By Robert Parry
The United States finds itself at a crossroad, with a choice of moving toward a multicultural future behind a more activist federal government or veering down a well-worn path that has marked various tragic moments of American history when white racists have teamed up with “small government” extremists.
Despite losing Election 2012 – both in the presidential vote (by five million) and the overall tally for Congress (by one million) – the Republicans are determined to use their gerrymandered House “majority” and their filibuster-happy Senate minority to slash programs that are viewed as giving “stuff” (in Mitt Romney’s word) to poorer Americans and especially minorities.
Republicans are gearing up to force a series of fiscal crises this fall, threatening to shut down the federal government and even default on the national debt, if they don’t get their way. Besides sabotaging President Barack Obama’s health reform law, the Republicans want to devastate funding for food stamps, environmental advancements, transportation, education assistance and other domestic programs.
“These are tough bills,” Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, told the New York Times. “His priorities are going nowhere.”
A key point is to slash help to what the Right sees as “undeserving” Americans, especially people of color. The ugly side of this crypto-racist behavior also surfaced in the gloating by right-wing pundits over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Fox News pundits, in particular, have mocked the outrage over the verdict from America’s black community and Obama’s personal expression of sympathy.
It is now clear that Obama’s election in 2008 was not the harbinger of a “post-racial” America, but rather the signal for white right-wingers to rally their forces to “take back America.” The fact that the modern Republican Party has become almost exclusively white and the nation’s minorities have turned more and more to the Democratic Party has untethered the GOP from any sense of racial tolerance.
There is now a white-supremacist nihilism emerging in the Republican strategy, a visceral contempt for even the idea of a multi-racial democracy that favors a more vigorous federal government. Some of these extremists seem to prefer sinking the world’s economy via a U.S. debt default than compromising with President Obama on his economic and social agenda.
Though the mainstream media avoids the white supremacist framing for the political story – preferring to discuss the upcoming clash as a philosophical dispute over big versus small government, — the reality is that the United States is lurching into a nasty struggle over the preservation of white political dominance. The size-of-government narrative is just a euphemistic way of avoiding the underlying issue of race, a dodge that is as old as the Republic.
The Jeffersonian Myth
Even many liberals have fallen for the myth of the dashing Thomas Jefferson as the great defender of America’s Founding Principles – when he was really a great hypocrite who served mostly as the pleasing political front man for the South’s chief industry, human slavery.
The popular history, perpetuated by authors such as Jon Meacham, downplays how Virginia’s plantation owners and other investors in slavery served as Jefferson’s political “base” helping to fund his propaganda battle – and then his political war – against George Washington’s Federalists who were the real designers of the Constitution with its dramatic concentration of power in the federal government. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Made-Up Constitution.”]
Prominent Anti-Federalists, such as Virginia’s Patrick Henry and George Mason, were alarmed that the Constitution’s overturning of the states’ rights-oriented Articles of Confederation would inexorably lead to Northern domination and the eventual eradication of slavery.
After ratification, many of these Southern agrarian interests grew even more alarmed when the Federalists began using the expansive federal powers in the Constitution to begin creating the framework for a modern financial system, such as Alexander Hamilton’s national bank, and promoting a potent federal role in the nation’s development, such as George Washington’s interest in canals and roads.
With every move toward a more assertive national government, the Southern slaveholders saw a growing threat toward their economic interest in human bondage. After all, slavery was not just a cultural institution in the South; it was the region’s biggest capital investment.
Though Jefferson was in France when the Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, his return in 1789 marked an important political moment in early U.S. history. The Anti-Federalists, stung by their bitter defeat at the hands of Washington’s Federalists over the Constitution, finally had a charismatic leader to rally behind.
Jefferson, who was a critic of the Constitution but not an outright opponent, retained an outsized reputation from the American Revolution as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He was also a star intellect and a crafty political operative who, perhaps more than anyone else, personified the hypocrisy of the slave-owning Founders.
Though he had famously declared, as “self-evident” truth, that “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” he also was one of Virginia’s major slaveholders. And he engaged in the pseudo-science of racial supremacy, measuring the skulls of his African-American slaves to “prove” their inferiority.
Known as a harsh “master” when having runaway slaves punished, Jefferson lived in deathly fear that his slaves would rise up violently against him and his fellow plantation owners, much as the slaves of St. Domingue (today’s Haiti) did against their French plantation owners in the 1790s.
So, like Patrick Henry and George Mason, Jefferson wanted a strong state-controlled militia in Virginia to put down slave revolts while opposing a professional federal military which white Southerners saw as a potential threat to the future of slavery.
