We’ve Always Been A Divided United States
Regina de Heer: Do you think there's anything at all that all people in the United States have in common?
Jeremy: Self-determinism. Every American I've met always wants to do things their way.
Regina: Do you feel any allegiance to where you live?
Jeremy: I'm a native New Yorker. It's just one of the most vibrant cities in the world. My connection is definitely with New York more than it is with the rest of the country.
Regina: Why do you think that is?
Jeremy: We just do things so differently here. I feel like there was always an ingrained division, but especially after Trump got elected in 2016, I feel like a lot of these ideologies that people harbored just surfaced. Then people started realizing how different we all are politically and socially. The division is very unhealthy and is sometimes even tempting to want to split up our country. Let's division off Texas and let them do their thing because we're just not speaking a similar language at all.
Kai: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright and welcome to the show. I want to share a conversation I had this time last year with journalist Richard Kreitner. Richard published a book during the peak of the 2020 election madness called Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. The book is a tour through our national history with trying to get away from each other. Richard argues that the storied divisiveness of today is nothing new. If anything, it's the norm. He raises the provocative question of whether it's time to really ask.
Can there ever be such a thing as the United States? With the 2022 election behind us mostly, I guess and with Donald Trump having already kicked off the 2024 election, this conversation felt worth another lesson. Richard, thanks for joining us.
Richard: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. I'm a big fan of the show.
Kai: I guess where I'd like to start is Walt Whitman who you talk about an essay he wrote in 1871 called Democratic Vistas. It's this exploration of a post-civil war America with its expansive and unified horizon of states. He was concerned about the fate of such an expansive union. He wrote, "The United States are destined to either surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism or else proved the most tremendous failure of time." Richard, I gather from this survey of our history that you are not quite sure we ever surmounted the gorgeous history of feudalism. Is that a fair analysis of where you're coming from?
Richard: I think it certainly is a fair analysis. Anybody who's reading the daily papers, I think is seeing signs of that all over the place. Concentrated power of all kinds and our failure to really achieve what Whitman held to be our democratic destiny. Whitman is like the presiding spirit of the book because I think he's our sharpest observer of American politics and American life from the period before the Civil War to the period after, really that what I would consider the hinge point of American history.
I think like Lincoln, who he wrote about so much, they both had this idea that the Civil War was a bet. It was a wager, it was worth all this sacrifice and all this blood, which Whitman was intimately familiar with in order to keep the union together if it was going to serve some end, if it was going to become some special thing down the road. Part of my project came from the realization 150 years later, we haven't really achieved that destiny. That the wager hasn't necessarily paid off. What does that mean for our understanding of American history and of the future?
Kai: You wrote this book during the Trump era, right? I mean, was that part of it what fueled you?
Richard: Well, it was. I mean, I think a lot of people mistakenly think that it came out of the Trump era, which it didn't. It actually came out of this late Obama moment of massive frustration about the fact that the Democrats had control of the government we'd bothered to elect. Our first Black president and a truly inspiring leader and didn't have too much to show for it and started digging through American history to try to figure out why that was and what that meant about the constitution and the union and the future.
Trump certainly accelerated, I think the thought for a lot of people that maybe this union isn't all it's cracked up to be. Once Biden was elected, I think a lot of people on the left especially have edged away from that. When we see, once again, we're in this moment very much like 2014, 2015, where we see that even Democratic control of Congress of the presidency isn't really enough to get what you want in a country with a Senate so unequally distributed for population, gerrymandering, and the like.
I think people are getting frustrated once again. This secessionist sentiment even on the left, I think predates the Trump era and will return even after he's gone.
Kai: You're arguing that way predates the Trump era. That these ideas, this tension over whether or not this union is viable and worth it. That this is a through line all the way through the history of our politics, right? The book is almost like a survey of-- to me, familiar American history, but redefined to show this through a lot.
