Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Trashing Jefferson

I'm enough of an empiricist to think it's important to get the facts of history right. I'm also familiar enough with political and psychological realities to know that national history also functions as political ideology, as political "myth" in the sense that Georges Sorel famously described it, an inspiring framework for understanding the common political life of a given nation.

Those competing concerns, getting history empirically correct and taking full account of history as "political myth," are uncomfortable partners. But for better or worse, they are very often unavoidable ones.

Robert Perry has wrestled with that dilemma in a couple of recent articles at his Consortium News site: How False History Props Up the Right 08/17/2013 and Will the American Right Kill Us All? 08/20/2013. Both pieces deal with the role Thomas Jefferson played as an American political leader.

In the later piece, Perry addressed the history-as-political-myth problem this way:

For various reasons – from the mainstream media’s timidity to the disdain some progressives feel for the Constitution’s compromises on slavery – this right-wing Founding Narrative rarely gets challenged, even though it is a demonstrable fiction. But this lazy tolerance of the Right's made-up history now is becoming an existential threat to mankind.

That is because the scientific consensus continues to solidify that human activity is causing global temperatures to increase dangerously, possibly causing a catastrophic rise of three feet in sea levels by the end of the century. Yet, right-wing obstructionism, which deems federal environmental activism unconstitutional, has hobbled any effort to enact a timely response to the emergency.
He goes on to discuss ways in which current Republican interpretations of the history of the US Constitution and the early American Republic are instrumentalized by the right to oppose environmental regulations.

But in both pieces, he picks up a notion of Jefferson's role in that early history that is deeply flawed as history. It reads like an inverted version of Charles Beard's reading of early American history, in which the adoption of the Constitution was something like a counterrevolution by the wealthy and the Anti-Federalists were the guardians of democracy. Perry's version essentially flips that characterization of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, with the former being the loyal democrats and the later being diehard defenders of slavery.

His version is closer to reality than Charles Beard's was. But it's still wrong. The Anti-Federalists were not simply a bunch of slaveowners defending slavery, although that was the main concern of the Second Amendment, to make sure that states could continue to run "slave patrols."

But other critics of the original proposed version of the Constitution were also concerned that it should specify guarantees of basic liberal-democratic values (although that particular term was not used at the time), including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and due process in criminal proceedings. Including Thomas Jefferson.

And it's just not accurate to assume that the Anti-Federalists were the same group that eventually became Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. That's the Party that evolved into today's Democratic Party, though it was typically referred to as the Republican Party up until the later part of the 1820s. And to contrast Jefferson as an anti-democrat to the more freedom-loving Alexander Hamilton is way off base. Hamilton was essentially a monarchist. Jefferson's big objection to the First Bank of the United States, one of his key differences with Hamilton during the Washington Administration, was that he say it as an instrument of corruption. Which is what it became. Hamilton, on the other hand, approved of corruption as a tool of government and favored the Bank in part for just that reason. Jefferson gave Hamilton credit for being personally honest, but Hamilton didn't believe a government based on democratic principles could function without buying off legislators with money.

And whatever may have happened or not between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings, Jefferson was a consistent and serious opponent of the institution of slavery. When the Abolitionist movement of later years coalesced, Abolitionists recognized that Jefferson had been an opponent of slavery. In fact, Abolitionists popularized the alleged Jefferson/Hemmings sexual relationship as an example about how even a serious opponent of slavery could be personally corrupted by the system.

In the earlier piece, Perry even promotes the canard about Jefferson the Agrarian romantic vs. Hamilton the practical capitalist visionary:

A critic of the Constitution but not an outright opponent, Jefferson couched his resistance to a strong central government in his desire to keep the United States an agriculturally based society with states allowed to nix federal policies if they wished.

Appointed by President George Washington as Secretary of State, Jefferson was quickly at loggerheads with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton who moved energetically to create the framework for an effective federal government that could collect taxes, pay its bills, establish credit and encourage the development of American industries.
It is true that in the years after the Revolution that Jefferson favored an emphasis on agriculture for the United States. But that was because he thought it was what economists now called a comparative advantage based on the conditions of international trade at the time. By the time he became President in 1801, the tensions between Britain and France after the French Revolution had drastically changed the international trade situation for the US, and Jefferson knew that the US had to put greater emphasis on domestic manufacturing. His naval embargo during his second term was actually one of the major pushes that federal policy at the time gave to developing domestic manufacturing.

Like all Presidents and major public figures, Jefferson is fair game for criticism, including over the Sally Hemmings matter and his position of slavery and race. But it's important to get it right, even if that causes complications for telling his story as a moral lesson (good or bad!) that addresses current concerns. In the early article, Perry writes, "In a distant echo of today's Republican conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, Jefferson and his political allies accused Hamilton and the Federalists of harboring secret sympathies for Great Britain and designs on replacing the Constitution with a monarchy."

It's a very distant echo, because Hamilton was more-or-less a monarchist and he did lean heavily toward favoring Great Britain in foreign policy. And those sympathies weren't not at all secret! Also, Britain did, you know, invade the country in the War of 1812, occupied Washington and burned the White House. And even though the British troops at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-15 didn't know a peace treaty had already been signed, I'm guessing that they wouldn't have peacefully given it back to the US if American troops under Andrew Jackson hadn't beaten them back.

The Federalists pretty much put their Party out of existence with the Hartford Convention that was meeting while Old Hickory and his troops were beating back the British invaders from New Orleans. They basically threatened secession over their pro-British sympathies. Both Jefferson and then-President James Madison were very much against this particular brand of "states rights" sedition.

Bottom line: I'm not willing to flush the genuine democratic impulses and accomplishments of the Founders. Or to let conservatives claim men like Jefferson or even Hamilton as their own "brand." BTW, Andrew Jackson actually fought in the Revolutionary War as a very young man. So he counts as a Founder, too.

Chris Rodda has been following one case of the Christian Right trying to claim Jefferson for their cause based on the pseudohistory promoted by David Barton and the Christian homeschooling movement. She gave us an update recently on the state of play in that conflict in Where's that Simon and Schuster Edition of "The Jefferson Lies" David Barton's Been Promising? History News Network 08/09/2013.

I like Robert Perry's work and the Consortium News website. But on the Jefferson issue, I'll just have to take off my amateur historian's hat and say, "LEAVE THOMAS JEFFERSON ALLOOO-OOONE!!!"


No comments: