Friday, April 28, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 25: A skewed view of Thomas Jefferson's democratic republicanism

Looking at the past is a social act in that engaging with history is simultaneously engaging with the way others view and have viewed the same history.

In several of this year's Confederate "Heritage" Month posts, we've looked at the shift in the pro- and antislavery narratives that took place around the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Robert E. Shalhope in "Thomas Jefferson's Republicanism and Antebellum Southern Thought" Journal of Southern History 42:4 (Nov 1976) discusses the historical image of the third President. He describes the older image of Jefferson this way:

The idea that the American South underwent a conservative reaction in the second quarter of the nineteenth century has enjoyed great popularity among historians for quite some time. Scholars adhering to this perspective delineate "Jeffersonian" and "post-Jeffersonian" phases of antebellum southern history. Assuming liberal thought to be the primary characteristic of the first period, they believe that age was epitomized by Thomas Jefferson. Like his northern counterparts and fellow southern intellectuals, Jefferson is portrayed embracing the ideas of the Enlightenment. The classic view sees late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century American intellectuals placing their faith in reason and holding liberal views regarding society, religion, and politics. Most important, they are characterized as espousing the doctrine of natural rights and as holding strong antislavery beliefs. Consequently, Jefferson and his southern colleagues emerge as men who considered slavery a morally dubious institution burdensome to both the slaveholder and the community alike. Unfortunately, according to this view of southern history, reactionary forces which appeared in the 1820s caused the South to repudiate Jeffersonian liberalism in favor of a militant, conservative orthodoxy. These forces succeeded, however, only with the death of Jefferson - the ardent champion of freedom and equality.
But, of course, by the mid-1970s, Jefferson's image was undergoing a new round of examination with a less sympathetic view of his attitudes toward slavery.

Shalhope notes that the ascendant view in 1976 was to give more emphasis to Jefferson's "status as a southern aristocrat and his ambivalence regarding the place of the black man in American society." In that narrative, Jefferson's antislavery rhetoric was more superficial, "while his actions as a planter and politician actually served to strengthen the "peculiar institution" and to protect the interests of the planter class." Meanwhile, "slavery thrived and grew stronger within a society espousing the principles of liberty and equality."

His article puts Jefferson's antislavery position in the context of the concept of republicanism as it developed during Jefferson's lifetime.

What is republicanism? It can be a surprisingly tricky concept. Frank Lovett authored an article about the concept for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Republicanism (2014):

In political theory and philosophy, the term ‘republicanism’ is generally used in two different, but closely related, senses. In the first sense, republicanism refers to a loose tradition or family of writers in the history of western political thought, including especially: Machiavelli and his fifteenth-century Italian predecessors; the English republicans Milton, Harrington, Sidney, and others; Montesquieu and Blackstone; the eighteenth-century English commonwealthmen [sic]; and many Americans of the founding era such as Jefferson and Madison. The writers in this tradition emphasize many common ideas and concerns, such as the importance of civic virtue and political participation, the dangers of corruption, the benefits of a mixed constitution and the rule of law, etc. ... [my emphasis]
Shalhope describes Jefferson's republicanism in similar terms.

Unfortunately, Shalhope concentrates so heavily on the psychological aspects of Jefferson's positions that his article offers only limited insight offer much insight into the ways in which the slavery debate developed in response to political developments. And he comes to the overly simplistic assumption, "Jefferson became more and more inflexible: southern society epitomized American republicanism; northern values were subversive."

He also winds up dancing around the slavery issue, and seems to view Jefferson's position simplistically as an advocate of states' rights against those who advocated greater central authority. And he offers this very misleading picture of Jefferson's position on the Missouri Compromise:

Jefferson remained convinced that the true issue was the power of the central government to regulate the internal affairs of the states. If Congress could impose restrictions upon Missouri' s entrance into the Union, it could logically abolish slavery in the other states. While this would lead to insurrections in the short run, the long-term effects would be even more disastrous for American society. A sectional majority in Congress could impose its values upon the rest of the nation. Great numbers of Americans would fall under the control of men who did not share their interests; consequently, those in the minority would lose their liberty and freedom.
In the end, he winds up supporting the Confederate's ideological narrative of Jefferson, "Thomas Jefferson clearly helped to transform the Virginia republicanism of the Revolution into the southern intransigence of the late antebellum period."

Shelhope's accounts winds up obscuring rather than illuminating the development of the real contradiction between democracy and slavery and how Jefferson's reactions to it developed.

Which makes me also wonder if his emphasis on Jefferson's republicanism is also meant to obscure that Jefferson's brand was very much a democratic republicanism, even with the limits that American society imposed upon it at the time.

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