With the nation locked in a pulsing tug of war over who gets to determine who goes peepee in which potty, perhaps it is time to consider breaking up the United States.
Don’t laugh. It’s an argument with a rich tradition behind it. Today: the tradition. Next week: the praxis.
One of the first serious debates in American politics was over the question of whether the prospective United States was too large to remain a republic. On behalf of the anti-federalists, “Brutus” wrote that
a free republic cannot succeed over a country of such immense extent, containing such a number of inhabitants, and these encreasing in such rapid progression as that of the whole United States.
Keep in mind, this was the 13 colonies we were talking about. Brutus went on to quote Montesquieu on the ideal size of a republic, concluding on his own that
In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving, against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good. If we apply this remark to the condition of the United States, we shall be convinced that it forbids that we should be one government. The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogenous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.
Is there a historical judgment that, more than 200 years on, holds up better?
As the United States aggressively expanded from 13 small, united states into a throbbing superpower acting on behalf of (or ignoring) any agglomeration of world citizens that caught its fancy, the question became more, not less, pertinent.
George Kennan, the architect of containment who, despite this legacy, was a notable dove and anti-establishmentarian, worried at the end of his life about many things that did not warrant worry, including cars, computers, and women’s suffrage. But he also worried about the sheer size of the United States.. Wasn’t it the case, Kennan fretted, that
[t]he great country has a vulnerability to dreams of power and glory to which the smaller state is less easily inclined[?]
Kennan’s radical solution to this dilemma? He wondered whether
our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states, but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.
Yes, a radical idea. But perhaps a radical idea whose time has come. Next week: what getting from here to there might look like, and why we all might run away from the idea, screaming.