In our polarized times, talk of secession blooms on the losing side of bitterly contested national elections. After the 2016 election, some liberal Californians proposed a referendum to seek independence. Last December in Texas, a few leading Republicans actually threatened to secede from a nation whose courts would not overturn the 2020 presidential election. This talk of secession reflects animosities and fears, but it is also fundamentally based on a mythic and rosy version of our political origins — one that never was.

Modern secessionists claim that the Founders united to support an American creed that looks conveniently like their vision for America today. They blame their political opponents for betraying this political utopia.

In reality, however, the early American Republic was anything but a harmonious utopia. The Founders fiercely disagreed about how to govern the republic and they created a Union specifically designed to keep the peace between their diverse and fractious states. So powerful were animosities and fear of disunion and potential foreign meddling that might promote it that the United States set out on a path of expansion to push enemies away and relieve tensions domestically.

Keeping the peace in the early republic was a challenge. The former colonists lacked a common identity as Americans, for most felt greater allegiance and affection for their home states. A Massachusetts leader noted: “Instead of feeling as a nation, a state is our country. We look with indifference, often with hatred, fear, and aversion to the other states.” Patriots worried that their states would clash over boundaries and trade, replicating the wars that so often bloodied Europe.

After winning independence, the United States began to unravel during the mid-1780s. The smaller states dreaded domination by larger ones. Frontier settlements threatened to break away from the east (and Vermont succeeded for a decade.) Connecticut men fought to take away the northern third of Pennsylvania; the rest of New England threatened a hostile takeover of Rhode Island. Alexander Hamilton denounced the states as “little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord.” Benjamin Franklin agreed, “Our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.”

At the end of that decade, Hamilton and Franklin helped to draft and ratify a new federal constitution meant to form “a more perfect Union.” Leading Americans understood this as a necessary step to keep the peace between the states and avert a future civil war. It also would help them manage a cooperative effort to occupy the continent.

And yet, leaders like Patrick Henry and Sam Adams also feared that the new federal government might become too powerful and tyrannical. Having resisted Britain’s centralizing might, many citizens balked at creating a consolidated nation. They supported a Union just strong enough to help the states but not powerful enough to subordinate them. While the pressures of the Revolutionary War had pulled the states together, a dread of central power kept pushing them apart.

Consequently, the Union became both cherished and feared by citizens. When informed of the new federal Constitution in 1787, South Carolina farmers staged a funeral for a coffin labeled “Liberty.” They warned that freedom could not endure if power passed “into the hands of men who live one thousand miles distant from you.” Dread of a national elite, therefore, has deep roots in our politics.

Americans also feared that a foreign power would exploit these disaffected elements within the fragile Union. They understood that the country had dangerous fault lines within. Indigenous and enslaved people could ally with the British or Spanish empires to overthrow the United States. During the 1780s and 1790s, those empires armed Native peoples to resist the United States and provided safe havens for runaway enslaved people. Indeed foreigners could even exploit jealousies between the states to provoke disunion, as the British nearly did with the New England states during the War of 1812.

That fear drove American leaders to expand deep into the continent to push rival empires — British and Spanish — farther away from the United States. They hoped that distance would weaken imperial efforts to rally Indians and provoke slave revolts — or promote secession by a restive region. Leaders also distrusted their own settlers, fearing that they might break away to join another empire or form their own, independent republics, as Vermont and eastern Tennessee had done temporarily during the 1780s.

Perhaps nobody embodied these contradictions quite like Andrew Jackson. During the 1780s, he had covertly taken an oath of allegiance to Spain to trade enslaved people with that empire’s colonists at Natchez. Thirty years later, he became a staunch American nationalist, who destroyed Indian resistance in Alabama and seized Spanish-held Florida to eliminate a haven for runaway enslaved people. As president, he defended the Union in the nullification crisis with South Carolina, but then appeased the White Carolinians by permitting their suppression of abolitionist writings sent through the mail.

During the early 1840s, Jackson dreaded that the British meant to grab Texas, then an independent republic that had rebelled against Mexican rule. If the British succeeded, they would, Jackson predicted, rally “hordes of savages” and runaways to spread “servile war” throughout the South. By annexing Texas to the United States, Jackson thought the United States could perpetuate “our republican system, and … our glorious Union.” He spoke for many Americans, who insisted that their freedom and Union demanded westward expansion, including the extension of slavery for others.

By expanding in search of security, Americans ultimately created a crisis within their Union. In 1832, the elderly chief justice of the United States, John Marshall, reflected on the contentious history of his divided nation: “The Union has been preserved thus far by miracles. I fear they cannot continue.” He was correct. The Union ruptured 29 years later, provoking a Civil War that took more than 800,000 lives, maimed many more and reduced almost half the country to ashes and millions of people to near starvation.

During the 19th century, most Americans tried to hold their Union together through territorial expansion, but instead they provoked a bloodbath. Unionists restored the nation through war and resumed adding territory — first Alaska, then Hawaii. But we have run out of places to acquire while the distrust between people of red and blue states has increased, creating new fault lines with ominous possibilities — unless we cherish a Union essential to our mutual safety.