Sunday, April 09, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 9: Andrew Jackson and the Missouri Compromise

I'm out of step with current popular impressions of early US history in that I insist on validating the advancements in democracy and equality while recognizing that retrogression and restrictions on freedom were also taking place at the same time. American democracy in 2017 is vastly more inclusive than that of American democracy in 1820. We also just elected a xenophobic hyper-nationalist loon as President and made his party by far the dominant one at the national and state levels. It's hard to conceive a narrative of continual progress toward greater democracy, freedom and equality that doesn't also recognize that some things get better and some things get worse, and it's a very good thing if there is more of the former than the latter.

The initial Spanish colonists to the New World brought with them a missionary zeal that was simultaneously being expressed in the home country in the expulsion of Jews and the Reconquista of Grenada, along with the massive persecution of Muslims and Jewish converts to Christianity. The first century of Spanish colonization brought the Spanish Inquisition and the zeal of the Counter-Reformation to the Americas. This resulted in a view of the native inhabitants as uncivilized heathens who needed to be converted or exterminated. The germs and viruses that the Europeans brought with them to the New World did more to achieve the latter than military force or religious inquisition. Portuguese, English and French colonists brought similar attitudes (and diseases) to their settlements in the New World. Russia was last to the colonizing game in North America, discovering Alaska and the Aleutians in 1741 and brought their own version of Christian civilization to the native peoples there, with broadly similar results.

The American democracy that emerged from the Revolution was a democracy founded on revolutionary principles that were understandably inspiring to many reformers and advocates of popular government and freedom in other parts of the world. The democratic republic of the United States was also a slaveowning republic and an expansionist nation. The expansion included the expansion of democracy and the expansion of slavery. And it was the expansion of a democracy largely restricted to white men.

With time, the real contradictions among democracy, westward expansion and slavery became increasingly obvious, resulting eventually in the Civil War. The Missouri crisis was a very obvious case in which westward expansion and slavery - more specifically, the struggle over the numerical balance in the Senate between slave and free states - were obviously in conflict. As Robert Remini in Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821 (1977), "Andrew Jackson determined the course of American expansion. He was, in fact, the greatest expansionist of them all."

At the time of the Missouri crisis, Jackson was a general during the John Quincy Adams Monroe Administration. He had successfully seized Florida from Spanish control. In the Adams-onís Treaty of 1819, aka the Transcontinental Treaty, Spain agreed to sell Florida to the United States. Remini says Jackson's reacted to the Missouri Compromise "as southerner and slaveowner," concerned about its implications for the Union and for the Peculiar Institution (slavery). He quotes Jackson's undated reaction from that time:

The Misouri [sic] question so called, has agitated the public mind, and that I sincerely regret and never expected, but that now I see, will be the entering wedge to seperate the union. lt is even more wicked, it will excite those who is the subject of discussion to insurrection and masacre [sic]. lt is a question of political ascendency, and power, and the Eastern interests are determined to succeed regardless ofthe consequences, the constitution or our national happiness. They will find the southern and western states equally resolved to support their constitutional rights. I hope I may not live to see the evills [sic] that must grow out of this wicked design of demagogues, who talk about humanity, but whose sole object is self agrandisement regardless of the happiness of the nation.
We see reflected in that statement by Jackson the Republican views to which Jefferson also adhered. There is the fear of slave revolt or post-emancipation black revolution. There is the fear of destabilizing the Union, which Jackson seems to suspect is a continuation of the Federalist secessionist plotting around the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812. And he also views the antislavery agitation as a cynical political move by Federalists and Northern Democrats following in their wake. Remini comments, "As far as Jackson was concerned, 'national happiness' included slavery fdor the south and the west, whether the north liked it or not."

In the Nullification Controversy of 1832 when Jackson was President, he was forced to choose between the interest of democracy and Union, on the one hand, and aggressive defense of slavery, on the other. Jackson chose the country in that dispute.

No comments: