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SCIENCE SALON # 141

Michael Shermer with Richard Kreitner — Break it Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union

The provocative thesis of Break It Up is simple: The United States has never lived up to its name—and never will. The disunionist impulse may have found its greatest expression in the Civil War, but as Break It Up shows, the seduction of secession wasn’t limited to the South or the 19th century. It was there at our founding and has never gone away.

Investigative journalist Richard Kreitner takes readers on a revolutionary journey through American history, revealing the power and persistence of disunion movements in every era and region. Each New England town after Plymouth was a secession from another; the 13 colonies viewed their Union as a means to the end of securing independence, not an end in itself; George Washington feared separatism west of the Alleghenies; Aaron Burr schemed to set up a new empire; John Quincy Adams brought a Massachusetts town’s petition for dissolving the United States to the floor of Congress; and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as a pro-slavery pact with the devil.

From the “cold civil war” that pits partisans against one another to the modern secession movements in California and Texas, the divisions that threaten to tear America apart today have centuries-old roots in the earliest days of our Republic. Richly researched and persuasively argued, Break It Up will help readers make fresh sense of our fractured age. Shermer and Kreitner discuss:

  • what happens if Trump loses the 2020 election and refuses to leave,
  • the possibility of the secession of California, Oregon and Washington,
  • States rights vs. Federal power in issues like climate change, abortion, health care, etc.,
  • how Native American tribes and nations governed themselves and what the colonists learned from them,
  • how the 1st colonial revolution was fought not to create a federation but to destroy one when Boston rebelled against the Crown-backed Dominion of New England,
  • separatists movements throughout our history,
  • Aaron Burr’s attempts to create a new nation he would head,
  • spread of slavery to the west and Jefferson’s fear that it sounded like a “fire bell in the night,”
  • why John Quincy Adams introduced a petition demanding the dissolution of the U.S.:

    “If the day should ever come, (may Heaven avert it,) when the affection of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference, or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred, far better will it be for the people of the disunited states, to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.”

  • how Southern states initially sought to expand the union of slave holding states, not secession,
  • why reconstruction failed,
  • the Civil War of the 1960s,
  • Brexit, Texit, and Calexit,
  • Russia support for American secessionist movements,
  • James Madison’s observation (in Federalist Paper No. 51) about the problem all human groups/tribes/nations must solve:

    “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Kreitner’s summation of America’s irrepressible conflict “The ‘irrepressible conflict’ was not just between North and South, freedom and slavery; it reflected something even deeper. The truly ‘irrepressible’ conflict was between union and disunion, whose forces bringing American together and those tearing them apart.”

Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer to The Nation. He is the author of Booked: A Traveler’s Guide to Literary Locations Around the World. A graduate of McGill University, he has also written for The New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Baffler, Raritan, The Forward, and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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