Sunday, April 02, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 3: Jefferson's record on secession

A continued challenge for understanding history is "anachronism," or viewing previous events through contemporary standards in a way that interferes with understanding the meaning of the past events and the motives of key players. It's always a struggle, because we always start from some point of view. How we work from a subjective viewpoint to understanding the reality outside our heads was a key issue on which Kant and Hegel staked distinctly different positions. And the Kant-Hegel argument continues to this day. And those two thinkers were certainly not the first to grapple with the problem.

One very helpful perspective is the one taken by this issue of the German publication Zeit Geschichte 3/2016, titled, Wir Sind das Volk. Die Deutschen und die Demokratie - 1789 bis heute:

It's a collection of essays about the development of democracy in Germany from 1789 until the present day. And it focuses on major political milestones, such as the spread of Democratic Clubs in the wake of the French Revolution, the Hambacher Fest of 1832, and the proclamation of the German Republic in 1918.

An historical exhibit in the Reichstag building in Berlin at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall took a similar approach:

Like any approach, this has its limits because it focuses on one historical process rather than others. The first section of the Zeit Geschichte issue prominently features a photo of Philipp Scheidemann proclaiming the German Republic in 1918 from a window of the Reichstag. Karl Liebknecht's proclamation shortly afterwards of the "Free Socialist Republic" is mentioned in the caption, but not given the dramatic photographic prominence of Scheidemann's. This doesn't mean that it's somehow "fake history." If the topic were the history of the German social democracy, Liebknecht's proclamation would likely have been given greater prominence.

And a series of blog posts debunking Confederate pseudohistory focuses on issues and events with particular relevance to the topic. It's also a reminder that events prior to the Civil War are often seen through the perspective of how the issues were framed at the time of war and its immediately preceding time.

Secessionists claimed precedents using arguments in the manner in which politicians today still do, i.e., in a polemical and selective manner. Both sides were particularly keen to connect their cause with the traditions of the American Revolution. (I'm starting to think that only the political right in the US today still try to do so. But that's another story.) Thomas Jefferson - author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia during the Revolution, third President, prominent Southern intellectual and slaveowner - was an important symbol for both sides.

And he was alive and politically involved at the time of various incidents that raised the issues of states' rights and secession in,different ways, including:

The protests of Virginia and Kentucky against the Alien and Sedition Acts during the John Adams Administration, known as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, the first primarily authored by James Madison, the second by Jefferson

Election crisis of 1801; yes, those are as American as apple pie
Burr conspiracy of 1805-6
War of 1812 and the Hartford Convention of 1814
Missouri Compromise of 1820
Nullification Crisis of 1832
Nashville Convention of 1850, yet another treasonous plot by John Calhoun
Compromise of 1850
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and its violent repercussions in "Bleeding Kansas"
Dred Scott decision of 1857
And, of course, Lincoln's election of 1860 and immediately subsequent events

In the next post in this series, I'll take a look at the positions Jefferson took on the first three, which took place during his lifetime.

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