Presented at the 2017 Abbeville Institute Summer School.
When historians discuss reasons for Southern secession, as if the South needed to produce one, perhaps the most important, and sometimes neglected, motive was the protection of the Jeffersonian tradition, essentially the right to self-government. What was this Jeffersonian tradition or ideal? It is our lost political heritage of limited government and federalism, the political ideals that made up what might be called Jeffersonian conservatism. Those traditions came under attack in 1861 with the Lincolnian Revolution, which tried to kill it and has nearly succeeded.
The Jefferson tradition is a set of political principles, the true ideals of the revolution that Thomas Jefferson referred to as “the bright constellation” that guides our path. For Millard Fillmore, a one time Northern Whig, they represented a “beautiful fabric” and a “priceless inheritance.” For Franklin Pierce, it was these ideals, embodied in the “unshaken rock” of the Constitution that could keep the nation from falling into faction and division, if they were adhered to.
That is not to say we have been free of political disputes, for they have always been with us and always will. With the ratification of the Constitution, America was very politically divided between two opposing factions, the struggle between the federalists, the “friends of the Constitution,” and the anti-federalists, who opposed it. This battle spilled over into an ideological contest between two of President George Washington’s Cabinet officers, which also pitted the two great regions against each other – Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton from New York and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson from Virginia. This political fight began the two-party system and gave us our first two parties.
The Federalist Party, or Hamiltonians, believed in a strong central government, a national banking system, fiat currency, a national debt, protective tariffs and internal taxes, direct aid to corporations, loose construction of the Constitution, the suppression of civil liberties, and an internationalist foreign policy.
The Republican Party, or Jeffersonians (not to be confused with the modern-day Party of Lincoln), by contrast, believed in limited government, federalism, sound money, low taxes and tariffs, no national debt, government separation from banks, no subsidies for business, a strict construction of the Constitution, including the protection of civil liberties held by the people, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
Simply put, the Hamiltonians believed in the merits of an energetic national government; Jeffersonians believed in de-centralization and trusted in the people to govern themselves.
During the Washington and Adams administrations, the first twelve years of the new arrangement, Hamilton set out to undo the limited government established by the Constitution, which he called “a frail and worthless fabric.” As Hamilton once said to Washington, “we need a government of more energy” and that’s what he sought to create by subverting the new Constitution.
Under Washington, Federalist arguments won out over Jeffersonian ones, at least on domestic policy. The government created a national bank (an early forerunner to the Federal Reserve), levied an array of internal taxes that included duties on land, alcohol, and even snuff, and began running up a national debt, which Hamilton believed would be a “national blessing.” By contrast, the Jeffersonian Madison called a public debt a “public curse.”
Now consider the great contrast here: Americans had only recently concluded a war of independence against Great Britain, with taxation being a major issue. As one historian has concluded, at the time the “revolution” broke out, American colonists faced a levy on tea that was so small that they would have to drink a gallon of tea a day in order to pay a dollar in taxes for the year.
And considering what Mather Byles had said of a possible break with Britain – “Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?” – look at the situation Americans faced under the Federalists: In addition to state and local taxes, citizens now faced taxation from the federal government on several articles, which caused many to wonder just why they broke from Britain. This was especially true after the Whiskey Rebellion when the national government, under Hamilton’s direction, used military force to collect these taxes. What had really changed? Some believed it was worse than it had been under the British. As Murray Rothbard has written, to the “average American, the federal government’s assumption of the power to impose excise taxes did not look very different from the levies of the British crown.”
By the time of the Adams administration, from 1797-1801, things had gotten even worse. In 1798, the government suppressed civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of four new laws designed specifically to quash the followers of Jefferson. The crackdown on immigration was solely because most new immigrants from Europe were joining the Republicans, and many of the new laws contained sunset provisions that expired soon after the election of 1800. And the worst was the Sedition Act, passed just seven years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, which punished political speech, so that the administration could, and did, punish Jeffersonian newspaper editors, including Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of one of America’s most famous Founders.
This all proved too much for the American people. This was not the road they wanted to travel down. So in the election of 1800 Jefferson and his Republican Party won an overwhelming victory, taking the White House and sweeping both houses of Congress, a triumph Jefferson himself predicted, which stopped the big government offensive and killed the Federalist Party, for it never saw power again, ever. Jefferson called it the “Revolution of 1800,” but one of ballots, not bullets.
