United by Necessity: How the American Revolution Averted Civil War

Historian Eli Merritt argues fear of civil war compelled the 13 Colonies to unite during the struggle for American independence.

The Battle of Bunker’s Hill near Boston, which colonists lost on June 17, 1775. Photograph of a painting by John Trumbull, Library of Congress

In a provocative new book, historian Eli Merritt argues that the 13 Colonies only overcame their differences and united into a single entity due to an existential fear of civil war, collapse, and invasion. That fear is now gone. This week on Deconstructed, Merritt joins Ryan Grim to discuss his new book, “Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution.” Merritt argues that the founders — motivated by surviving as an independent government — united to avoid a civil war between the colonies. The “survivalist interpretation” of the nation’s founding, he explains, led to a historic “shotgun wedding”: a compromise-laden journey leading to the Declaration of Independence and a failure to confront slavery.

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Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.

On today’s episode, we are joined by Eli Merritt, who’s a political historian at Vanderbilt University, and he’s the author of the new book: “Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution.”

Eli, thanks for joining me.

Eli Merritt: Great to be with you, Ryan.

RG: I’m not steeped in all of the different historiography around this period, so can you just set the tone a little bit by telling us what is new in the disunionist, versus the kind of unionist literature that had come before? Because I know, as somebody who writes books myself, I don’t actually have to be kind of new. I can just kind of write the same story that other people have written, and write it a little bit differently, and with better interviews and a little bit better style, and that’s OK for a journalistic non-fiction book. But I know in the academic world, you’ve got to be breaking new ground.

So, what’s the new ground that you would say you’re breaking with this book?

EM: Yeah. I think that, in its overall premise, this book [is] about the American revolution. It really highlights some things that we get wrong about our understanding of that first founding seven or eight years And what that is, is when we think of the American revolution, there’s a general consensus over several centuries that what the founders of the nation feared most, was the power and might of the British army and navy. And, when you read the text closely — meaning their letters and their speeches — what you find is, in fact, that that’s not correct. What they feared most was disunion leading to civil wars among themselves.

And so, the concept, or the emotion of fear has always been of great interest to me. Long before I started researching this book, I had come to the conclusion that fear is the number one motivator of human behavior. And so, that’s the approach I took to the book, and it, really, is very true.

We think of the Founders as homogenous white men who came together easily, and the opposite is really true. They came from very distinct colonies — later called states — and, critically, very distinct regions. And different religions, different economies, different food, different moral views of slavery, so it was very tough for them to unite. And, in fact, I describe it as a shotgun wedding, that the only reason they united is that they feared civil wars, or they would have probably peacefully separated into separate confederations as a matter of first preference.

RG: Yes. And I thought you made the case persuasively. At the end of this book you are, I think, easily able to conclude that this was never a project that was destined for an easy integration, that the differences among these different colonies were so profound that it’s almost miraculous. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a great miracle — we can talk about that later — but miraculous that they were able to put it together.

You break them up not just in individual states, but also, as you said, in kind of sections or regions. The New Englanders, the middle states, and then the southern states. And I was curious, why was it that the middle states were so reluctant to sign on to independence? Because in the early days, you’ve got the New Englanders really leading the charge for independence, with the Southerners going along as well, but they really had to browbeat, and almost went to war with the middle states.

What about the middle states made them so skeptical of independence?

EM: Well, you’re alluding to a very important outcome that relates to the book’s overall thesis, which is — I call it in the introduction the survivalist interpretation, meaning that the founders did what they did to save themselves from civil wars.

The middle colonies, if you get to June of 1776, they were the laggards, the last to come along, in terms of deciding in favor of independence. And they were conservative, those states were focused upon commerce. And they, actually — like the others, but more so — really feared the consequences of uniting together with such distinct other regions. They were, of course, in the midst of a developing imperial civil war, which we call the War of Independence, which was being fought against supreme concentrated power. So, they feared the formation of a new supreme power within the 13 colonies after the Declaration of Independence; we call them states.

That was one of the dominant reasons they were skittish and afraid. And what’s fascinating is, with regard to the Declaration of Independence and the launch of independence, as you said, the New England colonies were just very fervently in favor of independence by 1776, and Virginia and a few of the other southern colonies were as well.

The middle colonies, by June 8th of 1776, the day before Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, had stood up and said, the time has finally come when we as 13 United States should declare our independence. The next day, Thomas Jefferson keeps notes in which he records that mainly the middle colonies plus South Carolina drew a bright red line of disunion in the center of the congress, and the term that Jefferson used was, we will secede from the Union if you try and strongarm us into this.

So, they decided that the matter was too hot to handle, so they deferred it, and put the vote for independence on July 1st. But, even by then, the middle colonies were reluctant. And what you got on the first vote for independence is: nine colonies voted in favor of independence, two voted flatly against independence — and that was South Carolina and Pennsylvania — and Delaware split, and New York did not have instructions to vote either way.

So, that’s the moment, the greatest moment of shotgun wedding that occurs in the book, in my view. New England plus some of the southern colonies were going to move into independence, they had waited too long. So, the middle colonies — which if you think of it, middle colonies, they are geographically between the other two regions — had a decision to make. Were they going to stay with the British Empire? Or were they going to, even though they were anti-independence at that moment, were they going to throw their fate in with the pro-independence states? And that’s what they did in the shotgun wedding.

And so, on July 2nd, we have the resolution adopted, ultimately, unanimously, by the 13 states, and then the Declaration of Independence came about two days later. So, it was high pressure, high politics, with, really, risk of civil war as an outcome of the middle colonies making a contrary decision.

RG: You convincingly argue that they were deeply worried about civil war and, of course, we eventually did get a civil war later, but I’m curious how right you think they were. Is there a world in which they don’t come together? And, instead, they just kind of sit there and are weak colonies?

And this goes to the role of Spain as well. You write about how the Americans reached out to Spain and said, look, if you will support us in our war effort against Britain, we’ll give you, what? We’ll give you Pensacola, and in exchange, we get access to the harbor and we get full navigational rights to the Mississippi. Spain got that and was like, absolutely not, we actually hope that you guys just constantly fight each other forever, and never unite, and are just weak little colonies, so that we can dominate the Louisiana area and the Mississippi.

So, would they even be strong enough to wage civil war against each other? Or are we just talking about little cross border raids? What does a “disunited states of America” look like when it comes to the kind of violence they were afraid of?

EM: That’s a great question, and I think you can break it into two parts. One is the less likely disunion of the colonies, or states, during the American revolution, and then the other is, after they together fight a successful War of Independence.

It was a time of great trepidation, because they no longer had the war of independence to unite them, and I think that’s very important to understand today, for us, that what united these 13 dissimilar states in different regions was the War of Independence. It was this common fight for liberty and ultimately independence, and they knew. As the clock ticked down to peace, they were very frightened of what was going to happen after that.

So if, somehow — I’ll give you an example: If, when they had early meetings of the Continental Congress in the 1770s, when they were trying to put together a defensive war and then an offensive war. If, for example, several of the northern states had said, well, this is great, we’ll put together this government with you but, of course, we’re fighting this war for liberty. And so, we want to make sure if we do form one union with you that we need to have a plan for the gradual emancipation of slaves, and certainly we need to have a plan for ending the slave trade.

If that had happened, based on the evidence, it seems sure that South Carolina, and Georgia, and perhaps the other Southern Colonies would have withdrawn from the union. They would have refused to fight the war in one union with other states that were coercing them to give up enslaved people, the institution of slavery in the South.

And what would have happened then? Oh, just imagine. The Southern Colonies would have re-allied themselves with Britain, and that would have become a launching pad and, also, a source of soldiers on the British side. So, we would have had an imperial civil war, which did turn into a domestic civil war, if we want to think of it in that regard.

And so, after the War of Independence ended, there’s a lot of writing that the most natural division of the States would be a New England, middle and southern, as you said, or maybe — for complex reasons that we might get into having to do with the Hudson River — that New England would unite with New York.

