to the early republic and the Civil War and beyond,” and he backs up that claim with a vigorous account that takes in everything from the fractious colonies of the 17th century to the irrepressible Aaron Burr’s separatist hijinks to the bloodbath of 1861–65 all the way up through secessionist feints and spasms in recent years by Black Panthers, Lone Star patriots, and people pissed off by the election of Donald Trump. (If history is a reliable guide, this last-named band will turn coat the day after the next Democrat is elected president, while Trumpian nationalists will experience sudden secessionist epiphanies.)
Kreitner takes a clear-eyed view of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and the subsequent ratification of the Constitution, seeing it as a coup in which the well-born, the articulate, and the merchant class of the coasts threw out the decentralist Articles of Confederation and fastened upon the 13 states a consolidated national government that would lead, as opponents such as Maryland’s Luther Martin warned, to empire and oligarchy.
Rightly observing that the campaign for the Constitution in the state ratifying conv
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