Sunday, April 08, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 8: Jefferson, Jackson, the American democratic tradition and antislavery

I've expressed my reservations about the arguments made by Forrest Gabors in From Oligarchy to Republicanism (2017). One of those reservations is that his positive presentation of the Republican Party position on what he describes as "regime change" during Reconstruction is uncomfortably consistent with present-day neoconservative demands for "regime change" in Iran and various other countries.

But his account of the Republican position on the Slave Power and Reconstruction does provide a welcome alternative to the brand of Whig history that the left and center-left in the US have largely adopted at the moment in which the monarchist and advocate of government-by-corruption Alexander Hamilton and the plutocratic John Quincy Adams are the stars with Abraham Lincoln as the superstar Great Emancipator, while leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson are considered as something like contemptible hypocrites and villainous evildoers.

Now, there's nothing wrong with writing the history of Whigs. (Lincoln was a Whig before being a Republica, BTW.) Or of warmongers. Or of crackpot rightwing political sects from the Anti-Masonic Party on.

But I've yet to see a way to understand the growth and expansion of democracy without understanding that the process was a historical movement from not-democracy to democracy. And there's no reason to think that process is completed. Or to assume that the process takes place without resistance or setbacks or reversals.

Democracy in practice has its shadow sides. And it's indispensable for honest history that those sides be recognized.

America in 1776 started a national-independence revolution that was widely and rightly understood as the most democratic movement of the time that successfully took on the world's most powerful empire of the day. The Constitution of 1789 and the system it established became the model for the new Latin American nations and was seen by European liberals as the most advanced democratic republic in the world.

The British took pleasure in pointing out that the great American democratic republic was also a slave republic. Even though the slaveholding states that rebelled in 1776 were slaveholding British colonies immediately before that. Despite the cynicism and hypocrisy with which that criticism was often made, it was true. Just because it functioned as British propaganda doesn't mean it was wrong. And, like the Northern US banks and shipping companies, British firms also profited from American slavery in the cotton trade. So much so that it touch-and-go during the first years of the Civil War whether Britain would recognize the Confederacy as an independent country, which would have made the Union cause much more difficult and even opening the possibility of a formal or de facto alliance of Britain with Confederacy.

In other words, the American Revolution was a messy and contradictory enterprise, like every other drastic political change in history. Purity in political movements hard to find. As Hegel famously observed, "history is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history." (From his Lectures on World History) Substitute "pure political movements" for "history" and the statement is at least equally true.

But looking in what direction a political movement or process is heading is a different story. Those are results we can see, whether or not we like the picture they present.

In the context of the concerns in the forefront of historians' considerations today, even the post-Civil War Reconstruction regimes would qualify only as deeply flawed and very limited democracies. Although there were scattered periods of women voting prior to the Civil War, When the Territory of Wyoming recognized women's right to vote in 1869, they were unique in doing so in the United States. Women's suffrage in the US was established nationally only in 1920 in the US.

And, of course, Native Americans were the targets of discrimination, relocation, plundering, murder and a long series of what were known as Indian Wars. There's no way to tell that story without several variants of Europeans looking very bad: British, English, Spanish, French, Americans, Canadians, Mexicans. Something that Nabors highlights in his book is that Republicans before and after the Civil War advocated radical versions of democratic land reform. But not only was all that land previously occupied by Indians, although not "owned" in the European sense. And part of those radical land reform proposals had to do with distributing territorial land. Or, in other words, distributing land taken from Indians by force and violence to distribute to white men.

And yet democracy grew and expanded. And eventually the American political community expanded to include the vote and full citizenship for blacks, women, and Native Americans. Nabors recounts how the pro- and anti-slavery disputants each claimed to be the true representatives of the tradition and values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And in doing so, they confronted the contradictions between the ideals of democracy and equality, on the one hand, and the reality of slavery. A big part of his focus is how white citizens - essentially all of whom shared some kind of white supremacist ideas - came to see it as part of their own interest in democratic rights and freedoms for themselves required them to destroy slavery and make the slaves free people and even voting citizens.

