Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Corey Robin’s "The Reactionary Mind" (2011): (2 of 4): Jefferson, Jackson and the two Adamses

[Continuing directly from Part 1] Later conflicts are usefully understood by distinguishing actual reactionaries from conservatives. Federalist Aaron Burr wound up being a pro-British reactionary and probably an actual traitor. When the arch-conservative Hamilton died in a duel with Burr, it was by far the better man who lost.

Jefferson's conflicts with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall are also better understood as a conflict between left-liberal and conservative-liberal supporters of the Constitution and of the liberal American form of government (speaking again of classical liberalims). No less a left icon than I.F. Stone described one conflict between Jefferson and Marshall (over Burr's treason trial) as a conflict "between Jefferson and Marshall, the radical Democrat and the conservative Federalist." ("A Special Supplement: Impeachment" New York Review of Books 06/28/1973 issue)

Andrew Jackson
Looking at some of the details of that particular conflict, Stone memorably described it this way: "But the battle between Jefferson and Marshall was like one of those bouts in which the antagonists make the most devastating faces at each other, emitting blood-curdling screams, yet somehow never come to blows."

The Federalist Party largely destroyed itself, helped along by the political strategies of Republican Presidents Jefferson and Madison, when New England Federalists convened the secessionist, pro-British Hartford Convention during the War of 1812 in which Britain was making war against the United States. That led even a leading Federalist conservative like John Quincy Adams to switch to the party of Jefferson.

The Presidency from 1801 to 1841 was a one-party affair, though Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party was severely divided by the 1920s. When Adams won the Presidency in 1924 in what his chief opponent Andrew Jackson called the Corrupt Bargain, the Jacksonians painted Adams as the defender of illegitimate elite privilege and power with Old Hickory as the defender of the common man. This was a classic left-right contest within the Constitutional system with two leading protagonists who both accepted the classical liberal concept of government and supported the existing Constitutional government. It was during Jackson's leadership that the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, of which both Adams and Jackson were a part, became known as the Democratic Party.

Daniel Webster
When Jackson went to war against the Second Bank of the United States, one of its chief supports was the still-Federalist Senator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster. Webster was also a conservative, not a reactionary, not someone who wanted to fundamentally change the Constitutional form of government or opposed the basic principles of classical political liberalism. He was a conservative. And as a conservative, he defended the power and privilege of the wealthy. In his speech to the Senate of 07/08/1832 criticizing Jackson for having vetoed the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States, he declared, identifying the pecuniary interests of the Money Power directly with the public good:
Congress passed the bill, not as a bounty or a favor to the present stockholders, nor to comply with any demand of right on their part, but to promote great public interests, for great public objects. Every bank must have some stockholders, unless it be such a bank as the president has recommended, and in regard to which he seems not likely to find much concurrence of other men’s opinions; and if the stockholders, whoever they may be, conduct the affairs of the bank prudently, the expectation is always, of course, that they will make it profitable to themselves, as well as useful to the public. It has been found by experience that banks are safest under private management [as the Second Bank of the US was], and that Government banks are among the most dangerous of all inventions.
In light of the more recent doctrine of Look Forward, Not Backward, this is also an interesting comment from the same speech:
The President is as much bound by the law as any private citizen, and can no more contest its validity than any private citizen. He may refuse to obey the law, and so may a private citizen; but both do it at their own peril, and neither of them can settle the question of its validity.
Jackson’s greatest antagonist, though, was a genuine reactionary who rejected the classical liberal principles of democracy and rejected the American Constitutional form of government: John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was the mastermind behind the South Carolina articles of nullification which purported to annul federal tariffs in South Carolina and provoked the confrontation with President Jackson and Congress known as the Nullification Controversy. Calhoun spent the rest of his life promoting various seditious schemes in support of slavery and its expansion.

As the events of the three decades between the Nullification Controversy and the Civil War were to show, the Calhounian approach to defending slavery was deeply reactionary, opposed to basic classical liberal principles of the rights of the individual. In practice, it lead to greater and greater restrictions on the personal freedoms and even “states rights” of the free population, and eventually issued in armed revolt against the Constitutional government aimed at its overthrown and replacement by a slave republic, at least in the states of the Southern Confederate.

Robin refers to Calhoun’s opposition to Congress receiving anti-slavery petitions. John Quincy Adams, elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts after leaving the Presidency, was a leader in the effort to have Congress receive the antislavery petitions. Although it sounds now like a dry procedural issue, Calhoun and the defenders of slavery understood it to be something that would validate the growing antislavery movement. Adams was acting as a conservative within the classical liberal framework as President when he defended the Second Bank of the United States and generally tried to protect the illegitimate influence of the wealthy on government. He was also acting very much within the classical liberal tradition when he lent his prestige as the former President and son of the second President to the antislavery cause. Abolition rested firmly on classical liberal principles, although the Abolitionists obviously wanted to change the Constitution to ban slavery. (Though some argued that it already did!)

Another significant movement arose during Jackson’s Presidency, the Anti-Masonic Party. They were crackpots who spun lurid, false tales about crimes committed by members of Masonic Lodges. They also would count as a distinctively reactionary movement who rejected the classical liberal consensus on government and society.

Historian Richard Hofstadter was correct in identifying the Anti-Masonic Party as representing the first movement in America recognizable as a similar type to the Radical Right organizations of the 20th century such as the John Birch Society. It was genuinely reactionary and anti-democratic, drawing on European conspiracy theories spawned by the counterrevolutionary reaction to the French Revolution that held democracy to be part of a dangerous, corrosive plot by secretive, sinister figures, in this case in the Masonic Lodges. (Like most conspiracy theories that win adherents beyond the merest handful of cranks, it had a small touch of reality to it. Masonic Lodges did actively promote democracy and were prominent in the movements for independence and republican government in Latin American nations like Mexico and Argentina.)

Continued in Part 3


No comments: