Violent and Secessionist Movements in US History
By P. K. Balachandran
To admirers of American democracy and America’s ability to absorb diverse cultures, ethnicities and political views, outgoing President Donald Trump’s shenanigans and the violence that followed came as a rude shock.
As preparations were on for the installation of Joe Biden and Kamala Devi Harris as President and Vice President, the Capitol was turned into a fortress with barricades, razor wire and 7ft. fences to prevent repetition of the ugly 6 January attack on it by Trump’s Right wing extremists. US lawmakers openly said that at least some in the mob were aiming to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.
Last year, in some Republican-ruled States, there were voices demanding secession from the Union when it became clear that Trump was on a losing wicket, having lost the support of the Blacks and other disadvantaged groups including the White poor. As part of the campaign to nullify the voting in the Election unleashed by the White power elite, a Texas lawmaker announced plans to introduce a referendum on secession from the US.
Republican lawmaker Kyle Biedermann said in a statement: “The federal Government is out of control and does not represent the values of Texans. That is why I am committing to file legislation this session that will allow a referendum to give Texans a vote for the State of Texas to reassert its status as an independent nation.” Separatists even conducted a poll to show that Texas was keen to secede. A poll showed that 26 per cent of Texans supported State independence.
In American history, White supremacist and Right Wing movements had been periodically threatening the very fabric of American society dividing the country, socially, economically and politically, if not physically.
Writing in Defence One as early as 29 February 2018, Peter W. Singer pointed out that over the previous ten years, individuals and groups fueled by Right Wing extremism had committed 71 per cent of the known politically or religiously-inspired killings in the US. That is, 274 of the 387 Americans murdered by extremists. Some recent cases are; the murder of 17 school children and teachers in Florida in February 2018, and the mass shootings that had happened in various parts of the US. Hundreds of had been killed by these groups in the past decades.
Such killings were a “clear, present, and proven” danger to the United States, yet Americans find it awkward to talk about them, Singer wrote. He pointed out that people tended to resort to what-aboutism to play down the Right Wing and racist violence, though Left wing and Islamic groups accounted for only 3 per cent and 26 per cent of the violence respectively, according to official US data.
“In America, it is politically savvy to talk strongly and repeatedly about terrorism and extremism, except the version of it that has killed the largest number of our fellow citizens over the last decade,” Singer asserts.
For reasons yet unidentified, there has been a resurgence of separatism in the US in recent times. In 2016, progressive activists in Portland, Oregon, submitted a petition calling for a statewide vote on secession. In a 2018 survey, 31 per cent of Americans believed a civil war was possible within the next five years. A group of national security experts put the chances of a civil war within the next 15 years at 35 per cent.
In his book: Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, Richard Kreitner argues the US’ foundations have always been fragile. The threat of disunion has been raised in every region and by all political factions at some point in the country’s past, he contends.
Puritans, who were the early settlers, called themselves “Separatists”, and founded a colony of their own to escape Anglican control. The 13 colonies that eventually formed the United States of America shared no common identity or purpose before the revolution, Kreitner says. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned that while craving for a Union, the colonies were distracted by differences among themselves. Benjamin Franklin admired the way the American Indian tribe, the Iroquois, maintained unity and wondered why White colonists could not unite when ‘savages’ could.
According to Kreitner, it appears that fear of a foreign threat united Americans more than ‘patriotism’ per se. According to David Hendrickson of Colorado College, the US Constitution was not an embodiment of a “shared national identity” as propagated officially, but was meant to prevent foreign powers from retaking the newly independent US States.
Krietner argues that the Continental Congress, formed in 1774, was a “spontaneous response to an emergency,” and not a genuine desire for American unity. Even in the “War of Independence” South Carolina and Virginia opposed the boycott of British goods which was favoured by New Englanders. In 1777, colonists of New York established an independent “Republic of Vermont” and wanted to join the British province of Quebec. This move led the Union’s founders to refuse Vermont’s entry into the Union up until 1791.
Divisiveness during the drafting of the US Constitution resulted in slavery being left out. But that omission was to lead to the Civil War in the first half of the 1860s which left 624,000 Americans dead. During the War of 1812, the six New England states wanted to discuss secession as they were opposed to the war with Britain. But the Southern States “craved for war” because Britain curbed the slaveholders’ economic interests, Kreitner points out. In 1842, William Lloyd Garrison called for a “repeal of the union between the North and the South,” as he saw the US Constitution as a proslavery document.
However, Eric Herschthal of the University of Utah points out in his article in The New Republic that while calls for secession were ubiquitous before the Civil War, most of them were merely rhetorical. Popular support for secession was limited, he asserts. According to him, by the time the Republican Party was established as an anti-slavery party in the mid-1850s, most abolitionists—including Black abolitionists—supported ending slavery by working through the political process, not by destroying that established process. In 1879, a group of California lawmakers claimed the “right to secede” if the federal Government did not ban Chinese immigration. That forced Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America’s first race-based anti-immigration law. A mere threat to secede had worked.
In the 20th Century, radicals floated separatist ideas and even attempted to create separate States. Black nationalists attempted to create the New Republic of Afrika in the Deep South in the 1970s. Some feminists called for autonomous ‘womyn’s land’ communities. Conservatives supported Republican threats to nullify Democrat-backed federal laws. Western ranchers threatened to seize federal land. Neo-Nazis calling for separate White states.
None of these threats got popular support but separatist sentiments found an outlet in political lobbying in the mainstream democratic institutions, including the major political parties. And as Herschthal points out, there was a realisation that no separatist movement would withstand the force of national unity as represented by the Union Government “a behemoth created over decades by both the Republican and Democratic Governments.”
This has been proved in the way the American political system and the Administration handled the recent violent threat posed by Right-racist extremists fostered, inspired and led none other than Donald Trump, the President of the US. The FBI had whetted the National Guard personnel on duty for racist and radical elements. At the end of the day, the democratic US State had withstood the shocks administered by Trump and his ilk and re-asserted itself.