The dream of independence, not union, inspired the early European settlers of what is now the United States to leave their old world for a new one. The colonies were founded for different reasons, had different economies and pursued distinctively different interests. Race, religion, class, regional resentment and culture have always divided us. Our most powerful myth, that the many melded into one, has never been true. In his engaging and enlightening Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, journalist and historian Richard Kreitner explores this hidden thread of disunion in a fresh, well-documented and persuasive way, focusing on four distinct eras during which some sought to break away from the larger Union.
Consider the following narrative: The American Revolution was a spontaneous response to colonists’ realization that they could not separately fight the British Empire and win. The creation of the U.S. was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The drafting and ratification of the Constitution were done in secret in the midst of secessionist movements in the West and insurrection in the East. The Founding Fathers were careful to protect their own interests, including their interest in owning enslaved people.
The first popular disunion movement in our history developed in the North when the Federalists, out of power during the Jefferson presidency, discussed leaving. The War of 1812 led to the Hartford Convention and more secession talk. There was also Aaron Burr’s scheme to form a new Western empire.
For years, Southerners cared more about continuing slavery than Northerners did about stopping it, until the abolitionist movement changed politics. Northern resentment boiled over after years of Southern intimidation. In this way, the Civil War could be seen as a Northern resistance movement after years of compromises with the South to try and hold the Union together.
There is so much more in this provocative and often surprising book, including the ways that secessionist movements have continued into the present. Kreitner challenges readers to rethink what the Union means to us and how we can help it live up to its highest ideals. Reading Break It Up is an excellent place to start.