But those ideas didn't drop down from Heaven on the day in 1860 when South Carolina declared its secession from the Union. They were deeply rooted in the ideas of of the Revolution and the Constitution and the ways in those ideas were incorporated of their understanding of their individual and group interests. Abraham Lincoln gave particular emphasis to the Declaration itself. He made this well-known observation in a letter to Joshua Speed (08/24/1854):
I am not a Know-Nothing [i.e., not an adherent of the anti-immigrant American Party]. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes" When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
As President, Lincoln, who was an abolitionist and dead set on stopping the expansion of slavery, claimed Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as the Presidents to whom he looked as models for his own Presidency. The two Presidents who founded the Democratic Party that now can't even be bothered to invoke the democratic traditions of which they were a part. Even allowing an anti-democratic malicious clown like Donald Trump to pose as a Jacksonian.

Nabors gives this example of how the Jacksonian reformers in the Democratic Party later found their way into the Republican Party when the Democratic Party converted itself into the party of John Calhoun. How people today can fail to distinguish the radical difference between the Jacksonian tradition and that of John Calhoun still bewilders me:
James Blaine dated Van Buren’s defeat in 1844 as the beginning of Calhoun’s total influence over the Democratic Party, but it “moved so rapidly and so far, that men in the North, who wished to remain in the ranks of the Democracy, were compelled to trample on the principles, and surrender the prejudices, of a lifetime.” In particular, Reconstruction Republicans who were former Democrats deplored the transformation of their party. John Hale had left the Democratic Party and successively joined the Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican Parties. He remembered Van Buren’s surprising demise at the 1844 convention, with the words, “I repeat but history when I say that the breath of slavery has made and unmade the public men of this country.” The old Democratic Party led by Andrew Jackson, said George Williams, had opposed “monopolies, class legislation, and the unjust and artificial distinctions of society.” But “Calhounism however found its way into the party and worked like poison. Contrary to the teachings of the Fathers that Slavery was a political, social and moral evil, it came to teach the ethics of Calhoun that Slavery was a political, social and moral blessing.” [my emphasis]
Nabors also describes an early version of what we now call "voter suppression" directed by the planters and their flunkies against ordinary white workers and farmers in the South, in which votes had to be cast by voice, about as far removed from a secret ballot as it could be.
This method of voting exposed the elector to the candidate’s control by means of bribery, pressure, or intimidation. In addition, it could reverse the effect of the central reform of the Jacksonian democracy movement — the elimination of property qualifications for voting. If the elector was landless or a tenant but had to express his choice by voice vote at the polls, the individual’s fear of the landlord or employer could more easily induce him to vote as the landlord wished, increasing the landlord’s control of election outcomes. Madison expressed this concern in the Federal Convention of 1787, when he predicted that if the propertyless obtained suffrage, they would become the “tools of opulence and ambition.” His intention was not to limit the republican liberty of the people; rather, he intended the opposite. In the same context, he said, “The right of suffrage is certainly one of the fundamental articles of republican government” and that a “gradual abridgment of this right has been the mode in which aristocracies have been built on the ruins of popular forms.” The apparently democratic reform of giving suffrage to the propertyless would actually augment the ruling power of oligarchy, not restrict it, and Madison wished to check that result. Viva voce voting assisted the oligarchy, under democratic guise. [my emphasis]
The 19th century USA had slave revolts and women's suffrage campaigns, utopian movements and religious revivals, public dissent and passive resistance, democratic societies and labor unions, all of which provided some ways for which those excluded from full citizenship ways to exert pressure for democratic change: women, slaves, free blacks, immigrants, non-Protestant religious groups, even Native Americans.

But they also appealed to democratic principles put into effect by war and revolution and political struggle among the dominant white male political community. That was real history. American democracy wan't born by Immaculate Conception.

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