Federalist contributor Jesse Kelly recently wrote an article suggesting that political divisions in the United States may now be so extreme that the country should be peacefully divided into two separate countries. He is wrong, and his advocacy that we should divide effects by negotiation flies in the face of the political values that have dominated American political thought for centuries, especially among Republicans and conservatives.
Before I get to explaining where Kelly makes a serious error, I should note some places where he makes some good points. Kelly notes that, while we may tend to see national borders as immutable from our current perspective, especially in the post-WWII dispensation when most nations have agreed to forsake wars of expansion, in fact history shows that boundaries change. Current country boundaries are historically contingent things that can change, and we need not necessarily view current boundaries as permanently morally privileged. In other words, redrawing map lines in North America yielding a breakup of the U.S. would not be the end of our civilization or some end-of-history apocalyptic event.
I’ve argued as much on this website myself, or at least a related point, when I pointed out that particularly for Christians political apocalypticism is a foolish mistake. All too often, we have a tendency to elevate today’s political squabbles far beyond their merits.
Beyond this, Kelly raises an interesting historical question. He says, “We are more divided now than we have ever been in our history. And before you start screaming at me about the Civil War, keep in mind that bloody conflict was fought over one major issue. In those days, take ten families from New York and ten families from Alabama, put them all in a room, and you’d find they mostly had the same values (and bad accents).” This claim is certainly plausible; the typical enfranchisable individual (adult males) in 1860 might possibly have had had more shared values across regions than today.
However, while that is possible, I am skeptical of it in practice. One of my direct ancestors incited a bloody anti-Catholic pogrom because the Catholic religion, as all God-fearing Americans knew, was incompatible with true Americanism. At the same time as slavery was an increasingly pressing issue, our nation faced a massive rise in divisive debates about immigration, leading to the rise of a single-issue anti-immigrant party.
Meanwhile, there were massive and divisive movements afoot on issues such as temperance, womens suffrage, and labor unionism. Industrialization was creating a new wave of urban problems and disrupting the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian nation. We were a country in extraordinarily rapid flux. And indeed, it should be noted that one of the more common pro-southern narratives of the civil war suggests it was actually a war against trade policy! While this argument is not true, it is true that the northern and southern states were deeply divided on the issue.
While I suppose it is possible that there is more variation in political philosophy today than in 1860, it doesn’t seem even close to obvious. And the claim that Americans were basically divided on one issue is obviously false and unsupportable. What has actually happened is that the American memory of the 1850s tends to be defined by one issue; the 1850s themselves saw a huge range of social movements and conflicts.
But it does seem like we are a pretty divided nation today. I’d wager we may be in one of the top 25 percent most divided election cycles in American history by almost any metric. But that’s a lot different than saying we are in truly uncharted waters. This matters, because your assessment of the extent of polarization impacts how intractable you think our problems are, which in turn helps define what measures you think count as acceptable solutions.
That brings us to Kelly’s proposed solution: peaceful division. I don’t want to argue about whether such a division would be legal or constitutional. That question isn’t very relevant when we are talking about such a seismic change to fundamental political structures. And besides, if a person believes our problems are so severe as to countenance splitting up this one nation under God, then I doubt procedural arguments will change their mind. Certainly if I thought this was our most divided moment ever, a procedural argument wouldn’t dissuade me from considering secession as an option.
But although I don’t think Kelly has offered a shred of compelling evidence that we are actually at such an epochal level of dividedness, I’m willing to play along. Let’s say we are, and we have reached a point where procedural arguments are moot. All faith has truly been lost in constitutional government. Soldiers who swore oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution no longer feel beholden to those oaths, taxpayers resist payment en masse, militias are formed to manage local security needs. Say we’ve reached that point. We haven’t! But imagine we have. What then?
Well, we have to return to those map lines. How do map lines actually change, historically? Peaceful changes turn out to be uncommon. The boundary changes Kelly invites us to consider usually involve a very large number of people dying violently.
And sometimes, lots of people dying is worth it! There are justified wars. I’m not making some argument that we should have peace-at-any-cost. Justified wars should be fought, and we, individually and collectively, must be prepared to pay the last full measure of devotion in the event of such a conflict. But while there are justified wars, there are also unjustified wars. Philosophers and political theorists have debated what makes for a justified war for as long as there have been wars, and there have been wars ever since a certain dispute between two ill-fated biblical brothers.
I’m not going to delve into the nuance of just war theory. But all theories of the justifiableness of wars include some consideration of how a war is to be waged, and what costs may be involved. That is, there is no theory of war which holds equivalent two wars, one of which is fought by a few thousand professional troops in some distant theater in a relatively controlled warzone, and the other of which involves 50 million people dying in a radioactive blaze. No matter your theory of what justifies a war, on some level, you have to ask yourself how the war is going to be fought, what it would look like, and what the cost is likely to be.
So maybe a war of secession would be justified, but maybe not: and one factor we would want to consider is what such a war might look like.
We must then ask what might happen if we went down this road. Say that Kelly’s Federalist States seek to go their own way. Well, in 1860/61 when the southern states seceded, they thought what would happen would be the north would negotiate, or else chicken out and sign a treaty recognizing their independence. And indeed, if it came to war, the enormous southern domination of the military officer corps seemed sure to give the south an unbeatable advantage. The war would be quick, handing southerners a victory in their “second war of independence.”