But, again, this was a natural movement. All of the political science of the time suggested that small republics would ultimately be more successful than a large republic, as they were forming at the time. But they simply knew they couldn’t do it. They had too much entanglement. They would have fought civil wars, they would not have had a supreme arbitrating power, courts and parliament or legislatures, or a central legislature.

They would have fought civil wars over finances, and they would have fought civil war over commerce, and over land. And if they fought civil wars, many people did believe that — and there’s some really beautiful descriptions of this — that, if that happens, you can be sure that the enslaved people within the southern states are going to rise up with whatever army is opposing the South to fight for their own freedom and liberty.

RG: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering. So, that would help explain why the southern slaveholding states would have as much willingness as they did to side with the New Englanders on a lot of their key issues. And we can get into the fishing rights fight later. I think that’s a lost story that was just kind of amazing to go learn about.

But yeah, you could imagine that in a world where the Southerners, let’s say they’re pressured into eventual, gradual emancipation, end of the slave trade, and you call their bluff and you force them to do that. And then they actually do secede, as they did later, you could see a world in which Spain is rallying enslaved people to rise up.

You know this history way, way better than I do, but Spain was already doing that to some degree, right? Launching raids into South Carolina, out of Florida. Isn’t that one of the reasons they initially made Georgia a free state, to try to put a buffer between Spain and South Carolina?

Is that something that the Southern slaveholders were worried about? That these foreign countries maybe allied with New England, or otherwise just trying to cause trouble, would then be able to effectively launch slave insurrections throughout the South?

EM: That would be part of it. The story of foreign nations inciting insurrections of enslaved people is not a dominant theme that I recall from the research, but I think, just to put Spain in its proper place: Most folks understand, the American Revolution, there’s a deep sense of indebtedness to France for the way it aided us, and we had a lot in common with France, in terms of enlightenment principles of liberty and freedom and constitutionalism, to some extent. They did have a king there, but they, surprisingly, were on their way to their own French Revolution.

Spain, on the other hand, is considered an ally, and I just think that’s incorrect. Spain played for itself, and really wanted to manipulate the situation of the 13 states and its relationship with Great Britain, for the reason — to understand them fairly — for the reason that they had a lot of land holdings abutting the American states, and they were very afraid of the aggressiveness of Americans, even back then.

But, to your larger point about the role of foreign nations, the other piece that was certain, written about, is if the 13 states broke apart into either one or two separate confederations, that they would immediately look to Europe and find allies. The thought was that the Southern Confederation would look to France, and that New England would look immediately to Great Britain. And one of the reasons this was necessary was, this was the age of naval imperialism. So, a nation could not survive unless it had either its own navy, or it had an alliance with a country with a very significant and powerful navy.

That was part of the hot mess, if we want to call it that, that they were going to get into by breaking apart into separate confederations. Not only their own civil wars, but also the involvement of foreign nations, who would try to assist them but, also, obviously, try and exploit the division within the 13 states, for the advantage of France or Spain, in this case

RG: And you also write about how John Adams remarked that the southern colonies were really unfit for republic, small-R republicanism. That the poor white population in the South was nothing like the kind of working class population in the North, when it came to levels of education or civic engagement. And the inequality between elites of the John Adams level and common folk in New England, and elites in the South and white common folk in the South was just widely different.

And so, was it the necessity to ally with the rest of these states that kind of pushed these Southern aristocrats into a Republican form of government? A kind of Republican straitjacket that they’ve been bursting at ever since and trying to throw off?

EM: Yeah. I think that’s very important to recognize in looking at — as I mentioned, just briefly — the political differences between the regions. One of the most extreme was, if you take — and many historians have written — we have the 13 states, but if you really want to see the dichotomy, you look at New England versus the southern states and you sort of leave out the middle states or colonies.

And what you find is that New England was not only a region that had a history of and was invested in a Republican form of government, it was actually quite democratic. Local democratic assemblies were very important throughout the history of New England.