Richard: I see it as like an x-ray of American history where everything that's black is white and everything that's white is black. Instead of the story of the coming to be of the nation and the constant act of creation itself as the union continues to exist. There's this kind of ever-present possibility that it might fall apart or even before the book starts 150 years before the creation of the United States and shows how long it took for a union to be formed and why so many people were against it in the first place.
I start the book in a very conventional way. As you say, it's familiar landmarks of American history just seen in a different way. The pilgrims were not called pilgrims at the time, they were called separatists of all things because they wanted to separate from the Church of England. That's why they came to the New World because they wanted to basically declare independence from the existing structure of the Church of England.
Once they continued to spread throughout America, each settlement, each colony pretty much is of active secessionism from preexisting ones by people who didn't fit in or didn't see themselves as part of whatever preexisting community, Boston, for instance, that already existed. The impulse towards separation as the solution for any intractable political dispute is four centuries old, long predates the creation of the United States and indeed is the reason why it took so long, 150 years.
The time it's been since the Civil War to form a union in the first place. Because as today, the one thing that the American colonists had in common with one another is that they wanted nothing to do with each other.
Kai: To the degree, we're unified, we're unified in separation.
Richard: That's what we seen in a recent poll that was put out, that a lot of people were alarmed by that something like 52% of Trump supporters supports the session and 42% of Biden supporters supports the session. That's the only thing we really have in common is the wish to have nothing to do with one another. In the colonial period and through the revolution, I think Disunion is the rule, and any proposal to depart from that by creating some federation is really the exception. One, most people really want nothing to do with.
Kai: Let's go through it. Let's go through some of the big moments in history where this through line of secessionism is present. Reconstruction has been a real touchpoint for this show in our understanding of modern American politics. I want to start there. It's often been called the second founding of the country, and I've often said it's really the beginning of today's idea of America as this land of equal opportunity. You say it's none of that, it's really a continuation of the existing divides that the Civil War settled nothing whatsoever.
In one point, I learned in your book is that in the years right after the war, as politicians in both the North and South thought over the policies of reconstruction, they were constantly blaming each other for being divisive for driving us back towards a collapse of the union. Explain those charges and countercharges of that moment.
Richard: Sure. At the end of reconstruction by 1877, the so-called compromise of 1877, really a surrender by the North to the South, you have this return to the compromised tradition that had always defined American political history, quite tenuously and never entirely successfully. There would always be these great dramas and stress points, and then some deal would be hammered out that would purport to solve the issues that were at stake, but really just create further problems that would have to be solved down the road.
The reunion, I call it fraudulent reunion because if you think about the union as a marriage, the parties getting back together on horribly unequal terms without having really settled the court issues about equality that had motivated the dispute in the first place.
Kai: I'm interested in the political rhetoric even at that time as this fake marriage came back together. I guess there's something about the detail of it when I'm reading it that hit home today again, where you hear both Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats accusing the other of being the person who's driving us towards divisiveness and out of union.
Richard: Right, that was also a continuation of rhetoric that had existed before the war, where each side would accuse the other of being a Disunionist. It's like today where after each side loses an election, people start to say, "Maybe this union isn't really working for us," but then when they win and the other side starts talking that way, they call them traitors. Everybody's both intrigued by and afraid of this impulse toward Disunion. After the Civil War, one thing that I think about this country is that we're ashamed of having fought the war.
We were always taught to be embarrassed by it, that it was caused by these reckless abolitionists who didn't have anybody's interest but their own at heart. We, in the North, have always been taught to be somewhat ashamed of having fallen into this regrettable tragic dispute rather than being proud that we fought a war that ultimately led to the freedom for four million people from bondage. Part of that shame about the war was not wanting to risk another one, of course.
Powerful-- I think that's what you're getting at, powerful economic interests in the years after the war were able to use that fear of another conflict to stifle any kind of discontent, even if it had nothing to do with the causes that led the confederacy to secede and led to the Civil War.
Kai: I'm talking with Richard Kreitner about his book, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. Coming up the Confederates are not the only people who threatened to walk away from these nominally United States. They weren't even the first to do it over slavery. That's next.
