Thursday, April 06, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 5: Jefferson and the need for national authority

In the April 4 installment, we looked at Thomas Jefferson's position in the Kentucky Resolutions, which became the prime display in the arguments of later secessionists and segregationist in trying to associate the author of the Declaration of Independence with their causes.

But as Brian Steele explains in "Thomas Jefferson, Coercion, and the Limits of Harmonious Union" (Journal of Southern History 4:2008) that Jefferson's support for the legitimate right of the national government to compel states to meet their obligations as part of a unified country even before the Constitution went into effect.

The Articles of Confederation were the constitution of the US 1781 to 1789. The difficulty of coordinating federal action and providing sufficient revenues for the central government were prime considerations in leading people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to see the need for an improved national constitution. You sometimes hear that debate over the Constitution of 1787 pitted the democratic common people in the Anti-Federalist cause against the wealthy Federalist supporters of the new federal compact. This is a deeply misleading impression, which the famous Progressive historian Charles Beard had a lot to do with establishing in the public mind.

Steele describes Jefferson's insistence on the implied, inherent right of the national government to maintain the union of states even under the Articles:

The inability of the Confederation government to compel states to provide revenue was one of the problems that would Iead to the writing of the Constitution. But Jefferson argued that the Confederation simply needed to act on its natural right to collect taxes. "lt has been so often said, as tobe generally believed," he complained to Edward Carrington in 1787, "that Congress have no power by the confederation to enforce any thing, e.g. contributions of money." But, Jefferson argued, "[i]t was not necessary to give them that power expressly; they have it by the law of nature." Jefferson explained his reasoning: "When two nations make a compact, there results to each a power of compelling the other to execute it." Jefferson had made this point more explicit earlier in his commentary on Jean Nicolas Demeunier's article on the United States in the Encyclopedie Methodique. Congress was far from "impotent," Jefferson wrote. Whenever "two or more nations enter into a compact, it is not usual for them to say what shall be done to the party who infringes it. Decency forbids this. And it is as unnecessary as indecent, because the right of compulsion naturally results to the party injured by the breach." Accordingly, "When any one state in the American Union refuses obedience to the Confederation by which they have bound themselves," he told Demeunier, "the rest have a natural right to compel them to obedience."
This was the broader perspective that Jefferson brought to the nature of the Union even prior to the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts that led to the protests embodied in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.

Questions over possible secession and the relationship of the states to the federal Union also arose in the crisis over the Presidential election of 1800. In those days, the victor in the Electoral College became President and the second-place candidate became Vice President. It's easy to understand now how this could prove to be awkward. Which is why the Constitution was amended to change it.

But the 1800 election results resulted in an Electoral College tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Which threw the election to the House of Representatives. The High Federalists were scheming to avoid the House vote by putting some sort of special administrative officer in charge of the federal government to prevent Jefferson's Republican Party from taking the Presidency. Both Jefferson and Burr were from the Democratic-Republican Party, then usually called the Republican Party; it's the party that evolved into what we now know as the Democratic Party.

The tension was great enough that Republican leaders feared that in the event of Jefferson's election, Federalist states in New England might try to secede from the Union. Dumas Malone in Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805 (1970) recounts:

As might have been expected, Jefferson kept aloof from this controversy insofar as he could, but he afterwards said that he conversed with John Adams about the state of affairs when he chanced to meet the President walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.
It's worth pausing here to think what a different time that was!

Even if we suspect that the encounter Jefferson describes wasn't quite as casual as he describes, what we have there is the President and the President-elect, at a time when the opposition party might well have attempted to overthrow the Constitutional government to stop Jefferson from taking office, walking on a public street discussing matters of the utmost importance for the state. Malone doesn't mention whether or not there were bodyguards of some kind present. But the Secret Service as a constant protection for the President didn't start until Lincoln's Administration.

Malone continues:

At the moment [Jefferson] was disturbed by reports that "a very dangerous experiment was then in contemplation, to defeat the Presidential election by an act of Congress," devolving the government in any interregnum on a president of the Senate, who would be elected by that Federalist body. This alleged plan was the more dangerous because it contemplated provision for a contingency in advance of the voting and thus would have encouraged the Federalists to prevent a constitutional election. He asserted to Adams that "such a measure would probably produce resistance by force and incalculable consequences," which the President could prevent by negativing [opposing] it. He got no satisfaction out of Adams, whom he reported as having suggested the simplest and quickest way out - that is, that he insure his election by giving assurances that he would honor the public debt, maintain the navy, and not displace the federal officers [all causes given by the High Federalist to impede Jefferson's assuming office] [my emphasis]
Malone also quotes Jefferson from a letter of 02/15/1801 to James Monroe, then Governor of Virginia, after the Federalist conspirators had backed off:

If they [the High Federalists] could have been permitted to pass a law puning the government into the hands of an officer, they would certainly have prevented an election. But we thought it best to declare openly and firmly, one & all, that the day such an act passed, the middle States would arm, & that no such usurpation, even for a single day, should be submitted to. This first shook them; and they were completely alarmed at the resource for which we declared, to wit, a convention to re-organize the government, & to amend it. The very word convention gives them the horrors, as in the present democratical spirit of America, they fear they should lose some of the favorite morsels of the constitution. [my emphasis]
In other words, Jefferson and Monroe were ready to mobilize the militias of the states like Virginia govenrned by Republicans. (The national army hardly existed at this time.) Part of the decision was based on the Federalists counting the troops likely to line up on either side of the conflict.

Malone provides some excellent context for this Jeffersonian approach to resolving the crisis:

When reporting his election to Madison soon thereafter, he said that the Federalists were confronted not only with the impossibility of electing Burr, but also ·with "the certainty that a legislative usurpation would be resisted b:~ arms, and a recourse to a convention to reorganize and amend the government." A few weeks later, after his inauguration and at a time of calm, he wrote differently to his learned friend Joseph Priestley. "There was no idea of force, nor of any occasion for it," he then said. A more correct Statement, nearer the full truth, would have been that there was no idea of force among the responsible leaders, except in the case of attempted usurpation by the Federalists, and that the occasion for employing it did not arise. At the moment Jefferson, who was congratulating the country on the peaceful Settlement of this dispute, presented a half-truth to a lover of peace. Also, he described the probable course of events in the case of the non-election of a President, when the federal government would have been like a clock that had run down. [my emphasis in bold]
Jefferson and Monroe were not thinking of mobilizing Republican state militias in order to secede from the Union. They were planning to defend the central government and the Constitutional order against the plotters' plan for what today we might call a "soft coup" to overthrown it. Jefferson's stance was to defend the central government and the Constitution, fully aware that an attempted secession by Federalist-led states could require an military response by the central government.

Another key difference to the Confederate secessionists was that in 1801 election crisis, slavery as such was not the cause of it. Although it's important to remember that the Constitution the Jeffersonians were defending was one that protected slavery. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison would later call it "the pro-slavery, war sanctioning Constitution of the United States." Also characterizing it as "an agreement with Hell."

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