So, on the one hand, the different states looked upon New England as being somewhat dangerous because of its democracy, which was considered to be a very dangerous form of government back in the 18th century. And then, to your other point, how do we look at the southern states? And it’s quite fascinating. They were quite republican. I mean, their assemblies did dominate, they did live by a representational form of government. However, all of the southern states had mixed feudalism. So, that has much to do with the presence of slavery within the southern colonies, but it was kind of an aristocracy merged in a hybrid fashion with republics in each of the four or five southern states.

Those were vast differences. And you’re right, if I’m thinking of the writings of John Adams that you’re referring to, he said, look, this is really not going to be easy, and wrote down a number of criticisms of the southern states. You know, notably, these people are aristocratic, they have their noses pointed in the air, they think they’re superior to others but, he said, what we have to do is be very careful, and proceed with forbearance, or otherwise we’re going to lose this union and therefore lose the war. And then, the sequela of that was going to be, of course, separate confederations and the catastrophic outcome of civil wars, potentially, in the 1780s or 1790s. It’s fascinating to think about.

It’s also fascinating to think about what might’ve happened to the crime against humanity of slavery if, somehow, they had broken apart earlier. At that time, there were approximately 400,000 enslaved people, whereas at the time of the Civil War there were 4 million. So, those are contingencies that can be interesting to think about. But might it have been better for enslaved people if the original 13 states did break apart? Or would it have led to an absolute catastrophic outcome for people of all races at that time?

RG: How do the American Indian tribes play into the politics at this time? Were they also concerned about some of the alliances that those confederacies might have been able to put together?

EM: There was some attention to that. My book studiously goes through the records of the Continental Congress and the diplomatic records during the American Revolution that looks for sources of discord, and conflict, and disunion, and fears of civil war throughout the entire eight or nine years of the Continental Congress during that time. And in that review, obviously, Native Americans came up frequently. But, in terms of Native Americans being a cause of disunion and civil wars, that was not a common finding, and therefore it doesn’t form a significant part of my book. But the concern was, very often — and, basically, the history evolved this way as well — is that the British forces would ally with Native Americans against the colonists.

So, that was a worry from the very beginning, and both the Americans and the British did, in separate ways, try to harness alliances with Native Americans in order to win the war.

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RG: And so, despite these differences between New England and the South that you talked about, you go pretty deep into the Treaty of Paris  and this feat of diplomacy on the part of — Who was it? Benjamin Franklin, John Jay… Who was the third?

EM: John Adams.

RG: John Adams. And you’ve got the southern states pushing, you know, for westward expansion to the Mississippi plus navigation rights, and then you’ve got the New England states ready to seemingly go to endless war over cod fishing and drying rights. Can you set that up for us?

EM: Yeah. I’m so appreciative, Ryan, that you’re attentive to that. It’s very obvious that you really enjoy history and know something about this period, because what you’re bringing up about that diplomatic history is another aspect of the book that people are finding to be completely new, that they didn’t know about.

So, I think the best way to think of this is, you have 13 states that unite in 1776 in July, and the overriding ambition of those states was, first and foremost, to protect themselves from attack by the British because, in fact, all the 13 states had done is they stated, we have would like to withdraw from your government, because we find your government to be tyrannical. So, let’s have a peaceful separation, we want to form our own government. Of course, Britain opposed that, and that’s why we got a war.

So, by the end of 1776, it became very clear there was not only one overriding objective of the War of Independence — and that’s independence for all 13 states — there were three objectives of the War of Independence, and they were based upon regional preferences and regional economic interest.

So, the four southern states claimed the land all the way from the coast, the East Coast, to the Mississippi River. So, for people to envision that is important. The Southern — led by Virginia and North Carolina — the southern states said, we do want independence for our current seaboard states, but we really probably are going to also want to fight until we get the land that we claim, across the Appalachian mountains to the Mississippi River. And, in fact, that land won’t be too useful if we don’t have navigational access to the Mississippi River. So, again, to paint the map: Spain, actually, was in possession of what we think of as the Louisiana Purchase land.

So, the core condition for all 13 was independence. For the southern states, it was, we also want our Western land and, in addition, we need navigation rights on the Mississippi River. And, even more fervently, as you say, New England was a region of four states that lived and breathed fishing.

