With all the division and vitriol in American politics and culture nowadays, some people are asking whether the United States might literally come apart. And since “some people” includes my editor, I draw upon my professional training as a historian to say, yes, it absolutely could, and a very likely date for this event is the beginning of 1860.
Oh dear, you cry. Then ask me if such an event is liable to be bloody. And again gazing into my crystal ball, I say that I fear so. Americans are, like most of the English-speaking world, exceptionally good at violence if they put their minds to it. It is not generally appreciated that the English Civil War between 1642 and 1651 killed more of that nation’s populace, per capita, than World War I.
As for the American Civil War, or at any rate the first one, it saw more dead than all America’s other wars combined, from a population of just 31 million, including one in five Southern white men of military age. Its carnage should have warned the civilized world of the possible consequences of a future major war in Europe had not the comic-opera Franco-Prussian war deceived them into thinking the future would be like the past. Which is an awkward thing for a historian to say, especially while making predictions. But the truth is that it’s easier to forecast things after the fact.
We do not use history as a guide to the future because it’s as accurate as, say, climate computer models. If it were, we’d chuck it in the bin. We use it because it’s better than anything else. For instance, a Ouija board. Or the speculations of projectors like the “experts say” in newspapers. And looking back we can certainly discern trends making some outcomes more probable than others, without eliminating the improbable or, one hopes, the sense of wonder that, for instance, the Allies somehow won either World War.
So, the short answer is that if you look at a political map of anything over any significant length of time you see that borders move about. Entities unite, not always willingly, and split apart, not always willingly. Even looking backward rather than forward I can see very different configurations of North America politically.
For instance, the two French river-based colonial ventures, on the St Lawrence with Quebec City and on the Mississippi with New Orleans, might have joined up, containing and smothering their English rivals and creating a mighty New France. Alternatively, all the British colonies might have joined the 13 rebel ones after 1776 and swallowed Quebec whole.
It’s also conceivable that the revolt might have failed. Though if it had, I imagine a gradual development of more independent polities that ultimately combined without a significant Canada. As for the Louisiana Purchase and the conquest of the southwest from Mexico, I think the relative dynamism of the English versus French and Spanish empires made any other result unlikely. Which also rather puts paid to visions of a mighty flourishing continental New France.
Enough of history, some may now cry. We want to hear about the modern world.
And many of us still think, consciously nor not, that history has ended, so it is not relevant to look at the shifting borders of the Roman, Byzantine, Russian or Chinese empires to try to determine whether the United States will remain exactly as it is today or collapse dramatically. Nor is it possible that the breakup of a country could result in violence as happened back in 2022 with Ukraine and Russia.
Oh dear, again. If you study history what you don’t find is countries that exist exactly as is for long periods. Human societies are dynamic, a word here meaning “full of energy and movement” not “necessarily always going onward and upward”. It used to fascinate people that great nations rose and fell and in fact the American Founding Fathers were preoccupied, including in their institution-building, with the collapse of the Roman Republic which rather disquietingly coincided with Rome’s rise from major regional power to universal empire.
Back then many influential and thoughtful people were also concerned that a key to the decline of once-mighty nations, coinciding with their borders shrinking, bits falling off or the whole thing shattering, was decadence. A virtuous people built a powerful and wealthy empire, power and wealth corrupted rulers and citizens alike, and a rot set in that proved impossible to halt or reverse even once identified.
What have such speculations to do with the USA? Because by any measure anyone ever used until about 17 years ago, America, like the West generally, is becoming increasingly and more obviously decadent.
Whether the US is also becoming more polarized is hard to measure since it has certainly been sharply divided at many points in the past including the 1960s, though never yet as badly as in the 1860s. But that comic map showing the United States of Canada versus Jesusland, and some ruder versions, certainly capture a sociological division also visible in the county-by-county electoral maps, between a geographically small but heavily populated liberal coastal elite and a vast conservative/populist heartland that are barely on speaking terms.
It’s ominous. And an additional point that concerns me greatly here is that last time America fractured on not entirely dissimilar lines, both North and South felt themselves to be the true America, the real heirs of the Revolution. And both had strong arguments for their position grounded, in different ways, in liberty. In the end the Northern vision prevailed and, for all the long-term harm done by the crushing of the South’s more authentically small-government vision, the defeat of the loathsome institution of racial slavery made that outcome a great victory for all mankind.
The situation is different today partly because Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated strongly in what is called “Red America” and there alone. Blue America wrinkled its nose at the very concept of America ever having been great, let alone making it so again. (Parenthetically, I believe commentators reversed the usual colours so as not to call the Democrats Reds.)
I think the British monarchy still retains vast prestige and is a huge tourist draw because many people inside and outside the UK understand that Britain has a glorious history, warts and all. In America today the divisions run so deep, including over whether it does, as to inspire grave concern.
Back in 2004, in the run-up to the election that prompted that Jesusland map, I had the opportunity to go on a State-Department-sponsored journalists’ tour of swing states where we met with all kinds of liberals across America. And I remember discussing the danger of a national breakup with a very left-wing woman in Portland, Oregon, who floated the idea that it might have been better for all concerned if the United States had fragmented decades earlier. But when I said that the world would have been a far less free, prosperous, and happy place without American might combatting tyranny through the 20th century, she thanked me with considerable emotion and lamented how few foreigners saw her country that way.
Does such a sentiment still exist today in what one might cruelly call Antifaland as opposed to Amurrica? Frankly I have trouble imagining modern progressives mounting a convincing military effort, as opposed to the Yankee farm boys and merchants the rebels of 1860 disastrously underestimated. But I also have trouble imagining Blue America wanting to, or responding to the “mystic chords of memory” that Lincoln so hauntingly evoked in his first inaugural, “stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land”. Or his “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”
I also, to be rude, have trouble imagining any politician today capable even of reciting, let alone creating, such soaring phrases as his, four years later, that “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Let me evoke one more haunting image before I close. It is the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos, supposedly tearing off the imperial robes to rush to the final defence of the city walls, never to be seen again. Great nations do crumble, shatter, or collapse. And while history cannot predict the future with anything like mathematical certainty, it has not stopped. And it has a nasty habit of repeating itself with a snarl, especially if we forget it.