Despite Jefferson’s interest in maintaining slavery and his racist pronouncements, many modern writers have bought into the Jeffersonian version of early American history. In part, that may be because Jefferson was among the most handsome, most complex and most intellectual of the Founders. But that modern fascination with Jefferson frequently involves averting one’s gaze from the dark – and racist – underbelly of Jefferson’s personal beliefs and his political movement.
For instance, Meacham’s best-selling Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power says almost nothing about Jefferson’s real source of power, the South’s plantation structure. Instead, Jefferson’s advocacy for “farmers” and a “small-government” interpretation of the Constitution is taken at face value. Plus, few questions are asked about the fairness of his vituperative attacks on the Federalists, especially Hamilton and Adams. Those assaults are seen as simply an expression of Jefferson’s sincere republican spirit.
Meacham’s writing is instructive, too, on the Jefferson-slavery issues. Meacham focuses mostly on Jefferson’s taking a teenage slave girl, Sally Hemings, as his concubine, what could be regarded as rape, pedophilia or both. While Jefferson’s sexual exploitation of a vulnerable girl is certainly noteworthy in evaluating Jefferson’s character, the liaison is less significant historically than Jefferson’s role in defending slavery by revising the original (Federalist) interpretation of the Constitution.
The Federalists, who included the document’s principal drafters, understood that the Constitution granted very broad powers to the federal government to act in the national interest and on behalf of the general welfare. That was also the interpretation held by Anti-Federalists, explaining the intensity of the battle against ratification. So, by substituting a revisionist interpretation, stressing “states’ rights” and a tightly constrained federal government, Jefferson negated much of what the Framers had sought to do with the Constitution. He also set the country on course for the Civil War.
Before becoming President, Jefferson secretly conspired with some political forces in Kentucky on possible secession, and he helped devise the theory of nullification, the supposed right of the states to nullify federal law, which became a driving force in the South’s belief that it could secede from the Union.
Jefferson was one of the eight early presidents who owned slaves while in office (another four owned slaves while not in office). But Jefferson was one of the most unapologetic, insisting that blacks could never live as freed citizens in the United States and refusing to liberate his own slaves after his death (except for a few relatives of Sally Hemings).
When I visited Monticello some years ago, the tour guide pointed out the beautifully manicured Jefferson family cemetery, which was for white members of the household. When I asked where the slave cemetery was, I was told that no one knew. By contrast, Washington’s Mount Vernon has a respectfully maintained slave cemetery.
Meacham and other Jeffersonian apologists also miss many other layers of hypocrisy surrounding their hero, such as his near-hysterical condemnations of the Federalists as they struggled with the herculean task of building a functioning government under an untested constitutional framework, amid extraordinary international pressures and threats.
It is surely true that Washington, Hamilton and Adams made missteps in their efforts to pioneer this new form of government – and thus left themselves open to political attack from Jefferson’s paid propagandists – but historians who buy into Jefferson’s narrative ignore the unprecedented challenges that the Federalists faced.
The Federalists also were the ones, particularly Hamilton and Adams, who demonstrated sympathy and support for Haiti’s black freedom-fighters, while Jefferson did all he could to undermine their success. But Jefferson is the Founder who is praised for his open-mindedness. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rethinking Thomas Jefferson.”]
Though Jefferson skillfully exploited examples of the Federalists’ elitism and overreach to win the presidency in 1800, President Jefferson proved to be hypocritical, too, regarding his insistence on “limited government” narrowly defined by the Constitution’s “enumerated powers” as well as his supposed respect for freewheeling dissent and his love for freedom of the press.
After undermining President Adams over his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts – a wartime measure meant to suppress alleged foreign influence seeking to induce the young Republic to take sides in a European conflict – Jefferson expressed his own sympathy for harsh measures against dissidents.
For instance, in 1803, President Jefferson endorsed the idea of prosecuting critical newspaper editors, writing: “I have … long thought that a few prosecutions of the most eminent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution: but a selected one,” as cited by Meacham’s largely pro-Jeffersonian book.
On a similar note, after leaving the White House, Jefferson advised his successor and ally James Madison on what to do with Federalists who objected to going to war with Great Britain in 1812. As historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg write in Madison and Jefferson, “Jefferson called for different measures in different parts of the country: ‘A barrel of tar to each state South of the Potomac will keep all in order,’ he ventured in August . ‘To the North they will give you more trouble. You may have to apply the rougher drastic of … hemp and confiscation’ – by which he meant the hangman’s noose and the confiscation of property.”
In other words, Jefferson, who has gone down in school history books as a great defender of freedom of speech, urged the sitting President of the United States to “tar” war dissenters in the South and to hang and dispossess dissenters in the North.
