After his swearing-in on January 20th, President Joseph R. Biden uttered a startling word not heard in an inaugural address since Abraham Lincoln took the same oath in 1861: “disunion.” The usual story of the United States describes its founding as enlightened, morally progressive, collaborative and, above all, inevitable. The history of disunion that Richard Kreitner has written in his recently published book Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union traces the contentious, divisive, malevolent and impermanent dynamics of the U.S.’s founding, elements that have remained present throughout the country’s entire history.
I’ve known Kreitner since 2016. I’d just started a new job, editing for the Books & the Arts section of the Nation, where Ricky was already working as the archivist. It was around this time that Ricky formed the fundamental proposition of Break It Up—that the narrative of the United States of America we’re taught is incongruent with how the formation and development of the nation actually unfolded.
In November, just after the 2020 elections, I invited Ricky to participate in a virtual gathering of family and friends to discuss his book, the election and the possibilities for the country. In January, after the storming of the Capitol and the Biden-Harris inauguration, we continued the dialogue by email. Below you’ll find pieces of both conversations, edited for clarity and continuity.
Matthew McKnight: What’s the basic argument of Break It Up, and why does it offer a useful framework for thinking about American history?
Richard Kreitner: The book is a survey of four hundred years of American history, from the landing of the Mayflower to Trump’s presidency, and it traces the ever-present idea of division and disunity—the forces preventing a union from being formed, the weaknesses in the union once it was created, and then the recurring efforts to split it and likewise to hold it together. It tries to shake up what I see as a certain complacency, that the country as we presently know it was always inevitably going to exist and that it is always going to continue to stay together, simply because.
When you closely look at the founding of the United States, you see that it was fragile right from the beginning. There were all these differences and tensions about what the country was supposed to be, how it was supposed to function, for what end, for whose benefit. Those tensions and divisions constantly had to be brushed under the rug and postponed for some ideal future date—which never really came, because there has always been some external threat justifying union at any cost, or some reason—economic interests, especially—that required staying together even if the different groups that made up the country, or the different regions, didn’t have much in common and actually kind of hated each other.
At the end of the Obama era, when my own faith in the purpose and promise of the union was foundering, I became interested in this long lineage of thought and action that suggested maybe holding the country together simply wasn’t worth it. Nobody had told that story before, and I thought it might offer something useful, something clarifying.
MM: How has writing the book encouraged you to reimagine the possibilities available to our country?
RK: It made me realize it was a mistake to take anything for granted about the way our country functions and to what extent anything really holds it together. This is part of the problem that Trump exposed and exploited in his rise to the presidency, this sense that we all basically understood how American politics functioned, that it occurred more or less within a confined range of political possibilities. That led so many people to underestimate his potential, how the system could be undermined from within, and how much depended not so much on the Constitution, on what James Madison called “parchment barriers,” but on unwritten rules, age-old norms and mores.
Similarly, I thought I saw evidence in the late Obama years, even before Trump’s rise to the presidency, that the union itself might not be as solid or stable as everyone had for so long assumed it was. Part of this was anecdotal, based on my own personal observations about how the U.S. really just didn’t feel like one country. Then, too, since 2004, after every presidential election talk of “secession” from the losing side had grown more and more pronounced. What began as memes getting passed around via email turned into actual petitions to the White House and then statements of sympathy from powerful elected officials. By 2016 there were actual secessionist movements, albeit largely on the fringe, cropping up in several states, and representing both poles of the political spectrum. Even if they were small and marginal, this was something new in American political life, or rather the return of something old.
Certainly, the idea of a “second civil war,” which almost nobody was talking about five years ago, is now the subject of headlines in major newspapers. There is even a movement, the “Boogaloo,” that wants to actively bring on a civil war. This is a historical moment, it seems to me, when the paths the country might take are numerous, the possible futures more diverse than at any time in recent memory, and I’ve grown rather impatient with people who say, you know, that will never happen. We just had an attempt to take over the United States Capitol! Donald Trump was president!
MM: In the earlier parts of the book, I really appreciated reading your analysis of the role that class played in the framing and the development of the constitution. Could you discuss that a bit?
RK: Pretty quickly after the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781, that initial constitutional arrangement basically failed. There was a kind of second revolution brewing in the mid-1780s—1785, 1786. There was a massive economic depression, of equal intensity to the 1930s. And there was this really kind of violent populist uprising starting.
Many of us have heard of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, but it was really happening in every state. There was a fear that there would be a second revolution and this one would be not against foreign Great Britain, but against the elites in the United States itself. And there are some provisions of the current constitution which are basically a response to that uprising—an attempt to take some of the power out of state legislatures, which the founders thought were too responsive to popular complaints and demands for debt relief and tax relief by citizens, ordinary farmers and Revolutionary War veterans. It was an attempt to take power away from those state legislatures that led to the constitution, the greater centralization of power in a federal government. That’s what that phrase “a more perfect union” originally meant.
