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Eli Merritt Featured In

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Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution
Release Date June 4, 2023

Disunion Among Ourselves tells the story of the deep political divisions that beset the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. So fractious were the founders’ political fights that they feared the War of Independence might end in disunion and civil war.  


Typically, accounts of the Revolution highlight the stunning might of the British armed forces as the chief obstacle to achieving American independence. In fact, the greatest danger to the nascent Union—from the First Continental Congress in 1774 until the war’s end in 1783—was powerful regional chauvinism and government infighting that threatened to break apart the Continental Congress. If and when the states separated, armed civil conflict seemed inevitable due to vast unsettled financial disputes between the states as well as, crucially, the unresolved ownership of 300 million acres of fertile land in the trans-Appalachian West obtained from King George III in the Treaty of Paris in 1783.


Instead of disbanding into separate regional confederacies, which many considered the most natural outcome of the Revolution, the founders united for the sake of liberty and self-preservation. To achieve this, they forged grueling compromises, including the resolution for independence in 1776, the Mississippi-Fisheries Compromise of 1779, and the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781.  


Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, many Americans have lost faith in politics and a polarized government. Disunion Among Ourselves has inevitable resonances with our present era of political hyperpolarization. It fills a critical gap in our historical understanding of the Revolution while at the same time serving as a touchstone for contemporary politics, reminding us that the founders overcame far tougher times than our own through commitment to ethical constitutional democracy and compromise. The founders succeeded in part by transcending the baser angels of their natures to the higher national interest. Yet, more even than this, they overcame division and disunion because they knew, concretely, that political unity was the best hope for preserving the life, liberty, and happiness of the American people. 

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Praise for Disunion Among Ourselves

Disunion Among Ourselves tells an important story that has been missed or skipped over in nearly all histories of the Revolution. It has indeed, as promised, recovered ‘a whole area of the Revolution’ previously underappreciated, and for that is invaluable.
Writer and historian, author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union
Eli Merritt deftly explores a revolutionary America rife with divisions and driven by a fear of civil wars on multiple fronts.  Deeply researched, wide-ranging, and insightful, Disunion Among Ourselves persuades that our national Union began from, and still depends on, fending off the many demons of disunion.
Author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804
Disunion Among Ourselves is an elegantly written and deeply researched book that challenges long-accepted myths about the origins of the American Union. Merritt shows that the seeds of the Civil War lay in the American Revolution and that the founding fathers had good cause to fear disunion and internecine conflict. The chance to build a new republic might have been fumbled away without superior statecraftand indeed it nearly was. This suspenseful account supplies a timely lesson for our own hyperpartisan timesthat the values of moderation, compromise, and the rule of law are prerequisite to the survival of democracy.
Author of Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Merritt’s insightful work demonstrates that the issue of sectional conflict was ‘hard wired’ into our nation. Our ‘original sin’ of slavery was inextricably bound up with the ‘original fear’ of disunion. For those interested in the original and continuing project of ‘We the People,’ Disunion Among Ourselves is a must read.
Chancellor Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Law and Political Science, Vanderbilt University
Eli Merritt takes a new look at a unique political generationAmerica's leaders during the Revolution, who found ways to overcome divisions as sharp as any we face today. Those leaders often stumbled, and some of the compromises they madenotably those that maintained the viability of slaveryexacted a heavy price in the long run. Yet that generation managed to win a war and give us a country of our own. Merritt helps us understand how they did it.
William & Mary College, author of Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
Disunion Among Ourselves is a most timely book. With detective-like research and deft storytelling, Eli Merritt rescues important conflicts and compromises occurring in the earliest years of the nation’s history from both the shadow of later sectional crises and the glare of founding generation worship. Showing just how unlikely a unity of states was during and after the Revolution—particularly because of regional division over diplomatic challenges long neglected by historians—he displays the essential role played by our first national leaders’ character, intelligence, and discipline.
Vanderbilt University, author of Native American Women and the Burdens of Southern History
Merritt unquestionably contributes to our knowledge of the political rhetoric of the American Revolution by his study of the fear of disunion and civil war. His interpretation helps us understand the politics of the period in both its broader contours and its specifics. This is a significant achievement.
King’s College, London, author of Perfecting the Union: National and State Authority in the US Constitution

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The Los Angeles Times

The House select committee’s investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection has hammered home a fundamental truth about democracy: this free form of government can be upended by demagogues when political party gatekeepers do not block their ascent to power. When gatekeepers fail in this critical duty, democracies deteriorate in a two-step process. First, a demagogue gains executive power, and then the demagogue devolves into authoritarianism, corrupting and dismantling the democracy itself to retain power. The leaders of both parties must embrace their sacred duty to thwart the rise of demagogues. Grasping this truth—that each party is responsible for counteracting its own demagogues—is a crucial starting point for rescuing American democracy from further decline.

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The New York Times

Published on the opening day of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump in the Senate, this op-ed argues that if the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were sitting as jurors in the trial, they would cast two near unanimous votes: first, to convict the president of an impeachable offense, and second, to disqualify him from holding future federal office. They would vote in this way because they believed as a matter of civic principle that ethical leadership is the glue that holds a constitutional republic together. The op-ed underscores that the framers of the Constitution wrote the language of the impeachment powers specifically with a demagogue like Trump in mind. As incisive political scientists steeped in history, they understood that demagogues are the singular poison that infects and kills republics and democracies. Today's gatekeepers of our constitutional democracy must understand the same lifesaving principle.


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Trump's Place in History? He is the Supreme American Demagogue

Los Angeles Times

It is never too early to begin to consider an ex-president's place in history. And, in the case of Donald J. Trump, what future historians are going to say is unambiguous. Trump’s fate in history is to become first among the cast of dishonored political figures known as "demagogues." Compared with Trump, famous demagogues like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy will become footnotes. Trump will be remembered as the first full-blown demagogue in the White House, one who incited seditious violence on the U.S. Capitol — and for little else. Over time, Democrats and Republicans will unite in this historical understanding of the 45th president, just as they have long since reached consensus about Democrat Huey Long and Republican Joseph McCarthy. The judgment of Trump will not be a partisan matter. Republicans in particular should recognize this fact and get on the right side of history, even if it means enduring criticism from constituents and the loss of reelection to office.  


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