Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and the democratic tradition

Maybe one reason I named this blog for an actual historical figure and not for some mythological one or an abstract idea or something is that I wanted to keep myself tied down, even in an inconvenient way, to real history in looking at politics and history and religion.

I've written here about what I see as the strengths of Andrew Jackson's Presidency and the democratic movement that was associated with his name: expansion of democratic rights, the beginnings of pro-labor politics in the US, the identification of American patriotism and nationalism with democracy, an active defense by the federal government of the liberties of the people against the power of organized money and concentrated wealth, the successful opposition to the early pro-slavery secessionist movement.

I've also written about the dark sides of Jackson's legacy, especially his bad policy on Indian removal. I don't believe that I have ever tried to portray him as any kind of Abolitionist, although his assistance of Frances Wright's abolitionist utopian colony in Tennessee showed that he wasn't completely allergic to it, either. And I've talked about how the Jacksonian democratic movement expanded far beyond the form it took during Jackson's Presidency.

Historical purism is a real temptation, including for me. So identifying myself with the positive legacy of a less-than-perfect leader is a kind of grounding of perspective for me. Real government and real political movements are made by imperfect human beings. Even if some Hegelian World Spirit is driving history to some future ideal state, it's flesh-and-blood human beings who handle the details of the trip. (Actually, an Hegelian World Spirit probably wouldn't be satisfied with any ideal state, but that's a question for a different post.)

When I visited Buenos Aires earlier this year, I took a tour of the Presidential Palace there, the Casa Rosada. In the entrance halls, there are large portraits of numerous figures from Argentine and Latin American history, both recent and more distant. They include Juan and Eva Perón, Tupac Amaru II, Ernesto "Ché" Guevara (an Argentine native), and Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador.

None of these mean that the government of Argentina or President Critina Fernández wants to follow Juan Perón's more authoritarian domestic-policy inclinations nor his admiration for aspects of Italian Fascism. It doesn't mean that Fernández wants to get up guerrilla wars in Bolivia or the Congo. It doesn't mean that Argentines look forward to a native uprising against non-aboriginal-descended Argentines. It doesn't mean that they want to idolize the hierarchy of the Argentine Catholic Church.

(On the other hand, I'm pretty sure the photo of US President George W. Bush in the courtyard outside the Casa Rosada in which it looks like he's picking his nose probably was meant to express some disapproval of Bush and American foreign policies.)

However historians may dissect their legacies, those figures represent positive things in present-day Argentine democracy: a vibrant popular democracy that supports the rights and needs of workers; a rejection of colonial/neocolonial domination; international solidarity; defense of human rights against dictatorial repression.

And those real images from history tie them in a visual image linked to the real history of the country and the region. They do represent a kind of secular mythology. But it's a deeply-entrenched way of representing ideals and tying them to the real possibilities of the world as it is, while inviting people to look beyond the world as it is.

The reality is that the generally (if by no means universally) shared ideals of equality and equal rights in the United States and other advanced democracies in 2012 were not the prevalent ideals of the first half of the 19th century. Women's equality, even women's right to vote, was scarcely on the horizon of the political vision of most of the more radical reformers at the time. Militant Abolitionists were widely regarded as, at best, irritating troublemakers and, at worst, dangerous subversives and traitors. Whites who opposed slavery also were often opposed to the presence of free blacks in their area, because they associated the presence of any blacks with slavery. The thoroughly unrealistic, impractical idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa was seriously entertained by opponents of slavery like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

In fact, the only major figure in American history prior to the Civil War that I know of who generally accepted and advocated 2012-style ideas about racial and gender equality and democratic rights was John Brown. You know, John Brown who carried on armed civil war against advocates of slavery in "Bleeding Kansas," and was executed for armed treason against the State of Virginia? I've written here at this blog quite a bit about Brown. And I think anyone reading those posts would conclude - correctly - that I regard Brown's actions as a guerrilla fighter in both Kansas and Virginia as morally and politically justified in the very specific context of the fight against slavery at the time.