Kousha: Hey, it's Kousha from the Notes from America team, and I want to share a special series from our friends over at the podcast, Death, Sex & Money. It's almost cliche to say that for families, the holidays can be a hard time, fights about politics, multiple generations under one roof, stress about money, sadness about people who are no longer here. Death, Sex & Money has been hearing stories from people experiencing estrangement and finding that the holidays are sometimes a central part of that experience.
Kousha: Death, Sex & Money's exploration of estrangement is available now wherever you listen to podcasts. If something you hear resonates with you, please do be in touch with us. We'll dig into this topic soon on Notes from America. You can email us or send us a voice memo. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org. All right, thanks. Talk to you soon.
Kai: Welcome back, I'm Kai Wright. This is Notes from America. We're talking this week about the myth of our national unity, which feels pretty relevant at this moment. Journalist Richard Kreitner published a book back in 2020 called Break It Up. It's a history of the long debate over whether the United part of these United States is worth the effort. He walks through a bunch of secessionist moments and movements in our history, including one in the North before the Civil War.
We think about the Southerners as the secessionists. As you rightly point out before the war, also the end of the union was a particularly Northern idea, particularly in the 1850s.
Richard: Yes, absolutely. We think that it was inevitable that if anybody was going to succeed, it was going to be the South. For the whole decade, before the war broke out, it was really the North that had much more reason to be angry with the way the country was going. You had the fugitive slave law, which made it every person's responsibility to recapture runaways from bondage and return them to their purported owners, which many in the North considered to be just an appalling infringement. Not only of the rights of the accused runaways but of the state rights of the north.
State's rights in this period was really a northern doctrine. The Republican Party, which during the war came to represent federal power, was really a state's rights party actually from the very first. Of course, the Dred Scott decision, which many Northerners, even Northern legislatures, said, "This is null and void. This is absolutely no effect on us whatsoever. The Supreme Court is an illegitimate body, and we're under no responsibility to respect this opinion."
I think there's good reason to think that if Abraham Lincoln had lost the 1860 election, or if nobody had won a majority and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives and the election was stolen from him, basically. I think there's some reason to think that there would've been a northern secession movement in 1860, 1861, and possibly even war, and possibly the North would've won that war, and you would've had a Northern Confederacy in the 19th century. Nobody really knows.
There's these little hinging points in history that show that things like this could have gone very differently in ways that we don't really appreciate. Sometimes people read my book and say, "We were divided before we survived. Therefore, we have nothing really to worry about now." The lesson to me is almost exactly the opposite, which is that the union was never destined to be created in the first place. It was never inevitable that it was going to survive. There were many points at which it very nearly did not. I think that's largely the case going forward today as well.
Kai: The union divide has also not only been North and South. You write that at least part of the political will behind building railroads across the continent was an effort to keep the Western states feeling connected to the union. Explain that history.
Richard: Sure. This was a fascinating thing that I really wasn't aware of before I started working on the book. I was excited by it because in 2016 when I really started accelerating my work on the project Calexit was in the news. Californians talking about independence today. I've quickly realized that there's this long history to the idea of a separate Pacific Republic, which would be California, Oregon, maybe Washington state. That preexist California's entry into the union. When people settled over there, it was really, really far away. There was no railroad.
They had to go through this very circuitous route around South America usually to get there. They really wanted nothing to do with the United States. They saw it as a country that was fatally divided, that was probably going to fall into some kind of civil war, and they didn't want to be involved. What's most interesting is that they were very prominent American politicians who were perfectly fine with that, with there being a separate Pacific Republic in California and in Oregon. Thomas Jefferson said, "Let them be allies, but let them be separate."
Daniel Webster, even one union, indivisible, he was in favor of a separate Pacific Republic. This idea that they took their inspiration from the American Revolution that we shouldn't be ruled by such a distant government that really doesn't represent our interests. That idea is picked up, especially in 1861 amid the secession crisis where they say, "This country is absolutely falling apart. We come from both the North and the South." This is West Coast residents speaking. We don't want to have to go to war and fight against our neighbors and our family and our friends.
Let's separate and form a separate republic and major politicians from both of those states. California and Oregon supported that idea. Again, if one or two things had gone differently or if one or two different people had acted differently, it could happen that we would have an independent California today.
Kai: Well, and so you write that one of the big political motivators for the massive infrastructure project of cross-country railroads was that they could keep the West tied to the union. That's ironic because the railroad industry itself becomes a hotbed for a whole new kind of Disunion fight around class. It echoes out into our politics throughout the gilded age of the late 19th century in which elites start talking about labor agitators as secessionists.
Richard: Well, there's a long tradition in which booster rhetoric about national unity covers up for very partisan sectional and selfish interests. I think that's something that you can see in the founding generation as well, where they're forming, yes, a more perfect union. When you start to think and ask, more perfect for who, it turns out to be for a very specific class of speculators and slaveholders, and the rhetoric of unity is often used to cover up for selfish interests. I think that's the case after the Civil War as well. There's a lot of rhetoric about may we unite the country in a way that it'll never be broken, blah, blah, blah. All of the profits, all of the gains from this massive integration of the country is going to the very top 1% as we would say today. People start to have a problem with that. In 1877, there's this massive wave of labor strikes that, yes, target the railroads, first. They have support throughout the country and throughout the communities that they're working in.
People are talking about insurrection, talking about a new civil war that will be not between North and South but either within the North or the whole country. That's really the bottom versus the top. Each side is accusing the other of being the secessionists. The anarchists, the labor organizers are accusing the rich of seceding from the country which is I think rhetoric that we've heard in the last couple of years as well about the super-rich basically seceding and trying to leaving the rest of society to solve its own problems.
Kai: Going to and the moon literally.
Richard: Exactly, or sea studying, building islands in the ocean so they don't have to be part of this sinking ship basically. The rich are also accusing the underclass, the agitators, of being the heirs to the secessionists of 1861, trying to overthrow the government, trying to destroy the republic basically. Theodore Roosevelt, later on, in a different wave of strikes in the 1890s, suggests taking some of the populists and shooting them and dead.
It's an incredibly violent rhetoric. All these people live through the Civil War even if some of them were very young, many of them were actually veterans of the fighting and they're seeing their politics through the prism of that experience. In cities, in Brooklyn, everywhere in the country, they're building these massive armories in the middle of cities for national guard units, state militia units that they think might have to fight against this rising underclass of poor people and of laborers in the same way that the Union Army had to fight these Southern rebels in the 1860s. They see it as a continuation of that struggle to keep the country together.
Kai: That's so interesting. When you go down Atlantic Avenue and I see this big armory, that part of the moment was they literally were arming up to save the union.
Richard: It's an extremely sad irony I think that the memory of the Civil War one version, the popular version of the memory of the Civil War is basically weaponized for the next century or until today in an effort to prevent the promises that were made in the Civil War of equal rights and of true justice for all from actually coming true. I think that's part of our need to take another look in American history. That's part of what 1619 is undoing this false form of memory of our history because that's a prerequisite for having a truly united and better country today.
Kai: It's interesting also that how some of the class Disunion that you describe at least in the West got resolved, the way that the tension between these popular uprisings and the moneyed class gets resolved is in part through racism.
Richard: Sure. That's a specifically California story. It's a weird coda to the story of California separatism which is that by 1879, Chinese workers are making up a very large percentage of the employment in California. White people, especially new white immigrants are really furious about this. They form a separate party, the working men's party to basically try to exclude the Chinese from any part of California's political life, prevent them from voting, prevent them from serving on juries, or even prevent them from moving to California in the first place or entering the United States through California's ports.
This would violate a treaty that the US and China had signed in the 1860s, and therefore trigger a clash between California and the federal government. One that a lot of these people or their fathers had wanted in the first place in the 1840s and 1850s. There's a state constitutional convention in California that year in 1879 and some people support creating this clash from the federal government and perhaps even succeeding from the union if that's the only way that they can institute this immigration ban that they want to pass against Chinese immigrants.