That was a radicalizing discovery for me, that the Constitution was kind of a counterrevolutionary document. We tend to associate it with the Declaration of Independence and assume they must be of a piece because they’re from the same period, but they’re actually kind of opposed. The Declaration is this bold statement of popular sovereignty, whereas the Constitution pulls that back, and that’s the Constitution that we live with today, with a variety of amendments, formal and informal. And it led to my main question that I began with, which is: Who does the Union serve? This federation of fifty states, three hundred million people. Who does it serve to have power and decision-making concentrated, more or less, in Washington, D.C.? Of course we have a system of federalism, so some things are in the power of the states. But whose interest does that serve?
MM: Could you pinpoint a few of the provisions in the original Constitution that get at what you’re talking about, just to make things more concrete?
RK: One is that the new constitution included a provision banning states from issuing paper currency. At the time, the one demand of these rebels in the 1780s was for paper money. They wanted the government of the state to basically print money in addition to having hard money like gold and silver. If currency depreciates, as government-printed money often does, then it would be easier to pay off private debts. And the rich, who tended to be the creditors, who own state-backed securities and whatnot, they tended not to want that because they want their money and they want their profits. So this provision was a massive win for the rich, and a loss for the people at large.
And then the second one, far more famous, would be the Senate of the United States. From the very beginning, the voting in the Continental Congress took place one vote per colony, because they were seemingly all equal. They considered each of themselves sovereign once they declared independence. And for a decade or so after independence, they maintained that system because there were thirteen states, and the majority of them were smaller states.
At the time, Virginia was the most populous state, and some of the key people behind the push for a new constitution—James Madison, George Washington—were from that state. They wanted to overthrow the equal-representation system for one based on population so that the large states would have more power. But a representative from Delaware, for instance, a very small state, wanted their state to have an outsized influence. Otherwise, Virginia’s interests would overwhelm theirs.
A compromise needed to be reached during the Constitutional Convention. And, of course, that compromise was the division of the legislative branch into two houses—the House of Representatives, which is organized by population, and the Senate, which has equal votes per state. The impact ever since has basically been to prioritize minority interests, minoritarian rule. And the way that populations are trending now, which is that more rural voters tend to be Republican while more urban voters tend to be Democratic—and the country has quickly urbanized over the last couple of decades—is that it is more and more the case that a small minority of voters have control of the United States Senate, which has control over judicial appointments, cabinet appointments and really a veto on all federal legislation.
MM: Going back to the narratives that we all learn starting in elementary school, the United States gets presented as a beacon of democracy, but what you just laid out contradicts that narrative. So how would you characterize the relationship between the United States, this union of states, and the concept or value of democracy?
RK: When Trump is undermining democracy it’s horrible, but it’s not some kind of fall from grace, from the great and wise founders who were all for democracy. Anything but! So while we continue to struggle over the last two and a half centuries for more democracy and more equality, more freedom for more people, we’re running up against these institutional mechanisms that were created to forestall precisely those kinds of movements—the Senate, the electoral college. And the Anti-Federalists who argued against ratifying the Constitution had seen this quite clearly. One of them said that to govern the continent by democracy, you might as well try to rule hell by prayer.
Another interesting little piece of evidence in this story is one of the last letters that Alexander Hamilton wrote before his duel with Aaron Burr. The musical doesn’t really explore this at all; it attributes their animosity to personal ill will or jealousy, but it actually came down to this question of whether the country should be united or not. Aaron Burr at the time was the vice president, but he was on the outs with Jefferson, who was the president. And to rescue his political career, he was running for governor of New York.
The Federalist Party, which was dominant in the North, in New England, said that they would back him only if he supported their efforts to break New England away from the United States and form a separate country. It’s complicated, but, in any case, Hamilton denounced Burr for this apparent collaboration with their treasonous plot to dissolve the union, and that’s why they fought the duel.
No surprise, then, that in one of Hamilton’s last letters before the duel, he’s got disunion on the mind. He’s writing to a political ally, a fellow conservative, and Hamilton says that to break up the union would only make our real disease worse, which is democracy. It would make democracy more virulent in each of its constitutive parts.
So here we have Hamilton warning against disunion for that purpose. A lot has changed in two hundred years, but I wonder if that kind of logic pertains today, such that if we want democracy to be more virulent, we need to either dissolve the United States or devolve power from the federal government to more local levels. In my preference that would not be to the states, which don’t seem to me to be organically significant entities deserving of special recognition or protection. Instead we might devolve power to regions: the Northeast, the West Coast, Midwest. They would take most of the power from both the states and the federal government. This is one option short of complete disunion that I am kind of intrigued by and find more people talking about these days.
MM: What do you make of how much America’s form of government has been an example for other younger countries? I’m thinking about the ripple effect of a lot of this stuff that you’re talking about across the globe. What you’re talking about is figuring out a better political arrangement so that people can live better, basically.
RK: I think that makes sense in 1860, when that was one of Lincoln’s reasons for wanting to hold the union together, because if it broke apart, it would, as Daniel Webster had put it, “disappoint the hopes of mankind.” It seemed to undermine the idea that a people can govern themselves, so that’s why he wanted to hold the union together. I’m just not sure that’s really true today. I don’t know that younger countries in the last fifty years or so are modeling themselves on the United States.
We have one of the oldest constitutions in the world, which is often cited as a point in its favor, but I’m not so sure. I mean, the founders thought of government as a form of engineering—as a science, really. They were trying to tinker with the parts and make it work, but all sciences have advanced considerably since 1787. Jefferson thought that the Constitution should be rewritten every twenty years or so to account for changes in the popular will and new discoveries of how people and governments work. I think that’s too frequent, but we might take another look after two and a half centuries.
I’ve learned a lot from the works of the legal scholar Sanford Levinson, who has looked at constitutions around the world and shown how they’re really not modeled on the United States anymore. For one thing, almost every other nation has a parliamentary system. The founders thought it was so important to separate the executive from the legislative branches, but when you look at the last four years, how much did Mitch McConnell challenge Trump because of the dignity of Congress or the Senate? They didn’t understand that literally within three years of the Constitution’s ratification political parties would develop and that people’s loyalties would be to that party more than to their branch of government. So that’s one reason why most countries today developed a parliamentary system in which the executive, the head of government, is the head of the political party that has the majority in parliament. And under a parliamentary system, if you don’t maintain the confidence of parliament, you’re gone.
We need to continue to fight and pay attention to daily political battles. There are many issues, especially climate change, where we just really can’t afford to lose time. But I think it behooves people to look at these larger structural, even constitutional, questions and see what should be kept and what should be tossed out.
MM: One theme that I picked up on throughout the book is the application of some language or concepts from psychoanalysis to how an entire government or nation functions. Like repression, repressing your own sins or repressing your own insecurities, and how over time they can manifest in cruel or surprising ways. Why did you choose some of that language? Did it teach you anything about the functioning of big groups of people in applying things that we normally think of as happening within a single individual?
RK: The language of repression and trauma emerged for me from the historical record itself. It didn’t really take a lot of work for me to apply it to this story. The irrepressible conflict theory argues that it was always going to happen, that there were forces, slavery and freedom especially, but I think also union and disunion, that were at war with one another in American history. The phrase comes from a speech that William Seward, a senator from New York, gave in 1858, saying that slavery and freedom were locked in this “irrepressible conflict” and that it had to be settled one way or another, kind of a similar idea to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech from the same year, when he said that he didn’t expect the union to fall, but that one or the other, slavery or freedom, was going to triumph.
I was thinking about this phrase “irrepressible conflict,” and I wasn’t really seeing anybody use this rich language to think about the founding era. If Seward’s noting that the conflict has become irrepressible, then that implies that somebody had tried to repress it. That it had formerly been repressed. I started thinking about the founding period as a time of repressed conflicts, and I wanted to look at when the conflicts were repressed, and why and how and at what cost. And who paid.
Freud, of course, was using this language as well. He’s talking about the “return of the repressed.” The patient represses conflict and trauma, contradictions, unresolved issues or issues they just don’t want to face, but it doesn’t work, it never works. It returns to bedevil their minds and even their lives in ways that aren’t immediately identifiable as related to that original injury or trauma or contradiction or conflict. I thought that was just an interesting way to look at the post-Civil War period, especially the twentieth century. It’s become common in recent years to say that the Civil War never ended, basically, that the conflicts have continued. What does that mean through the language of repression? I wanted to show the ways in which the 1940s and the Fifties and the Sixties and even the Nineties were all haunted by these earlier conflicts, and how, when you look closely at it, you see the return of the repressed.
MM: We’re approaching an articulation of the dynamics of repression within a national character (or within a cultural history, perhaps). As if we needed more evidence, the events at the Capitol on January 6th put it all into sharp focus. I think what I’m reaching for is some help with defining the dynamics between the repression of past trauma and the costs of not facing that trauma. Have you thought about how this state of repressed inertia has remained so unbroken from generation to generation? I mean, often people reach for lines of thought that find end points at the trauma of slavery or the failures of Reconstruction or the terrorist backlash to Reconstruction and on. But do these historical and political forces account totally for how so many generations of humans have been stuck with the same repressed spirits?