But in our days where the so-called War on Terrorism is still a major theme, how many Americans want to identify with the "terrorist" John Brown? Well, antiabortionists do, though I'm guessing Brown himself would be disgusted by most of them.

And Brown himself understood himself to be acting politically on primarily Christian religious motives, stern Calvinist ones at that. Plus, like most Abolitionists, he was also in favor of Prohibition of alcohol, a position today identified with hardcore moralistic Know-Nothings, to the extent he exists at all.

Which brings me to the latest round of controversy over Thomas Jefferson. It centers around Henry Wiencek's book Master of the Mountain: Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (2012). Wiencek presents his argument in The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson Smithsonian Oct 2012. Corey Robin makes a contribution to the fray in Thomas Jefferson: American Fascist? Crooked Timber 12/02/2012. Robin's piece takes off from a mention of Wiencek's book to elaborate his thoughts on Thomas Jefferson's influence on the concepts of white racism and white supremacy, and even "racialized fascism." (!?!) I'm not at all comfortable with where Robin's going with that argument, but it's part of something like an open-seasons-on-Jefferson moment, it seems. (The articles linked at the end of this post by Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Ellen Lewis pretty much gut Wiencek's main argument in a few paragraphs.)

There is a recurring debate over Jefferson that turns around his dual character as a slaveholder and a Founder, President and defender of a slaveholding Republic, on the one side, and a well-known opponent of the institution of slavery, as well.

I plan to address the more recent controversy in posts later on. But here I want to say that the fact that Jefferson was a slaveowner has never been a secret. It's also the case that he took abolition seriously until the end of his life. The last major debate over slavery in the future Confederate states took place in 1832 under Gov. John Randolph, Jefferson's son-in-law, who had been heavily influenced by Jefferson's views on the subject and who advocated compensation emancipation of Virginia's slaves.

Jefferson was also the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War. He was especially proud of his authorship of the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty, and was an important early advocate of separation of church and state. Jefferson was the leader of a democratic movement and the founder of what today is known as the Democratic Party, originally called the Democratic-Republican Party and until the Jacksonian era known as the Republican Party. (Today's Republican Party was founded in 1854.)

The Jeffersonian movement opposed the aristocratic-tinted, monarchical-leaning policies of the Federalist Party. Jefferson's election as President put a stop to authoritarian, monarchical tendencies that John's Adams' Administration had promoted and practiced. Jefferson's partisans referred to his election as President as the "Revolution of 1800." While that may be hyperbole in an historical view, it is a very defensible position to argue that Jefferson's election as President secured the democratic form of government established in the series of events leading from the American Revolution to the approval of the Constitution to the election of 1800.

Jefferson's defense of freedom of speech and the press was a hallmark of his own Administration. His and James Madison's Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were illegitimately appropriated by Southern secessionists, but they were part of a real democratic resistance to the repressive and notorious Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration. As American Ambassador to France, he pushed the envelope of diplomatic protocol in encouraging the French Revolution, which he supported in a critical ways despite its excesses of violence.

Jefferson's contribution to American national freedom and independence were not only during the Revolutionary period. Particularly notable were his actions as President to maintain US neutrality in the war between France and England. He and his Secretary of State Madison used Napoleon's war contingencies to secure the Louisiana Territory for the US. This wasn't just an opportunistic land grab. Jefferson's entire foreign policy as President was focused around securing the Port of New Orleans for the US, because it controlled sea access from the Mississippi River which was already vital for American commerce. He went on the assumption that whatever foreign power controlled New Orleans was automatically the main enemy of the US. And despite his lingering reputation as an agrarian romantic, as President he actively pursued a policy aimed at encouraging domestic industry which was necessary to protect the country's national independence.

One more thing: as hard as it is to imagine today, when Jefferson was President he was considered the country's leading scientist. His sponsorship of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition was a major contribution to scientific discovery of the time.

In other words, I'm not willing to cede the constructive side of Jefferson's legacy to rightwingers, either in terms of historical evaluation or the more narrowly polemic side of the uses of history in politics.

There is always a tension between history as scholarly/scientific field - a relatively new concept in history writing, which really didn't take firm hold in the West until the 17th century and the Enlightenment - and history as moral lesson. Conservatives are perhaps more devoted to the latter approach, as we've seen in recent years with Republican insistence on what they call American Exceptionalism (ironically a term thought to have been coined by Josef Stalin). This involves looking to events and leaders of previous times for inspiration and both practical and moral guidance. This practice is by no means limited to conservatives, though. The use of the Munich Agreement as an analogy and cautionary lesson in foreign policy has been taken so seriously by foreign policy makers for so long that it long since became more of a hindrance to making constructive policy than a help, as Jeffrey Record detailed at some length in The Specter of Munich (2007).

And our old friend Jefferson is often batted around in these arguments over who owns the heritage of the Founders, or the Founding Fathers as they have been more commonly called until recently. (BTW, Andrew Jackson as a 17-year-old fought in the Revolutionary War and so he counts as a Founder, too!) Christian nationalist pseudohistorian David Barton enlisted Jefferson as a witness in promoting his scam argument that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence incorporate Christian theocracy into the US from the start, in a book perhaps ironically entitled, The Jefferson Lies (2012), subtitled Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson and with a Foreword by Glenn Beck. Though it's not only an amateur historian's work, it's amateurish in the most pejorative sense. It's the kind of thing that influences many people through the Christian Right and Christian homeschooling networks.

Chris Rodda has been aggressively refuting Barton and other Christianist pseduohistory. See the Liars for Jesus website and her book Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History (2006); her Huffington Post articles such as Pseudo-Historian David Barton's New Jefferson Book is a Load of Crap -- and a Bestseller 05/02/2012; Chris Rodda's This Week In Christian Nationalism blog and, the continuing coverage of Barton and Christianist pseudohistory at Talk to Action, such as Frederick Clarkson's David Barton's Book Pulled By Publisher 08/09/2012. As Clarkson's story explains, the criticism of the dishonesty and hackery in Barton's book became so heavy that its orginal publisher, Thomas Nelson (a Harper-Collins subsidiary), pulled the book.

So, yes, Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner and a human being with human flaws, facts which need to be seen clearly as such. No, he was not John Brown, or Mahatma Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. All of whom, not incidentally, had their flaws as well that need to be seen as such. He doesn't fit into a romantic image of an "idealistic" professional revolutionary, like the Ché Guevara or Tom Paine of mythologized remembrance. But, again not incidentally, Jefferson assisted Paine on his return to the US after being imprisoned in France during their Revolution and took some notable political flack for doing so, since Paine was by then stigmatized as an "atheist."

And, yes, Jefferson was one of the most important democratic thinkers and practical leaders in world history. And that fact needs to be seen clearly as such along with all that it implies. Neither the history nor the image of Thomas Jefferson belong to John Calhoun or his spiritual/intellectual descendants like David Barton.

Here are some of the articles and blog posts that have appeared relevant to the current dispute:

Ben Alpers, Notes on the State of Thomas Jefferson U.S. Intellectual History 12/03/2012

Paul Finkelman, The Monster of Monticello New York Times 11/30/2012

Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson Was Not a Monster Slate 10/19/2012

Scott Lemieux, Whitewashing Jefferson LG&M 12/02/2012

Jan Ellen Lewis, What Did Thomas Jefferson Really Think About Slavery? Daily Beast 10/17/2012

(From 1996:) Conor Cruise O'Brien, Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist The Atlantic Oct 1996; see also, Counter Points: Jefferson scholar Douglas L. Wilson responds to Conor Cruise O'Brien Atlantic Online Oct 1996 and O'Brien's interview with Brian Lamb on Booknotes, The Long Affair 11/17/1996.

David Post, Why Don’t People Get It About Jefferson and Slavery? The Volokh Conspiracy 120/01/2012

Jennifer Schuessler, Some Scholars Reject Dark Portrait of Jefferson New York Times 11/26/2012

Jonathn Yardley, "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves" by Henry Wiencek Washington Post 10/13/2012


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