A lot other people hold them back and that doesn't go forward. I think there's good reason to believe that is what is the impetus behind the federal government's Chinese exclusion act of 1883, only a few years later, which is yet another attempt to satisfy California and prevent it from spinning out of the American orbit. I think that's an interesting example of a much larger theme I try to show throughout the book, which is that succession threats actually do tend to succeed. You don't actually have to go through with the act of breaking away from the union in order to get what you want.
I think we see something similar today where Republicans will say, "Oh my God, we're going to go crazy." Even Ted Cruz recently, "We'll succeed from the union possibly or all support it then if the Democrats abolish the filibuster, admit DC as a state." In my mind, fairly necessary and not particularly radical measures but threats like that is pretty much what prevents Biden from actually supporting court packing, for instance. If you threaten that you're going to upend the entire constitutional order if something happens, it makes people pause. I think the Chinese Exclusion Act is an example of that.
Kai: Over and over and over again, we see this pattern where Black people and non-white immigrants are thrown under the bus of unity, are more accurately sacrificed to maintain the myth of a truly United States.
Richard: It's fear of Disunion that prevents FDR, for instance, from really including Black people in the New Deal or supporting anti-lynching law. He says this explicitly and so does Eleanor who supported the legislation, it's the fear of angering the South too much and undermining national unity that prevents us from having a truly inclusive new deal. That's just defines American politics right up to the 1960s really, is this fear of turning the South against the union once again and undermining national unity. This compromise tradition that returns is basically comes at a cost and that cost is usually born by people of color.
Kai: I want to talk about the presidential election of 1896 because it seems like this is a moment where a lot of this stuff we're talking about crystallizes and shapes our modern politics over unity and disunity for the 20th century. The populous movement just to set the stage here had erupted as we've discussed, class unrest is everywhere, and they're going into the 1896 election, and they hold a national convention in Chicago where the famous populace William Jennings Bryan is supposed to be nominated but he's challenged by a Southerner Pitchfork, Ben Tillman. Introduce us to Tillman and explain the speech he gives at that convention.
Richard: Sure. This is actually the Democratic Party. This is the Democratic Party's attempt to co-opt the populist movement and basically defang it. Tillman, he's a veteran of redemption which is the struggle after the Civil War during reconstruction to overthrow reconstruction, to overthrow this multiracial democracy that the Republicans in Congress have basically set up in the former Confederacy. They do that through violence, through attacks, the murders lynchings, and massive, massive voter suppression. Tillman is very proud of this, very open about his role in it.
He basically represents the return of a blatantly racist confederate mindset to American politics mixed with this populist movement of free silver and economic redistribution. He's the first at this Chicago convention that's more famous for William Jennings Bryan's famous speech about the Cross of Gold. At the same convention, Ben Tillman makes a speech saying that Civil War was fought for to free Black people. This is going to free white people. He basically threatens secession for the first time on the national political stage since the Civil War.
He's booed and he's off stage by Bryan's people who don't want their movement to be seen as this separatist regional thing. It's a national movement. The Republicans use that Tillman speech against the Democrats in that election to paint their economic populist ideas as irredeemably, not so much racist, that's not really their concern, but this unionist, a threat to the established older.
Kai: It sounds like they more than just use it. Like that they believed that was true that they were terrified by this speech.
Richard: Yes, absolutely. I think they're frankly more afraid of people like Eugene Debs than Ben Tillman who's more interested in his racism I think than his actual economic populism. It sets the stage. This is the other reason why this is an important election, it's the first election where big business really gets involved and basically buys the election for McKinley. The Republican Party has given up by this point on any semblance that they care about the outcome of the Civil War, really. Any semblance that they care about Black political rights in the South.
For the first time, they remove a plank in the Republican Party's platform that supports the protection of voting rights for Black people in the South. This is the beginning of a reconciliation American politics. Let's forget about all that divisiveness. Let's focus on America getting rich, starting our own empire at the same time. I think that sets the pattern for American politics for many years to come which is that any critique of the established economic order especially is going to be painted as a quasi-secessionist impulse that can be rightfully excluded from American politics.
