Break It Up landscape cover
Break It Up landscape cover

When you hear some­one make the argu­ment that the Amer­i­can Civ­il War was real­ly about states’ rights, it’s pru­dent to ask them the fol­low-up ques­tion, “states’ rights to do what?” This is not an unan­swer­able ques­tion. For exam­ple, “the great state of Texas” told us so quite explic­it­ly in their seces­sion doc­u­ment:

We hold as unde­ni­able truths that the gov­ern­ments of the var­i­ous States, and of the con­fed­er­a­cy itself, were estab­lished exclu­sive­ly by the white race, for them­selves and their pos­ter­i­ty; that the African race had no agency in their estab­lish­ment; that they were right­ful­ly held and regard­ed as an infe­ri­or and depen­dent race, and in that con­di­tion only could their exis­tence in this coun­try be ren­dered ben­e­fi­cial or tolerable.

That in this free gov­ern­ment all white men are and of right ought to be enti­tled to equal civ­il and polit­i­cal rights; that the servi­tude of the African race, as exist­ing in these States, is mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial to both bond and free, and is abun­dant­ly autho­rized and jus­ti­fied by the expe­ri­ence of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Cre­ator, as rec­og­nized by all Chris­t­ian nations; while the destruc­tion of the exist­ing rela­tions between the two races, as advo­cat­ed by our sec­tion­al ene­mies, would bring inevitable calami­ties upon both and des­o­la­tion upon the fif­teen slave-hold­ing states.

But what about a states’ right to abol­ish slav­ery or peo­ple not be pressed into ser­vice as a fugi­­tive-slave catch­er? To legal­ize cannabis or decrim­i­nal­ize hal­lu­cino­genic mush­rooms? What about the right to have sanc­tu­ary cities?

Sure­ly the “to do what?” is a crit­i­cal ques­tion to answer about states’ right, just as there is no neu­tral prin­ci­ple in any aspect of politics.

Jour­nal­ist Richard Kre­it­ner’s book Break It Up traces the his­to­ry of sep­a­ratist move­ments in what had or would become “the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca”, look­ing not just at his­to­ry as it hap­pened but move­ments that just as eas­i­ly might have hap­pened and become our his­to­ry instead.

Kre­it­ner began writ­ing the book, sub­ti­tled “Seces­sion, Divi­sion, and the Secret His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca’s Imper­fect Union”, in the spring of 2015, but since its release in the fall of 2020, it’s only become more relevant.

The his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States par­tic­u­lar­ly fol­low­ing the Civ­il War has made us believe it’s nat­ur­al to say “the Unit­ed States is” when we could have just as eas­i­ly con­tin­ued to say “the Unit­ed States are” or even “the Amer­i­can nations” when speak­ing of the same geo­graph­i­cal territory.

Break It Up book cover
Break It Up: Seces­sion, Divi­sion, and the Secret His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca’s Imper­fect Union, by Richard Kre­it­ner (Hard­cov­er, Lit­tle Brown & Company)

If you are already some­what knowl­edge­able about U.S. his­to­ry, much of the mate­r­i­al cov­ered won’t be a surprise.

The ear­ly saber-rat­tling of South Car­oli­na over tar­iff issues, abo­li­tion­ists like William Lloyd Gar­ri­son agree­ing with slavers about the inher­ent pro­tec­tions of slav­ery grant­ed by the Con­sti­tu­tion, the move­ment for a sep­a­rate peace with Britain in the War of 1812, and Aaron Bur­r’s plot to cre­ate a new nation west of the Appalachi­ans and uti­liz­ing the Mis­sis­sip­pi riv­er sys­tem for its exports are not exact­ly secrets.

The Cal­i­for­nia and Texas republics are prac­ti­cal­ly part of state lore.

But all of these things read dif­fer­ent­ly when placed in a his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity of union and dis­union, where a war between states might have hap­pened at any time, not just 1861, and for rea­sons oth­er than the defense of chat­tel slav­ery, although that remained the sin­gu­lar divid­ing issue for almost a century.

It’s a reminder that there are much more inter­est­ing coun­ter­fac­tu­als and alter­nate his­to­ries to con­sid­er than, “What if the Con­fed­er­a­cy won the war?”

Like­wise, although Break It Up came out pri­or to the Jan­u­ary 6th insur­rec­tion at the U.S. Capi­tol, it is much less shock­ing when looked at in the con­text of a per­sis­tent spir­it of dis­union and polit­i­cal vio­lence to that end. 