There are merchant vessels at different seasonal times [that] went up into the North Atlantic, the Newfoundland fisheries, and they caught cod and haddock, and it became a cultural emblem for them; the Massachusetts State House emblem was a codfish. And so, New England said, we are also not going to put down arms until we get access to fishing rights and drawing rights at the island of Newfoundland, and at some areas of Nova Scotia.

So, that’s where you get the three overriding goals of the American Revolution: independence, western lands plus navigation of the Mississippi River and, also, access for all the states to the Newfoundland fisheries. And it was torturous to get there.

But, in the end, in the Treaty of Paris, because they knew if they only obtained the economic interest of the one region over the other, oh man. The others would’ve cried foul, and said there was political preference of one or the other. So, in complex ways, they obtained all three of these objectives by the time the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

RG: By the way — this is neither here nor there — but why wasn’t there a Southerner in that trio?

EM: Well, there was supposed to be, and that created quite a crisis. One of the Southerners — there are actually supposed to be five representatives there — one of the Southerners, Henry Lawrence, a South Carolinian, he got captured at sea.

RG: Oh, that’s right.

EM: Basically, on his way over to Europe. And Jefferson was the other one who was appointed to go to Paris and represent the southern states, or all the states, and Jefferson got quite delayed in this by the death of his wife, Martha. But then, Jefferson was at Baltimore, ready to catch a ship, he was going to go over and do his duty, although he was arriving at the 11th hour. But, just before departing, he got a message from Congress saying, we just learned that the preliminary articles of these treaties have already been signed, so Jefferson turned around and went home.

But I’m glad you brought that up. It created quite a crisis among a lot of the Southern delegates, the very idea that we were going to get a peace treaty with no Southern diplomat at the tables was terrifying to them. Fortunately, John Jay and John Adams knew everything in the world about a terrible, long, hot, and disunionist series of debates that had happened in 1779 over the Mississippian fisheries, so they knew this was a tender matter, so they had to fight equally for both of those two war objectives.

RG: And was Henry Lorenz, is that John Lorenz’s dad, the character from Hamilton who gets killed at the end of the revolution?

EM: That is his father. Yes, that’s correct.

RG: And Lorenz — the son, at least — was an abolitionist. What were his father’s politics on that? Because if you’ve got an anti-slavery Southern representative, I can imagine the racists crying foul of that, too.

EM: Yeah, the son was very much a rare bird. Maybe not as rare as we think of it, having a very strong abolitionist streak. I don’t recall that his father had that same proclivity. I don’t recall that coming up, but it was very unique.

RG: Sure. We have a lot of children of billionaires in today’s world who have far-left politics while their parents might be right-wing billionaires. So, that’s not unheard of.

EM: Another delegate who early in the war of independence was very interested in taking this opportunity to set enslaved people in the South on a pathway to emancipation was James Madison. But, you know, these things get quashed in a young person. Madison was in his early twenties at that time, and he consulted with a senior, a Virginian, whose name was Joseph Jones, and Jones basically turned to him and said, yeah, it’s a nice ideal, but we have far too much to do here, and this is too perilous a thing for us to undertake, so why don’t you just drop that, Jimmy? He went by Jimmy to a lot of people.

RG: I didn’t know that.

EM: So, there was that idealism, there was that absolute recognition that, when you say all people are created equal, that that does include enslaved people. But, for reasons that we’ve touched upon, but I’ll touch upon a little more now, virtually nothing was done during the founding period at a federal level with regard to slavery. And, just to recapitulate, why did that happen? I like to think, there are at least three models that inform our understanding of why the founders, in spite of the fact that they understood that slavery was a horrific, despotic practice, why did they perpetuate slavery?

So, the first explanatory model that is very compelling and powerful, is probably best known to people, and that is what I call an introduction to white supremacist interpretation, which is somewhat self-explanatory. That enslaved Africans were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and there was just a sense of inferiority, and a sense of white superiority, that we’re grappling with, even today, of course. And so, that’s one reason, the white supremacist interpretation is one reason they perpetuated slavery.