The Constitution doesn't really apply, certainly not. Freedom of speech doesn't really apply to people who are going to threaten our order in the way that the Confederates did.
Kai: Just to put a fine point on that so this is really the moment where there becomes this liberal-conservative consensus that bottom-up politics, this kind of populous bottom-up agitation is coded as Disunionism.
Richard: That's right. You see that again in the 1950s, after World War II, if you ask anybody in the street, of course, the Trump question is when was America great? Another question is when was America ever united? Maybe you'll get people saying the late 1940s, early 1950s. That's also a moment the Red Scare, where you're having an entire universe of political ideas excluded from the political conversation and painted as inherently treasonous. How united were we really?
Kai: I'm talking with journalist Richard Kreitner about his book published in 2020 called Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. After a break, we're going to jump ahead into the Civil Rights era and the modern secessionist ideas that Richard argues became the foundation of today's Republican Party. We're not taking your calls this week, but of course, you can always leave us a voice note right on our website at notesfromamerica.org. Stay with us.
It's Notes from America, I'm Kai Wright. This week, we are revisiting a conversation I had last fall with journalist Richard Kreitner about his book called Break It Up, which traces the long history of disunity in these nominally United States. Before the break, we'd arrived in the mid-20th century, a time that some people look back upon as an era of unique unity, the post-war pride, and the huge push to create a new middle class for white people at least.
As Richard notes, the Red Scare of that time was in part a reaction to the secessionist movements that immediately preceded that moment and a new lasting secessionist ethos was about to erupt. Let's do jump ahead in the 20th century and let's actually go to the '60s because you tell a story that defines modern conservative politics and its relationship to this secessionist ethos today's Republican. It's 1961, it's the 100th year anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
John Kennedy wants to hold a celebration of unity in Charleston, South Carolina which is, of course, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Immediately, the fact of this Disunion comes up. How so?
Richard: The only place that they could find to host this commemoration of the beginning of the Civil War is a segregated hotel. The New Jersey delegation, I believe it is, which has Black members on their commission commemorating the Civil War is told that they're not welcome at that hotel. The federal government has to find the National Commission some neutral space that's not segregated. I think they go to a military base nearby, but then South Carolina pulls out of that commemoration.
Kai: They succeed from the pro-union celebration.
Richard: That's exactly right. They succeed just as they did a century earlier. I think Strom Thurmond gives a speech saying that this is fantastic. This is exactly what our grandfathers did and we should keep going down this road. That's, of course, coming amid a wave of so-called massive resistance to desegregation to Brown v Board of Education in which Southerners are picking up the ideas of John C Calhoun and the Confederates. Talking about nullifying federal law, nullifying the Supreme Court cases.
Even talking about William Faulkner gives an interview in which he says, "If the North pushes too hard, there's going to be a civil war." A century later, nothing has been resolved. I'm fascinated by a moment a year after that messed up Civil War commemoration in which George Wallace is inaugurated as governor of Alabama and that speech is best known for his support for segregation. Now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever, which sounds it's just about the South, but there's another part in the speech where he's appealing to whites in other parts of the country in the North and the West.
He's saying, "You have grievances too. You have racial grievances. You're starting to lose your manufacturing jobs. The communists are in control of the universities and whatnot. You are Southerners too," he says and I think that's really the founding statement of modern conservatism and the modern Republican Party, which that it's the Southernization of American politics and really the nationalization of Confederate grievances and the lost cause mythology.
That's when you start to see confederate battle flags flying far North of the Mason-Dixon where nobody has Confederate heritage. They see the stars and bars as a symbol of their own grievances. That's the silent majority, that's Trumpism.
Kai: You quote Barry Goldwater tell a reporter in 1963, "Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea." Explain that how the East Coast became the representation of a nation apart for the Southernization of conservative politics.