Jefferson was similarly hypocritical when it came to his views on “limited government.” He arguably was the first imperial president, dispatching the Navy to battle the Barbary pirates before seeking congressional approval and then negotiating the purchase of the Louisiana Territories despite the absence of any “enumerated” power to that effect in the Constitution.
As even an admirer like Meacham was forced to acknowledge, Jefferson “believed … in a limited government, except when he thought the nation was best served by a more expansive one.” So, Jefferson’s opposition to the Federalists’ view of the Constitution was less philosophical than political. He, like them, adopted a pragmatic approach, accepting that the Constitution did not anticipate all challenges that might confront the country.
While one might commend Jefferson’s flexibility – even though he decried similar actions by the Federalists – the public impression of Jeffersonian “small government” principles became more absolute and dangerous. As the nation’s early decades progressed, Southern slaveholders seized on Jefferson’s constitutional positions in defending the South’s investment in slavery and its expansion to new states.
Jefferson had put a powerful stamp on the young country through his own two-term presidency and those of his Virginia colleagues James Madison and James Monroe. By end of this so-called Virginia Dynasty in 1825, the permanence of slavery had been burnt deeply into the flesh of not only the original Southern states but new ones to the west.
In the ensuing decades, as the national divisions over slavery sharpened, the South escalated its resistance to federal activism, opposing even non-controversial matters like disaster relief. As University of Virginia historian Brian Balogh noted in his book, A Government Out of Sight, Southerners asserted an extreme version of states’ rights in the period from 1840 to 1860 that included preventing aid to disaster victims.
Balogh wrote that the South feared that “extending federal power” – even to help fellow Americans in desperate need – “might establish a precedent for national intervention in the slavery question,” as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted in a May 22 column.
The intensity of the South’s hatred toward a reformist federal government exploded into warfare once an anti-slavery candidate, Republican Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency. The South rekindled Jefferson’s old flirtations with nullification and secession, even though Lincoln was willing to continue tolerating slavery to save the Union.
But Southern politicians saw the handwriting on the wall – what Patrick Henry and George Mason had warned about – the inevitability of Northern dominance and the eventual demise of slavery.
The bloody Civil War ended slavery but it also stoked the bitterness of white Southerners who reacted to federal amendments granting citizenship rights to blacks by engaging in the terror of the Ku Klux Klan and broad resistance against Reconstruction. Finally, the North’s determination to reshape the South as a place of racial equality dissipated and Union troops were withdrawn in 1877. A near century of Jim Crow laws, lynching of blacks and racial segregation ensued.
When the federal government finally moved to outlaw the South’s apartheid system in the 1950s and 1960s, white racists mounted a new political resistance, this time by forsaking the Democratic Party, which had spearheaded the major civil rights laws of the era, and migrating in droves to the new Republican Party, which used racial code words to make white racists feel welcome.
The key subliminal message was opposition to “big guv-mit,” an allusion that white racists understood to mean less interference with their suppression of black votes and black rights.
Just as the civil rights victories of the 1960s were viewed as a resumption of America’s march toward racial equality that was begun a century earlier with the Civil War, so too the petering out of this so-called Second Reconstruction paralleled the original Reconstruction, which ended also about century earlier.
With the emergence of right-wing Republican Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s, the white racist resistance to civil rights found another charismatic front man, who – like Jefferson – pushed the message of “small government” and “states’ rights.”
The Reagan era marked a reversal of the strides that America had taken after World War II to open mainstream society to black citizens. But it also signaled a retreat on other federal initiatives, including regulation of Wall Street and other industries.
So, besides worsening the financial standing of many blacks and other minorities, Reaganomics returned to a boom-and-bust economy of an earlier capitalism. The Great American Middle Class, which had emerged with the help of federal laws after World War II, began to shrink, though many whites, especially in the South, stuck with the Republicans because of the party’s hostility to helping blacks.
But there was still a national push-and-pull over whether to resume a march toward a more equitable society or to embrace Jim Crow II, a more subtle and sophisticated arrangement for disenfranchising black and brown Americans.
Some political observers believed the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president was a point of no return toward a multi-cultural America. However, instead of heralding a day of greater racial tolerance, Obama’s presidency intensified the determination of right-wing whites to do whatever is necessary to make his presidency fail.
That battle appears likely to get even uglier this fall as the House Republican “majority” plots to shut down the federal government and even default on the nation’s debt if the African-American president doesn’t surrender to their political demands.
Pundits are sure to frame this donnybrook as an ideological fight over the principles of “small government,” but behind that will be a replay of the South’s historic insistence on maintaining white supremacy.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.
(Originally posted at Consortium News)