Ep. 83: Who Killed Jefferson(ianism)?

Those who profited so much from slave labor, rebuked the Declaration of Independence, but the Southern justification for slavery varied by region. 

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Southerners strived to protect slavery as thoroughly as possible. In order to do that, they embraced a pragmatic ideology tailored to fight their Northern opposition. To many Southerners, slavery represented comfort, but others embraced slavery as their Christian duty to save Africans from the drudgeries of freedom and supposedly meek lives of Northern industrial workers.

What is methodological individualism? Was there a monolithic south? What is enlightenment liberalism? Who was Nathaniel Beverly Tucker?

Further Reading:

America Mobbing, 1828-1861, written by David Grimsted

The Life and Literature of Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, written by Robert Doares, Jr.

Related Content:

Jeffersonian Optimism vs. Country Pessimism, from Literature of Liberty Reviewer

Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War, written by Eric Foner

Compromising Compromisers, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

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00:08 Anthony Comegna: It’s been fashionable for some time among certain people to say that “Well, actually the Civil War was not about slavery at all, it was very complex with many causes and someone reducing it all to slavery clearly has a political agenda in the present” Trying to sound edgy and cool, people might argue that everything you thought you knew is actually Unionist propaganda. Silly you, you thought the mildly anti-slavery Union was at least a bit better than the pro-slavery South.

00:42 Anthony Comegna: The controversy mongers, they will tell you that the South was actually very Libertarian it was really the last best defensive choke point where Jeffersonian liberalism made its last stand against the Federal Leviathan. Well, let me say, “you should not buy into the hype. Sometimes the mainstream historians have it right after all and sometimes controversial views are really simply wrong”.

01:15 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. While Robert E.Lee and his army of Northern Virginia, were surrendering to Grant, southern intellectuals and politicians were already busy at work, preparing their own post-war propaganda a set of excuses and justifications for the war, that scrubbed the slavery issue and emphasized the language of federalism and Jeffersonian-ism to cleanse themselves of the blame for so horrifying a conflict. Southerners had to pivot from the militantly pro-slavery position that propelled them to war in the first place somehow, they would have to make people forget that the 1850s ever happened, forget that virtually every Southern newspaper, ever was militantly pro-slavery and really only vacillated between Unionist pro-slavery and secessionist pro-slavery.

02:13 Anthony Comegna: They would have to make people forget that abolitionists were lynched, tortured, expelled from the Antebellum South, forget that the Southerners censored the press with their arsonists’ torches. That their free speech was policed by armed mobs and that the South’s aristocrats preferred an illiterate white population to one that was educated and free to criticize the planter regime.

02:40 Anthony Comegna: The wretched truth is that for at least 40 years before the Civil War, Southerners actively rejected their enlightenment, liberal heritage in favor of a new ideological pragmatism designed specifically to protect slavery as thoroughly as possible. Now, I should make a few caveats here. There was no monolithic South, though I do occasionally use that term as a stand in for something more like most Southerners or the vast majority of white people in the South or something like that. This doesn’t mean I think the South ever got out of bed in the morning and went to whip slaves or burn abolition literature. It’s more accurate to speak of many “Souths” like historian William Freehling.

03:28 Anthony Comegna: And of course, each version of the South, you can find was actually composed of individuals. There was no monolithic Southern opinion either, and there even under the worst of social conditions free thinking really did have its place. But methodological individualism does not demand that we ignore the existence of a political culture nor do a few examples you might find of liberal thinkers overturn the intensely dominant trend. From the relatively enlightened universalistic revolutionary days of Jefferson, right through the Civil War and the progressive era, southern culture shred almost every vestige of liberalism and embraced, even led the movement toward our own massive 20th century state.

04:17 Anthony Comegna: I didn’t always believe this. I started graduate school with a great interest in showing exactly the opposite. I would have loved to have been able to write a master’s thesis about how historians were all wrong, they were misreading Southerners because they didn’t understand liberalism. But I was humbled by the sheer scope of the evidence with every book I read and every bit of my own primary source research, I found new examples of thinkers and politicians who treated Jefferson, as a foolish old idealist. At every turn, I found Southerners who scorned free society and its constant upheavals, Southerners who valued tradition simply because it was familiar and comfortable. Southerners who profited so much from slave labor that they positively rebuked the Declaration of Independence.

05:07 Anthony Comegna: I found Southerners who used the Bible in combinations with arguments from the new scientific racists to roll back the dangerous parts of the enlightenment, while claiming whatever of it was useful to slave holders. I read about people like Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, who could have been one of the South’s best examples of radical liberalism but ended up just another pro-slavery imperialist. His father was Saint George Tucker one of the revolutionary era’s greatest legal thinkers, a deist, an abolitionist and even to some degree, at least a racial egalitarian.

05:42 Anthony Comegna: Saint George was born in British Bermuda. And transplanted himself to Virginia, he took a wound from artillery fire at the Battle of Yorktown. In 1796, he petitioned the Virginia legislature with a gradual emancipation plan, calling it of the first importance to Virginians’ moral characters and political salvation, unless his State were to act in the interest of justice. Surely they would face their own Haitian Revolution in time, the legislature rejected the plan and well we know how that turned out.

06:17 Anthony Comegna: Beverley Tucker also could have taken the path of enlightenment liberalism but he like Virginia chose otherwise he trained in law like his father and he had radical ideas about state sovereignty, also like his father. But Beverly was more of a 19th century romanticist, and he had very little of his father’s 18th century rationalism, he looked at the planter elite and saw a special class of pure statesmen, the proper guardians of republican virtue. People who knew exactly how precious freedom and sovereignty were because they knew exactly what slavery meant. He reacted against his era’s acquisitive individualism by defending a romantic version of southern history where paternalistic white slave masters harmoniously, and selflessly ruled over their communities.

07:09 Anthony Comegna: He saw slavery as a sort of Christian duty to save Africans from the drudgeries of freedom, the supposedly dehumanizing lives of northern industrial workers. By the time he died, he was so committed to these romantic lies that he even chastised Calhoun for moderation. Nullification and secession were small potatoes, Beverley Tucker wanted to secede in 1850 and immediately establish a slave holding empire across the Caribbean and Central America. To hear a more popular voice for slavery expansion, let’s turn to New Orleans in a paper that claimed Jefferson’s legacy while it helped to destroy his ideas.

07:55 Speaker 2: New Orleans Jeffersonian Republican February 11, 1845, Texas. It will be found that incoming President Polk is a man of indomitable courage, firm, fearless and determined that “no reconsideration of expediency, no threats, no persuasions can sway him from his duty and the great principle upon which he was sustained and elected.” The immediate annexation of Texas will be carried out in despite of every effort to trample down the popular will. If the verdict of the people recorded at the ballot box upon a great national question is to be stifled and defied by a coordinate branch of the government, where is the value of popular election, why not dispense with these annual references in the people and leave the arbitration of all questions exclusively with the Senate? It is a mockery of popular government to take the opinion of the people on a great measure and then allow a handful of their public servants to negate the decree. The public will has been fairly and conclusively expressed on this question. It was one that strided over all others, it put aside Mr. Van Buren, it defeated Mr. Clay, it elected Colonel Polk. The whole American people knew his attitude on the question, he declared it himself in unequivocal terms, it was formally announced by the convention that put him in nomination, he was elected to do this great work, and he will do it, it is his mission and He will accomplish it.

09:39 Speaker 2: If the Senate reject this bill now before it the stability of government itself will be shocked. Public confidence will be less, the people will lose their trust in that venerable body, the spirit of revolution will go abroad and God knows where it will stop. The cry of change, change is full of electricity and when once a mighty people feel that they are scorned and derided. That their judgment is set aside by men, chosen to carry out their will, they are apt to look around for appropriate and effective remedies. The American people are attached to the present form of government, they have been accustomed to regard it as the best that ever was devised to serve the great design of social organizations. But they will not permit it lose its popular texture. We have an executive, Senators and Representatives, merely for the sake of convenience; ours is a government of the people. No other theory will be tolerated at this day no matter what speculative writers may have said at the period of the adoption of the Constitution. We do not subscribe to the sentiment of an ancient Democrat that the voice of the people is the voice of God.

10:55 Speaker 2: But it cannot be denied, to be omnipotent, here. Public servants, placed in temporary authority by them may betray their trust and refuse to carry out their decrees, but sooner or later, the popular will, must triumph. It is not to be supposed to that on a question of such moment the people will tamely allow themselves to be trifled with, here is an empire at stake. Here is a perpetual guarantee for the security of our union. Here is an unexplored and exhaustless field for production, commerce and manufacturers. Here is an opportunity of extending our free principles over one-third of a great continent, at a single bound. Here is a president just elected by a majority of 65,000 votes, especially to obtain for our country these vast advantages. Here is an overwhelming majority of the American people North and South, Whig and Democrat demanding the measure.

12:02 Speaker 2: Dare the Senate refuse it? Dare they defy these combined influences, will they trample down the popular will and set themselves up as masters of the government? Will they bear this fearful responsibility? Will they encounter the just indignation of a whole people? Will they, the respected fathers of the republic, be the first to sow the seed of revolution? We cannot believe it to the last, we shall cling to our reverent faith in the Senate and trust in its patriotism and it’s sober judgment. Now indeed is the time for them to vindicate their claim to be the guardians of the state, let them rise superior to faction, superior to geographical jealousies, superior to party influences and in scorn of foreign persecution and domestic fanaticism proclaim the decree of the people.

13:02 Speaker 2: It is already registered at the polls. It is announced in the election of the president, it is supreme. Let the Senate respond to it, but if that body shall see fit to defeat this great measure and thus to Jeopardy the safety of the whole country and bring on a crisis of fearful imperil, the reliance then will be on the President of the United States. He will do his duty and do it effectively and in despite of opposition, the voice of the people shall be heard. Texas will be annexed.

13:37 Anthony Comegna: Let’s throw in a few more points about Tucker. He didn’t believe in natural rights, he crafted his own ridiculous scheme for a national bank, he opposed hard money and championed easier credit and he was a temperance man. No thanks. But sure, Tucker was just one person. And we just heard comments from a single editor that’s just two individuals. Well, let’s take a moment and talk about state-level studies, like J. Mills Thornton’s “Early History of Alabama Politics”. Early Alabamians we’re small-d-democrats almost universally, but they were also overwhelmingly agreeable to a slew of populous state interventions.

14:18 Anthony Comegna: Alabama was a massive breeding ground for status projects of one sort or another, easy money for poor settlers and squatters, internal improvements projects, state removal of the Creek Indians. And of course, a whole edifice of institutions, whose purpose was to police the behavior of slaves and troublesome whites alike. Thornton argues that early Alabamians were far from Jeffersonian Liberals they were Jacksonian Progressives if you will, who loved government when it supported the populous cause. And if you don’t believe him take Murray Rothbard’s word for it, he said, the same thing, in his Alabama portions of the “Panic of 1819”. Samuel F. Rice, a state supreme court justice once commented that secession was a decided victory for progressive democracy over conservatism, of Calhounism, over Bentonism and Van Burenism.

15:14 Anthony Comegna: And as the 19th century wore on, southerners had less and less time for radicalism of any stripe. There was no room for anything like serious offshoots of the Loco-Foco Movement or Dorism or anti-renton or feminism or virtually anything else, with a northern flavor. Not even Van Buren’s rather tepid free soilism.

15:38 Speaker 2: The Louisiana Courier September 28, 1848, free soil. According to the statements in this morning’s Crescent, the free soil movement is making some advances in the North. The Crescent mentioned several places where the spirit has lately shown itself. Joshua Baldwin is in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and has declared himself in favor of free soil, although a Taylor man. The free soil movement is nothing more, nor less than a movement to favor the spread of abolition principles no one can promote the one without advancing the other. The whole abolition forces of the eastern states is merged in the Van Buren party, and Van Buren is an abolitionist, a barn burner, an agrarian, a communist, a socialist, anything to any man who will help him to embarrass the Democratic Party.

16:33 Speaker 2: The Whig papers of New Orleans are delighted with dreams of the progress of the Van Buren abolition party in the northern states. The result in the presidential election will show what foundation there is for this agreeable anticipation this hope of advantage to the Whig party from the movements of Van Buren reminds us of a flaming enunciation in one of our northern exchange papers that free soil meetings have been had even in Louisiana. In reference to the Van Buren meeting, which was attempted to be got up some weeks ago in Lafayette, and mentioned at the time in the Crescent free soil meetings in Louisiana exclaimed, with an affectation of surprise, this northern abolitionist at whose instigation in all probability the attempt was made to get up the meeting in question. There was some talk of holding a Van Buren meeting, but it was all talk. The project is not well adapted to our climate.

17:34 Anthony Comegna: Slaveholders knew slavery far better than most other Americans, they understood up close and personal how abject and miserable a slave’s life could be; their ultimate fear then became the exact same thing they were so desperate to protect any inversion of racial power in the south, or sectional power in the Union might make slaves out of Southern whites, planters, yeoman and all. Therefore Thornton writes “They tended to be even more fanatically devoted to the Jacksonian cult than were most Americans. They did not exclude human sacrifice, in order to obtain it.” Political mob violence was so common that it was really a normalized part of everyday democracy. In his book, “American Mobbing” David Grimsted studied 1218 riots in the Antebellum period, and found that slavery was at the very heart of all of this pre-war political violence. And violence was at the heart [chuckle] of Jacksonian politics.