But it turned out they were wrong. Lincoln was a steely-eyed missile man. More than that, he was ready to burn it all down rather than let the union be torn apart. He did not have popular support in this: he won with just 40 percent of the vote, and he repeatedly deployed military forces to crush anti-war riots, sometimes with substantial loss of life. Southerners had assumed that the namby-pamby north had no will for war, but they underestimated the phenomenal energies a robust state can exert in its own self-preservation. Southerners had assumed that their gallant officers and chivalrous cavaliers would give them an insurmountable advantage, but they were crushed by a failed farmer and a Classicist, Grant and Sherman.
The cost of the war was enormous. By my calculations, between 7 and 12 percent of the recruitable population of the Union states died in the war. For the Confederacy, it was between 20 and 30 percent. Their presumption that the less-culturally-militaristic north would be easy to beat was utterly and completely wrong. The North had what was necessary for victory: a larger economy, infinite manpower superiority, and iron-willed leadership.
Lincoln talked about this in his 2nd inaugural address, which happens to be etched in stone on the Lincoln Memorial, for the express purpose of preserving his reasoning for our edification. He said:
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” (emphasis mine)
This is the key point: the battle cry of bloody secession has always been peaceful negotiation. The exact analogy Kelly appeals to, of splitting possessions in a divorce, is the analogy Lincoln uses for his foes: insurgent agents seeking to divide effects by negotiation. This has always been the secessionist gameplan, from Hartford to Montgomery.
This peaceful division, however, is likely impossible. The reasons are several, and I will begin with the basic logistical problem.
Modern political coalitions are not actually regional. They are local. The electoral college map makes them look regional, but if you look at a county or precinct map, you’ll see very clearly that local factors drive our politics. We are not divided by north and south, or east and west, or even coasts and heartland. We are not divided by state. Our true divisions are about whether you live in a relatively dense city or not.
Go look at a county map of presidential elections! Every state has Blue America holding some of its territory, and virtually every state has Red America holding some of its territory! How exactly is this territory supposed to be peacefully divided up? Any division would leave huge stranded enclaves of dissidents, dissidents who would suddenly find themselves vastly politically outnumbered, unable to effectively preserve their way of life at all. Many would flee to whichever country best represented their views, creating a refugee crisis that might agitate for revanche. But many would remain in place, forming an enraged and restive local populations. Blue Team’s countrysides would become the hills of Vietnam to them; Red Team’s cities would threaten the carnage of Mosul on every block.
Elections would be contested, legal frameworks uncertain, military allegiances shifting: it would be a calamitous disaster of monumental proportions. No authority would exist with the ability to peacefully manage the transition and be respected by both sides. Local political factions would take measures to guarantee persistence and self-defense, such as training militias. In such an environment, it would be easy for a spark to set the whole thing ablaze. The ensuing war would be mind-blowingly violent. The entire war would be continental-scale streetfighting.
You might think you’d stay above the fray. You’d be wrong. Maybe you aren’t passionate about holding the union together! But the war won’t be on the Texas border. It will be on the border between suburbia and the urban core, as disaffected Blue Teamers refuse to recognize Red Team laws they abhor, and they eject officials and set up rebel governments. The battlefield won’t be the Mississippi River, it will the I-66 corridor heading out to West Virginia, which becomes impassible as Red Team militias close off the interstate and begin purging dissidents from the region, creating a safe zone around West Virginia.
Modern civil wars are not mysterious events. We have plenty of examples to look at, like Syria. And we Americans have so many guns (proud gun owner here!) that you’d have practically universal potential for combatancy, that is, everybody could be a soldier. The geography of political disagreement suggests that practically the entire national population would be within 100 miles of an active warzone at any given time; every household would face immediate existential risk if the other side made a breakthrough. Any sane and loving parent would join the militia and bring the fight to the other side.
Anyone imagining that this inevitable conflict might occur along some rational territorial border defined by large regions is hopelessly naïve. We would be spilling each other’s blood in every school district, parish, neighborhood meeting, and sports stadium in the country inside of 12 months. Not because we’re awful people, but because once the cat is out of the bag on disorganized tribal violence, it’s awfully hard to put it back.
This is a nightmare scenario. So whenever you find yourself imagining that our country is as divided as the civil war, envision 10 people you love who fit the demographic profile for a soldier (nowadays this probably just means age, not sex). Now choose 1 to 3 of them you are willing to bury for your cause. Is it really worth it? Regardless of who provoked whom, or who has the most justifiable claims … are you willing to pay that price? If not, maybe don’t advocate secession. Maybe work to heal the wounds.
There are actually a few things that are worth that much to me. Again, this isn’t a “peace at any price” post. I’ll kill for some things. But I want to be realistic: the cause has really got to be worth it to get me in a killing mood. Some things are worth that cost. Some are not. And to pay that cost, I need to know that I have exhausted my other options.
And the truth is, we haven’t even seriously tried our other options!
It is true we are in a very divided moment, and that when there are divisions that run deep, unitary, centralized decision-making can make those divisions even worse. But that’s not an argument for secession!
That’s an argument for, wait for it …
Large-scale devolution of Federal powers and responsibilities to states, counties, and municipalities to allow distributed and divergent state and local decision-making is a reasonable solution to periods of heightened division. We can’t devolve everything of course, and we need some shared standards on some issues, but we should not try secession before we try enhanced federalism.
And if federalism fails, then the war will come. And may I say, when the chips are down, secessionists may find that the spark of union has not died. It doesn’t take many of us unionists to reach a critical mass to torpedo peaceful division, and let me tell you, we will torpedo it. There aren’t many things I’m willing to bury myself and two of my best friends over. Union is one of them. Union forever; hurrah boys, hurrah; down with the traitors and up with the star!
And if in the end union ends in blood, well then, we must simply sing that, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lighting of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.”