RK: After the attack on the Capitol, many tried to emphasize the historic nature of the event by commenting on the fact that the rioters brought the Confederate battle flag into the sacred, un-besmirched halls of the national legislature, an accomplishment that even the Confederates themselves had never managed. Literally, this was correct. The defenses of Washington held through the Civil War, despite a strong possibility at the outset of the conflict that it might end with the separatists’ capture of the city. But the broader claim couldn’t have been more false. The Stars and Bars had been present in the building for many decades as part of the state flags of several former Confederate states; it was only last year, of course, that Mississippi finally adopted a new official banner. Far from never being seen in the Capitol, the Confederate flag has been there all along—until recently, entirely uncontroversially.
To me this suggests the continuities, rather than the ruptures, between our nation’s current “divisions” and its checkered past. The violence of the January 6th attack, the ugly racism, the contempt for majority rule: none of it is new. It has always been present in American politics and culture, sometimes in-your-face and unignorable, other times lingering just below the surface. When it bursts through that thin veneer, I see it as the return of the repressed.
You’re asking about how this gets passed down from generation to generation. That suggests that the transmission is a private affair that goes on within the family or even within a local community. But the story of American politics in the second half of the twentieth century, to me, is of the nationalization of what we might call political Southernism—white supremacy, white paranoia, the not-so-subtle threat of violence should the practices and institutions of racial apartheid come unsettled. The man photographed so dramatically hoisting the Confederate battle flag next to one portrait of John C. Calhoun and another of Charles Sumner—two pivotal, if very different, figures in the antebellum fight over slavery and the union—was later arrested in Delaware, a state which, though it had legal slavery until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, never joined the Confederacy. He has no personal connection to the Confederacy, so far as I have read. I’m not sure it is a matter of handed-down resentments so much as something that is simply in the air, or in the water, in the political culture of America.
The conflict between equality and inequality, democracy and oligarchy, was repressed for the sake of holding the country together, of avoiding another war. But it couldn’t hold forever, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s forced the conflict back into the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The reactionary response to that movement, not only in the South, birthed the modern conservative movement and all the violence of the mid-nineteenth-century conflict came roaring back to American life. To continue with the Freudian metaphor, the only way past this ancient trauma is to work through it. The national equivalent of psychoanalysis, of therapy, it seems to me, would be a truth and reconciliation commission, dedicated to airing out the roots of our trauma and its legacies, and charting a path to justice. That’s how you start anew.
Are you suggesting the historical facts are overemphasized in the analysis of January 6th, of Trump, of contemporary American politics? I’m sensitive to that argument (applying history to the present has become a veritable cottage industry in the last few years) and would like to hear more if you do think so.
MM: I don’t think I’m saying that historical facts are overemphasized, necessarily. I mean, your book demonstrates that a major part of what’s contributed to the country’s inertia is the ignorance of our own history. But, like you’re saying, we have to be truthful about it all, and Americans are not, on the whole, very good at being truthful. Attaining some sort of collective healing is not a matter of either historical literacy or the courage to see and speak truthfully, but I think it requires both. And I think it’s something that could, like you say, take place on the grand stage of a truth and reconciliation commission, but our track record with courts, political trials and mass media suggests to me that not much truth would be revealed and confronted on such a stage. And so I think more humble settings, like schools, local libraries or people’s homes, would be more conducive to this sort of process—particularly because children would also be present and involved. My proposal would commission teams of artists, spiritual leaders, functional medicine practitioners and historians (or teachers) to develop and lead a series of community-level healing circles.
RK: I like this idea a lot. A sort of decentralized truth and reconciliation process rather than a nationalized, hyper-televised, spectacle-like one. William Lloyd Garrison, one of the heroes of my book, would perhaps appreciate it. He advised against all participation in politics because it was irreparably sullied by slavery and other sins and vices and instead sought to build an abolitionist movement that would, in time, bring about a revolution solely through “the majesty of moral power.” However much Garrison is derided these days by scholars who say he was wrong to argue the Constitution was pro-slavery, he was right about that—it did take a revolution through moral power to build a popular movement against slavery. It also took the temporary breakup of the union to make that possible, I’d note. In any case, I think the vision you outline of a reckoning conducted in “more humble settings” than Capitol Hill or Manhattan TV studios connects pretty readily with the devolved politics I spoke about above. I think this country may be creeping toward some version of what I call in the book a “new anti-federalism,” manifested both politically and socially, but also economically and culturally, and that it might be this turning away from bigness, from Washington, that ultimately leads to a lasting truce in our cold civil war, and keeps it from turning hot. Anyway, that’s my best attempt to summon up some hope.