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lau­ren Boe­bert is not the first leg­is­la­tor to bring a hand­gun into the Capi­tol; Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lau­rence Keitt had his own to hold oth­er leg­is­la­tors at bay while Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Pre­ston Brooks beat Sen­a­tor Charles Sum­n­er near to death in 1856. Ear­li­er, Robert E. Lee’s own father, Hen­ry Lee III even­tu­al­ly died from wounds suf­fered defend­ing a news­pa­per attacked by a vio­lent mob in Bal­ti­more due to the news­pa­per’s oppo­si­tion to the War of 1812.

“Tar­ring and feath­er­ing” or “run out of town on a rail” is spo­ken of casu­al­ly in pub­lic edu­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum rather than as the tor­ture and polit­i­cal vio­lence it was. And of course, the white suprema­cist vio­lence resist­ing and rolling back Recon­struc­tion involved many coups and attempt­ed coups.

Lead­ing up to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and even after­ward, I expect­ed much more polit­i­cal vio­lence than we got. It’s pos­si­ble that QAnon paci­fied many into think­ing that every­thing was still going accord­ing to plan, there­fore they did­n’t need to do any­thing more than post online. But as bad as Jan­u­ary 6th was, and as accu­rate as “insur­rec­tion” may be, it’s also crit­i­cal to not fall back on pure­ly legal­is­tic argu­ments as we attempt to talk about or denounce it.

Colonel Robert E. Lee is not an inap­pro­pri­ate man to ven­er­ate with stat­ues or high school names because he was a trai­tor and a los­er; it’s inap­pro­pri­ate because he was a human and child traf­fick­er who tor­tured peo­ple for prof­it and fought a war in defense of flesh-mon­ger­ing. But this eval­u­a­tion forces us to ask oth­er ques­tions. Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s rebel­lion was suc­cess­ful, but he, too, traf­ficked chil­dren as a way to main­tain dis­ci­pline among his enslaved labor­ers and tor­tured chil­dren to incen­tivize them to work hard­er.

There is no val­ue-neu­­tral way to talk about seces­sion, insur­rec­tion, or trea­son; “to do what?” is just as impor­tant a ques­tion as with “states’ rights.”

For all that it does well, there are two areas where the book ends up feel­ing lack­ing. The first is very niche and won’t be impor­tant to most peo­ple: the cita­tions are not marked out in the text and when try­ing to find the notes in the back of the book, they are not num­bered, either.

If this is part of some schol­ar­ly tra­di­tion, I’m not aware of it, and it makes fol­low­ing up on some of the quo­ta­tions and anec­dotes more dif­fi­cult, which is a shame because this book oth­er­wise is a good jump­ing-off point for more detailed reading.

The sec­ond com­plaint is more sub­stan­tial in the sense that it cov­ers Black nation­al­ism very lit­tle and Indige­nous sov­er­eign­ty not at all.

Some of the sep­a­ratist move­ments dis­cussed in the book seem to have very lit­tle chance of ever suc­ceed­ing and are includ­ed more to reflect that that ten­den­cy still exist­ed, such as the Sage­brush Rebellion.

But, up until the moment the U.S. decid­ed to turn its post­bel­lum war machine on the Plains Indi­ans, there still remained the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Indige­nous peo­ple would retain some ances­tral ter­ri­to­ry and have true sov­er­eign­ty of their own.

Of all the coun­ter­fac­tu­als pre­sent­ed in the book, the absence of that vision of the con­ti­nent is notice­able. When Kre­it­ner men­tions the Repub­lic of New Afri­ka of the late 1960s, draw­ing some con­ti­nu­ity with the idea for a Black South­ern repub­lic formed of the for­mer Con­fed­er­a­cy that was pro­posed in the 1860s, that sort of imag­i­na­tion is quite pow­er­ful and con­tin­ues to influ­ence the present.

To reit­er­ate, the book large­ly suc­ceeds in its what it sets out to do: exam­in­ing inher­ent and per­va­sive dishar­mo­ny of set­tler nation­al­ism in what is now the U.S.

But one final take­away, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the final two chap­ters that look at how the FBI’s COINTELPRO crushed Black, Chi­cano, and Puer­to Rican nation­al­ist move­ments, among oth­ers: when the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment claims that it needs more anti-domes­tic ter­ror­ism pow­ers in order to address specif­i­cal­ly white nation­al­ist and oth­er fas­cist move­ments like those that con­tributed to the Jan­u­ary 6th insur­rec­tion, remem­ber that no such addi­tion­al pow­ers have ever been nec­es­sary when they have been infil­trat­ing, dis­rupt­ing, and arrest­ing mem­bers of move­ments they actu­al­ly view as a threat.

As long as peo­ple like U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Paul Gosar and Sen­a­tor Josh Haw­ley con­tin­ue to have sway in the Repub­li­can Par­ty, the call will always be com­ing from inside the House (and the Senate).

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