Another is the economic interpretation, by which we come to understand that both North and South were deeply invested in the economics of both the slave trade and their perpetuation of slave labor. And the final one, which I think we’ve touched upon, or I hope we’ve communicated effectively, is what I introduce in the book as the survivalist interpretation.

So, it’s yet another additive, a model for understanding why they really did nothing with regard to this crime against humanity. And in that one, of course, as we’ve explained, if a northern state or two had really pushed hard against slavery during the revolution or after, it would have led to secession of southern states with this three-step reaction, which is: crisis in the Congress leads to secession, secession leads to separate confederations, and separate confederations leads to civil wars.

And so, I’ve called that a devil’s bargain that the founders made. And that is, they could either do something with regard to slavery, at least a gradual plan for emancipation, which would have broken up the government, or they could save their own souls from civil wars. And so, selfishly, they chose their own self-preservation over any sort of justice or freedom or rights to enslaved people.

RG: And, certainly, if you’re ballasting different interests at the negotiating table, enslaved people had none there. Nobody was there standing up for them. So, very quickly, if there’s any reason to get rid of that argument, nobody’s going to really … Like you said, there were people who had high-minded ideas, but they’re not going to lose any sleep, or they’re not going to burn much energy fighting it, it sounds like.

EM: I appreciate you bringing that into this story that I tell in the book. I haven’t put those pieces of the puzzle together in just that way. I mean, as you say that, it makes me think of a lot of my contemporary thinking about American democracy today, but I haven’t stopped to think, well, the big problem was that Black people had no representation in government, but, clearly, you are correct.

As there are today, there were some white people and white founders who pushed a bit, at least, within the federal system, but understanding the catastrophic outcome of disunion, they didn’t push much. But we do know that within ten years or so, a number of northern states set their states, their small sovereignties on the pathway towards emancipation of slaves.

The critical thing is at the federal level, which is most important, of course, but you’re right. Certainly there was no representation of Black people in government at the time.

RG: And thinking through the counterfactual of the union breaking apart, or never actually coming together, the anecdote about Spain comes back to my mind. Because the Spanish ambassador, he’s making this argument that he hopes that these states stay weak and stay small, or these colonies stay weak and stay small. He’s also nervous that they are going to then inspire their own colonized people in Central and South America to revolt. And we know for a fact that they did, they did inspire people in South America, that some of the leading Bolivarian revolutionaries were part of the entire American revolutionary milieu. But the South Americans did not manage to come together in the way that the North Americans did.

And so as I try to think through what North America might look like as a disaggregated bunch of states, I wonder if it would look more like South America, with more extreme inequality, more instability, more revolutions, more civil wars, more poverty and, ultimately, you becoming a kind of client region of some other major power.

Do you think that’s fair or am I oversimplifying that?

EM: Well, I think the British colonies, whether they had existed in one new union of 13 states or, let’s say, hypothetically, three different confederations or two. If they had successfully made it into those separate confederations, I don’t see any reason why it would follow distinct cultural and economic and political patterns of South America. I think they, if it could have been done successfully, you would have continued to see British North America following in the tradition of parliamentary Republican government, which they inherited directly from Great Britain.

But to the other points you made, what’s fascinating to me is to read closely the primary sources of the time, and to see how frequently, whether it’s the founders or the Spanish, they’re reading the tea leaves. They are seeing the future, and it is remarkable how often they’re correct. My whole book is about the perception of the founders of the approach of disunion and its consequences leading to civil war.

And so, for the Spanish, they were predicting, oh no, this idea of colonies rising up for liberty, and equality, and establishing themselves as an independent nation? They viewed this as a contagion that would go viral to their large number of colonies, and would initiate revolution/independence movements.

And so, what happened? That’s exactly what happened. The American Revolution launched what is known as the Age of Revolution, and a dozen countries within 20 to 30 years followed suit. The first was the French Revolution, and then many of the colonies that were formerly under the control of Spain. It’s just remarkable. Of course, we might read into it, but it’s remarkable how much people can feel and understand.

