This will be a year for 175th anniversaries in the United States. One hundred seventy-five years ago this February, thousands of Mormons began their famed trek west to the Salt Lake Valley. In April, the United States declared war on Mexico. Then, in early June, a few dozen Americans living in the Sacramento Valley, having no knowledge of the U.S.-Mexican War, launched a revolt against Mexican control of California and established the brief â€œBear Flag Republic.â€ The United States signed a treaty with Great Britain that awarded it the southern half of Oregon Country â€” todayâ€™s states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. This came on the heels of U.S. annexation of Texas in late December 1845.
So many decisive events occurred in late 1845 and 1846 that writer and historian Bernard DeVoto called it â€œThe Year of Decision.â€ Countless individuals made innumerable decisions that, when they were all put together, added up to a single national decision: The United Statesâ€™ conquest of the West, and the establishment of a continental empire that would soon dominate the hemisphere and eventually the world.
Now, 175 years later, the United States is the worldâ€™s strongest military power and boasts the worldâ€™s largest economy, but its future seems imperiled, with countless seemingly implacable, unsolvable political and social fractures. If the United States was just beginning its global ascent 175 years ago, then 2021 may mark the acceleration of its global demise. The norm-breaking presidency of Donald Trump and the countryâ€™s disastrous response to the covid-19 pandemic are the most obvious symptoms of the countryâ€™s internal rot, both of which in turn have only furthered U.S. divisions. Although Joe Biden will assume the presidency in a few weeks having won seven million more votes than Trump, the narrowness of his electoral college victory, coupled with Trumpâ€™s lies about voter fraud and his refusal to admit defeat, do not bode well for the coming year. Tens of millions of Trump voters do not believe Biden won legitimately, and certain Republicans have called openly for secession â€” a stance millions of the most die-hard Trump voters likely support.
Yet, for would-be secessionists, the best model for their goals is not what we might think: Southern secession in the winter and spring of 1861, which led to the creation of the Confederacy and ignited the Civil War. Even most radical Trumpian ideologues do not wish for a war that would cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and leave their secessionist dreams in ruins.
Rather, the model is the decade before that year of decision, 1846, when tens of thousands of White Americans left U.S. borders to establish their own societies modeled on their own ideals. Some went to the Republic of Texas, where they could legally obtain massive amounts of free land and own countless enslaved people without any Northern antislavery opposition. Some went to the idyllic climate of Mexican California, where they could also claim (albeit illegally) massive amounts of free land, which would be worked by Indian â€œpeonsâ€ â€” in reality, another form of unfree labor. Some Americans went to the Willamette Valley in Oregon Country, where they could obtain a more modest amount of free land and have a local government that entirely prohibited slavery â€” while also prohibiting all Black migration into the region. Another group, the Mormons, went to the Salt Lake Valley, where they could practice their own version of Christianity without harassment from the U.S. government or other Americans.
All of these groups and individuals embraced aspects of American history and culture that they celebrated, but they hoped to discard other aspects they abhorred. Because they traveled to regions that were not under U.S. control, they were not secessionists but expatriates.
Nevertheless, 1830s expatriates and modern secessionists share a common goal: to be left alone, which will allow them to continue American practices they like, and discard those they do not. Indeed, like the Americans of the 1830s and 1840s, modern secessionists argue that they are more American than the anti-American U.S. government. In their logic, it is not they who have betrayed American ideals, but the modern United States.
Yet, the events of 175 years ago also point to the reasons secession remains unfeasible, even if it somehow could occur peacefully and with the federal governmentâ€™s assent (a very big and unlikely if). The Republic of Texas controlled less than half the territory it claimed, beset from the west by powerful Native peoples, particularly the Comanche that raided Texas with impunity, and from the south by a much larger and more powerful Mexican republic. Americans in California faced similar problems, battling against local Mexican authorities and Californiaâ€™s numerous Native peoples. They initiated the Bear Flag Revolt as a preemptive strike against what they believed would be Mexicoâ€™s imminent confiscation of their illegally obtained land. Americans in Oregon were more secure in the moment, outnumbering both Natives and British settlers in the Willamette Valley, but if they tried to expand beyond this region then the threat of Oregonâ€™s Natives and the British Empire would become much more acute.
By declaring war against Mexico and signing a treaty with Great Britain, the United States essentially made Texas, California and Oregon much safer for American settlement (and, tragically, much less safe for Native and Mexican residents already living in these regions). White Americans in these regions knew this, and they celebrated. As the governor of Oregon proclaimed, â€œWe can â€¦ congratulate one another that we are again citizens of the United States.â€ They were happy for their experiment in self-government to end.
Only one group of Americans disagreed. U.S. expansion caused headaches for the Mormons, who had first chosen to go to the Salt Lake Valley because it was an isolated, arid corner of far northern Mexico. By the time they arrived in the region, however, it had been conquered by the United States in the U.S.-Mexican War, a geopolitical foe they could not hope to challenge. Great Britain, Mexico, Native people, or, for the, Mormons, the United States itself: in 1846, it was impossible to be left alone.
And it is even more impossible in 2021. Secession is a fantasy cruise that would invariably crash into the rocks of modern geopolitics.
Perhaps, then, the decision of 2021 will come from the center rather than the periphery of U.S. politics. In his book on 1846, DeVoto discussed one additional decision of that year that shaped the future United States. One hundred seventy-five years ago this coming August, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania named David Wilmot took the floor in the House of Representatives, where he proposed a bill, the Wilmot Proviso, that would prohibit slavery in any land acquired from Mexico.
Wilmot himself was a virulent racist, concerned not that slavery was an atrocity against Black Americans, but that it would hurt free labor for White Americans. Yet, the bill nevertheless represented a principled stand against slavery, and it garnered additional support from other Northern Democrats whose party had long been more proslavery than the opposition Whig Party.
Supported by both Northern Democrats and Northern Whigs, the Wilmot Proviso passed the Northern-dominated House but died in the Senate, where Southerners enjoyed equal representation. Despite its failure, the proposal nevertheless reopened the politics of slavery and was the first step in a series of events that led the United States down the path toward Southern secession, the Civil War, the emancipation of enslaved people and the Reconstruction Amendments that ended slavery, and secured civil and political rights for freedmen. In the end, a better United States emerged, but not until Americans endured the bloodiest conflict in their history.
At this moment, there are many state-level Republicans and some national Republicans who have pushed back against Trumpâ€™s lies about the election. They have stood their ground against the ideologues who have threatened their honor, their livelihoods, and, in the worst cases, their very lives. Like David Wilmot, are they the beginning of a crucial political shift? And, if so, how will this shift change U.S. history? Just as in 1846, so too in 2021: the future remains open, fraught with both peril and promise.