At first it was just iconography. The Confederate flag, that symbol of violent rebellion against the United States in defense of slavery, flew from porches, front yards and pick-up trucks.
Then it was spoken aloud. In early December, the late right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh said, “We’re trending toward secession. I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York?... There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government.” Allen West, the chair of the Texas Republican Party, suggested that “law-abiding states” form a new and separate nation.
Then it was acted upon. On January 6, a violent crowd the smashed windows and doors of the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to seize control of the building and stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden. With Confederate flags flying, they succeeded for several hours.
What should be the response of the left? Should we resist secession as fiercely as Abraham Lincoln once did? Or should we say, “Goodbye and good riddance”?
The latter option is tempting. After all, if you subtract the votes of the old Confederacy and the upper Great Plains states, you are left with an electoral college that will not only consistently put Democrats in the White House but also Democrats far more liberal than we’re used to. Given a Congress of representatives only from the Northeast, the West Coast and the Great Lakes, you will be able to pass Medicare for All, a carbon tax, free community college, free day care, immigration reform, progressive tax reform, police reform and much more on the liberal wish list. What’s not to like?
A lot, actually. But the fantasy of secession is so appealing to many imaginations that it’s worth examining in detail.
First, let’s imagine what would have happened if Lincoln had allowed the South to walk away from the Union. That might have prevented full-scale war—at least for a while—but it wouldn’t have brought peace. You would still have millions of enslaved Black Americans with more motivation than ever to escape to a North that had repealed the Fugitive Slave Act. The result would be raids from the South to retrieve escaped slaves and attempts by the Northern militias to capture or repel the raiders. Soon you would have a constant guerilla war all along a long land border.
Meanwhile, the economic disparities between an industrial, capitalist North and an agrarian, feudal South would widen as the former’s tax revenue and investment capital would no longer be available to the latter. Before long, free Whites in the South would be as eager to cross the Potomac and Ohio Rivers as enslaved Blacks.
Desperate to retain its unpaid and underpaid labor, the South’s landed aristocracy would have to resort to more and more brutal suppression. As Northern newspapers filled with stories of plantation owners whipping and shackling workers of both races, the Northern government would face mounting pressure to intervene. And sooner or later you would have the Civil War you were trying to avoid in the first place.
Imagine it’s four years after secession. You are a Union sentry on border duty in Brunswick, Maryland. It’s March, but ice floes still bob in the rushing Potomac. As the sun rises above the wall of trees on the Virginia side, you see a raft filled to brimming with African-Americans splashing through the brown waves. Farther to the east are three rowboats full a raggedly dressed Irish-Americans. Pursuing both groups are skiffs full of Confederate soldiers, some of them rowing furiously, some of them standing with muskets aimed at the escapees.
As a sentry, what do you do? Do you hold your fire in hopes of keeping the fragile peace between the two nations? Or do you fire on the skiffs in hopes of giving the raft and rowboats enough cover to make it to the Maryland banks? Do you regret supporting appeasement of the South? Do you regret gaining your own political and economic progress at the price of redoubled suffering by these African-Americans and Irish-Americans? The musket in your hands is loaded with shot. What do you do?
Lincoln refused to let it ever get to that point because he realized two things. First, you can never have a true democracy if the losers of an election believe they can just quit and walk away rather than accepting the results. Democracy can’t work unless the losers respect the results and the winners respects the losers’ rights.
The Southern states lost the 1860 election, even though non-White men and all women were barred from voting. If there had been universal suffrage, their defeat would have been even greater. Lincoln and the Republicans (yes, the Republicans, a very different kind of party in those days) won a commanding victory on a platform to merely limit slavery, not abolish it. But that was enough to push the South into rebellion.
Rather than cope with their diminished power in the aftermath, the South chose to secede. Rather than peacefully adjust to the inevitable tide of history against slavery and feudalism, the South chose violent resistance. All that resistance got them was 300,000 of their own soldiers dead and their economy and landscape shattered. It’s not a coincidence that today’s secession movement is motivated by a similar refusal to accept the verdict of the voters.
Lincoln’s second realization that there’s no moral justification for securing the liberty of some at the price of depriving it for many more. Would it be worth it to build a richer, fairer North if millions of Blacks were consigned to perpetual slavery in the South, if millions of poor Whites were doomed to virtual serfdom? Would it be worth it to raise the quality of life in the blue states today if it meant the oppression of Blacks and Latinos by Jim Crow laws, if it meant the impoverishment of the White working class by the plutocratic one per cent? Lincoln didn’t think so in 1860, and I’ll bet Joe Biden doesn’t think so now.
Okay, let’s imagine how secession would work today. Let’s say that all the former Confederate states but Virginia seceded plus Alaska and the border states of Kentucky and Missouri as well as all the non-Pacific states west of the Mississippi except Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona. There are many other arrangements you could come up with, but let’s go with this for now. That leaves us with 24 Confederate states and 26 Union states.
The Union would begin with an enormous economic advantage, and that gap would only widen as the Confederacy lost its huge tax advantages from the former federal system (currently, most red states pay less than their fair share in taxes and receive more than their fair share in government benefits). As average wages rise in the Union and as the Union government improves health coverage, education accessibility, civil rights and the environment, even as the Confederate government is cutting back on all those things, intellectual workers in places like Austin and Atlanta will flee to the coasts.
You might begin the separation with open borders, but as more and more Confederate citizens cross into the Union to use services they haven’t paid for, as more and more goods made in underpaying, polluting factories are shipped across the border, some controls will inevitably be put in place. Beleaguered right-wing politicians in the Confederate capital of Birmingham will try to mollify their discontented voters by blaming everything on the Union and may even use dog whistles to encourage armed resistance. And there you are again, back at the Civil War you were trying to escape.
Suppose you are a border guard in Cincinnati in 2029, four years after the Second Secession. Thousands of trucks and cars cross the bridge from Kentucky every day, and you can’t check them all. But you have a tip about this tractor trailer carrying auto parts from Birmingham. After you force the truck to pull over into a side inspection lane, you throw open trailer doors and start unloading.
You pull out dozens of boxes of air filters and carburetors before you start finding boxes full of semi-automatic rifles and hand grenades. When you try to arrest the drivers, they pull out guns and start shooting. The gun battle lasts only 15 minutes before both of the drivers are dead, but two bystanders and one of your own are also dead, and five others are wounded.
Union President Kamala Harris closes the border and soon the traffic is backed up nine miles into Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina and at every interstate-highway checkpoint between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Confederate President Josh Hawley demands that the border be opened and threatens retaliation if it’s not.
Suddenly you find yourself, just a lowly civil servant just doing your job at the border, on The Rachel Maddow Show. When the silver-haired hostess asks how the whole incident happened, you go through the timeline step by step. When she asks, “Do you think this whole Secession should have been stopped back in 2025 before it got to this point?” what do you say?