I’ll give as a final quick example: in 1783, Charles Thompson, who was the Secretary of Congress for the entire American Revolution, so he really had the sharpest window onto the behavior of the various colonies. He predicted that, possibly, the 13 states were going to break apart into a series of confederations. But he said, you know, I don’t think South Carolina is probably going to ever join any union. He characterized South Carolina as being so hotheaded and unable to unite with others that, he said, it was going to take a civil war to humble South Carolina before it would join any union.

So that’s in 1783. And, of course, we see the next 90 years of history, and even more, where South Carolina is, I hate to say, the troublemaker.

RG: Well, I think the sense of fear that you write about so persuasively is no longer something that is as much a fabric of our character as it was then. The sense of fear of disunion leading to civil wars, and leading to calamitous outcomes. I think there is a sense among the public that something like a civil war feels like, potentially, in the offing, although it doesn’t make any sense, like, exactly how it would happen.

Because, does Austin go to war with the Austin suburbs? We don’t have the same kind of sectionalisms that we had that enabled the civil war, the actual civil war to take place. And so, while there’s that vague sense of civil war out there, I think the fear of it isn’t quite there like it was 250 years ago.

And so, I’m wondering if you have any sense of what we can learn from our present character from your book. If the fear of civil war was such a uniting factor at the origin, what does it mean that that might be dissipating?

EM: You’re bringing up a great point. I often, myself, tend to think of history as being a progression, and it is. But, at the same time, the phases of history which began in 1774 with the first Continental Congress and end at the end of the Civil War is a very distinct one, in which It had not yet been established that a state or group of states could not actually, legally and constitutionally, secede from the Union. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about that.

So, the underlying trepidation, nervousness, and possible earthquake that was always coming as of 1783 — and even after 1787, 1788, when we adopted our second constitution that we’re living under today — there was always this sense that disunion was a permissible pathway to go. So, what did it take?

It took 86 or so years, if I’m calculating correctly, for the Civil War to happen, and that put to rest — it could have a resurgence — but it put to rest the very idea, not necessarily constitutionally, but even more powerfully through Civil War, that, you know, disunion is not permissible. It has been made unconstitutional, even though it’s not written, by the Civil War.

So, I agree with you. The idea of civil wars now, I can’t have it make much sense. The great worry today is more political violence that stems from the contest that we’re having, but most significantly from demagoguery, particularly demagoguery coming out of the mouth of the first demagogue who served in the White House, quite tragically. That’s the great danger.

The other danger where I think we could get something that looks like civil war — I’ll try to be brief — is if we actually had the installation of an arbitrary government. So, I hate to think about 2024, but if we look back at 2020 and, for some reason, circumstances had been quite different, where Trump’s attempt at an autocoup had succeeded — and that would have really required the military to be an ally of him, and thank god it was anything but that — but if we do get the installation of arbitrary government, then those who are in opposition to that, which would be most of us, I hope, are going to be in quite the conundrum. We will fight for probably ten years, using civil disobedience against that, even getting European nations to intervene against our arbitrary government that’s installed.

But, at some point, it would be logical to — at some point, and I’m not recommending this — but, at some point, I would be on the side, if we had arbitrary government, the way the Americans perceived that the British government was arbitrary in 1776, then John Locke and all the best traditions in Democratic Republican government say, you have a right to withdraw from that government. And that’s not saying you want to have bloodshed; it means you have a right to withdraw from tyrannical government.

So, that’s when we might get a block of states, in that scenario, I painted that breakaway. But then, of course, it could be opposed by the tyrannical government itself, and that would be the beginning of civil war.

RG: Yeah, well, we’ll see. We’ll see.

EM: Well, hopefully we won’t see.

RG: Yeah, indeed. Eli Merritt, thanks so much for joining me.

EM: Great to be with you, Ryan.

RG: And that was Eli Merritt, he’s a historian at Vanderbilt University. And, again, the book is called Disunion Among Ourselves. Congratulations on the book.

EM: Thanks so much, Ryan. Great to be with you.

RG: That was Eli Merritt. You can also find his Substack newsletter called American Commonwealth for more on these themes and others.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, and I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

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