18:41 Anthony Comegna: Both Southern mobs and institutions were so committed to slavery that they demanded that even whites surrender fundamental freedoms, the freedom of petition, speech, the press, assembly, religious expression and eventually even democracy itself. There were 147 riots in 1835 alone that year when Charlestonians burned abolitionist males and William Leggett became truly radical. Grimsted counts 46 of those riots as explicitly pro-slavery and another 15 were racially motivated. In fact, 1835 was a sort of dividing line in intellectual history. It was the year when huge numbers of Southerners started embracing Calhoun’s positive good school largely in defense against attacks from Northern abolitionists. One quarter of Southern mobs included some kind of public sadism, part personal indulgence by the mobbers, part terroristic warning to abolitionists everywhere.

19:45 Anthony Comegna: In the North, mobbing was divided between white supremacists showing solidarity with the South and anti-slavery mobs responding to authorities, like, Federal slave catchers. Most Northerners killed in mob violence were killed by the authorities. In the South, the dead were the mob’s victims killed with either the authority’s silent consent or even their direct sanction. In the New Orleans Jeffersonian Republican the editor related a story about Northerners aiding the Governor of Mississippi’s escaped slave and notice the language used, and the violent implications, a cordial invitation means a hanging.

20:28 Speaker 2: New Orleans Jeffersonian Republican August 21, 1846, the last abolition outrage, a correspondent of the New York commercial advertiser at Newport, Rhode Island gives the following information in that paper. We propose that when the actors in this matter are made known that they receive a pressing invitation to visit the State of Mississippi and that they’d be very cordially received. Mrs. Quitman the wife of the Governor of Mississippi and now a brigadier general in the Army of the United States in service in Mexico, accompanied by her son and yet 15 years of age and four daughters still younger and attended by a servant in whom General Quitman had unbounded confidence whom he entrusted with uncounted monies and who was strongly attached to his master’s family, proceeded from New York by the way of the Long Island Railroad for this place. And went Saturday and Sunday night to the Tremont House in Boston. On leaving for this place on Monday evening, the third of this month, she discovered that this servant as she thinks by direct force and coercion, but possibly by artifice and persuasion accompanied by gross misrepresentations was detached and disbanded from her service.

21:54 Anthony Comegna: Southern violence was off the charts, and to some degree, their militancy isolated them from mainstream Northerners over time. They felt this isolation emotionally more and more as events progressed and neither side was wrong to think the other hated them. The feelings were mutual. No, most people probably didn’t much care about any of this, just like most people today, they try to live their lives. But for the politically engaged this whole Kansas affair and everything like it, this was becoming life-or-death, slavery or freedom, real good and evil kind of stuff. And outlets like the Louisiana Courier regularly called for 19th century witch hunts complete with book burnings.

22:43 Speaker 2: The Louisiana Courier, May 19, 1848, look out citizens of the South. The abolitionists have a variety of ways and means for circulating their doctrines even down here in this remote part of the union. They have book hawkers at work who go from door to door offering literary works for sale with titles from which no one would suspect that the works themselves are tinctured with negro principles. We have seen a work in several volumes beautifully painted and bound which has been expansively spread over the Southern states in the mode we have indicated. And yet a considerable portion of one of the volumes is occupied with the grossest falsehoods and misrepresentations regarding negro slavery in the South. Not only have the publishers resorted to false accounts of the manner in which our slaves are treated but they have got up engravings in the book conveying notions of the life led by our slaves of the most repulsive and falsest nature. This work so far from deserving the patronage of Southern people ought to be kicked into mud holes. Or sent to kindle fires under the sugar kettles.

24:02 Speaker 2: In order that everyone may know this work when it comes in his way we give the title at full length. “Chambers’ Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge” by Robert Chambers, author of the “Cyclopaedia of English Literature” republished at Boston by Gold, Campbell and Lincoln. It comprises several volumes as we observed above and is handsomely printed and bound. Beware this one, he has a dark heart.

24:34 Anthony Comegna: As Northerners turned increasingly outward projecting liberal culture into the world. Southerners tended to turn inward obsessing on what historian Steve Channing called a crisis of fear, fear of the potential Nat Turners and other slave rebels all around them, just waiting to rebel and hack white families to pieces in a replay of the Haitian Revolution. Fear of minority status in the union and fear of what an emancipated South might look like. Secession was not a principled exertion of Jeffersonian philosophy, it was not some manly expression of independence and civic virtue, it was not the final attempt to remedy a long slide towards statism. The South had been leading that charge toward bigger government, from top to bottom for generations before the war, from chartering national and state banks all the way down to censoring the mail and murdering abolitionists. Secession, plain and simple was yet another and certainly not the last in a long string of fearful reactions to the potential dissolution of white supremacy.

25:54 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes, for more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.