Richard: Sure. I think that's got roots in two things. One is the new deal where you've got this massive concentration of power, resources, and money in the East and in Washington. Then similarly, television starting in the '50s really starts spreading this homogenous view of America across the whole country. It's largely an East Coast view. People start to really, really resent it. I love that Goldwater quote. LBJ actually made a television commercial about it in 1964 that showed somebody actually sawing off a block of wood the East Coast and it falls into the bathtub.
Underlying all of this is deep regional resentments that go back to the Civil War. For a while after the war, Disunion as we're talking about, is something to be ashamed of, you wouldn't really want to be associated with it. The Civil War is a massive national trauma. People don't want to relive it, 750,000 people dead. They sublimate the intrigue that they formerly had, both North and South for the idea of maybe this union's not really working for us.
Maybe the United States is broken, but by the time Nixon becomes president, he and his advisors are openly scheming, "Let's go for this part of the country and not that other part. We don't even care about the other part. We don't even want them," Disunion becomes the modus operandi, I think, of modern conservative politics.
Kai: What's the point of all this? Why do we need to know all of this to understand this political moment? What is it about it that you were like this is really applies to now and I got to tell people about this history?
Richard: I think it's because these divisions, these tendencies, these struggles have never really been resolved. There's never really been a moment where Americans have sat down and been like, "Do we want to be one country? What is the point of all this? Who is it serving? What are the costs and benefits of staying together and splitting apart?" I'm showing from the very, very beginning from the revolution. Nobody really wanted to talk about that at all. The union was created not as an end in itself, we must create this nation because we have so much in common and we really want to be together.
It was a means to an end. It was the only way that they could stand up to Great Britain and survive and win independence. Then after the war, there's almost immediately a Civil War basically because the states aren't really sure that they want to have anything to do with one another. That's only in the beginning. Continuing on, the Civil War, surprised Walt Whitman, it surprised him that Northerners actually did want to fight to keep the country together because they'd been talking so much over the last decade and more about, "We're not really sure this is the country for us anymore," and it really surprised him.
I think that the reason why people did want to fight to keep the union together was because they thought that it represented something, it represented some important thing for all of humankind basically. Democracy, self-government. It had great promise. I'm just not sure that people really feel that way about the country today. I think what one thing that's really interesting about this moment is that both sides are having pretty serious doubts about the worth of the national enterprise and whether it's worthwhile to continue it. It's not going to go away.
I think that it's and secession because of American history, because it was founded in the act of secession from the British Empire because the other major pivot moments in our history was a civil war following a secessionist movement. It's always going to be there as an available remedy, or at least a theoretical one for anybody who's really depressed with the way things are going. I just think it's worth looking at this history and talking forthrightly and honestly not reflexively or dismissively about what the union is, what it is worth, and what we're willing to give up in order to see it continue.
Kai: What do you think? Is it worth it still?
Richard: I go back and forth every single day. [chuckles] I do. I think it's worth one last shot. I write in the book, we must finish the work of reconstruction or give up on the union entirely. I think those are our choices. Finally, uniting as one people without exceptions which has never been done in our history or I do think that maybe we'd be better off apart. I think it needs to be not an option a first resort but it needs to be an option that's on the table. What if Trump steals the election in 2024? You're all just going to watch?
This is why I think people need to know this history. The one tagline that I've had with this book is we fought a Civil War to keep the country from breaking apart in the 1860s, it might be that going forward we need to break apart in order to avoid a Civil War.
Kai: Richard, thank you for the book, and thank you for this time.
Richard: Thank you, Kai. I really appreciate it.
Kai: Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. You can follow us wherever you get your podcasts and you can also follow us on both Instagram and Twitter @noteswithkai. Mixing and Music by Jared Paul; production, reporting, and editing by Karen Froman, Vanessa Handy, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, and Lindsay Foster Thomas and I'm Kai Wright. Since Thanksgiving has just passed, let me truly say thank you, thank you, thank you to each and every one of you. We are so pleased and honored that you spent time with us each week. Talk to you soon.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.