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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, March 21st, 2021

Book Review: In the U.S., the desire to “Break It Up” is more American than America itself

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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