As the new President, Jefferson immediately instituted what he termed in his first inaugural address as “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This,” he said, “is the sum of good government.” He then laid out what he considered the “essential principles of our Government”:
Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people — a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.
Jefferson concluded with these words: “These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”
As President, Jefferson put all those principles into practice. He cut spending, eliminated all internal taxes, repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and pardoned all those prosecuted under it, including the return of fine money out of the treasury. By the time he left the presidency in 1809, all of Hamilton’s taxes had been abolished, to prevent what he called “the bottomless abyss of public money.” The federal budget under the Federalists amounted to some $5 million per year. President Jefferson cut this by more than half, to $2.4 million. The national debt was reduced from $80 million to $57 million. In addition, the treasury accumulated a surplus of $14 million.
But he also did something else to totally change the nature of the government – changing its appearance.
In Jefferson’s opinion the office of President had already taken on the style of a monarch, which is what Hamilton desired, so he ended practices that remotely resembled a king, such as the practice of publicly delivering the annual message to Congress.
His predecessors had certainly played the part. Washington dressed gracefully for his ceremony and arrived in a fancy carriage pulled by a team of six white horses. His entourage included marching bands and formations of soldiers. Adams arrived at his ceremony in 1797 in a more modest but elegant carriage with two horses. He wore a grey broadcloth suit, but topped it off with an elegant sword. His hair was also well powdered in the finest aristocratic tradition. Adams loved the trappings of high office and had even wanted to give the President an elegant title befitting that of a king – “His Highness the President of the United States and Defender of the Rights of the Same.”
By contrast, Jefferson wore a simple suit, no powdered wig, and with shoes that laced rather than with a buckle, which he felt was too aristocratic. He walked to the Capitol for his inauguration rather than in a horse-drawn carriage. Residing in the mansion, he opened the door himself when someone knocked, even in his night attire, and removed the large rectangular dining table in favor of a circular one so that everyone present would be considered equal. He also served his guests personally, rather than have a servant do it. These changes may seem trivial and inconsequential but it ushered in an era of republican simplicity for the country and fit perfectly with the Jeffersonian ideal.
Over the next sixty years, with only a few exceptions, the nation was governed by these Jeffersonian principles, operating eventually in what would become the modern Democratic Party. Though it took some time, the Jeffersonians eventually repealed Hamilton’s entire program, including the ultimate destruction of the Bank of the United States and the elimination of the national debt under Andrew Jackson. Jeffersonian America was the freest and most prosperous place on Earth. There were no federal taxes on the people, no regulations, no federal police force, and no standing army. Americans had soundly rejected the centralizing ideas of Hamilton and the Federalists, and determined that Jefferson carried the sacred fire of liberty, the true ideals of the revolution.
Although Jeffersonian ideals governed the country for those sixty years, it’s easy for us to sometimes refer to them as “Southern conservatism” or a “Southern philosophy,” for Southerners largely crafted them and upheld them. But we must not forget that these were actually American ideals, American principles, and American policies because most Americans believed in them. And even though it was the South that early on dominated national affairs, electing a majority of Presidents, House Speakers, and other national leaders, and, by 1860, dominated the Supreme Court, there were many in the North that held strongly to Jeffersonian ideals, including many Presidents and other leaders. The only real nationalist President during the Jeffersonian years was John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, whose very election was the result of corruption and who only served one term. Even many Northerners rejected Adams and nationalism.
As Eugene Genovese has written, “The state-rights interpretation of the Constitution has always had numerous supporters in the North. Southerners never ceased to remind their Yankee tormentors that not only state rights but secessionist doctrine had played well in New England well before the Hartford Convention. If anything, regional particularism and state rights doctrine were stronger in the North than in the South until after the War of 1812.”
Despite Jeffersonian dominance, the great political divide in the country remained. Some portray the rift as a Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian contest, but since Lincoln brought Hamilton’s vision to fruition, and as Don Livingston has so masterfully pointed out, the two competing visions for the nation is, in actuality, Jeffersonian America vs. Lincolnian America.
These vast differences were reflected in their political philosophies – the way they believed the country should be governed as well as the foundation upon which it rested. Jeffersonians believed in a de-centralized state, a Union, or compact among the states, where sovereignty rested with the people of the states, and it was those sovereign states that came together to create the Constitution, delegating certain enumerated powers to a new federal government, while retaining all other powers for themselves and always with the understanding that those delegated powers could be recalled at anytime.
These ideas are what most Americans, not just Southerners, understood as absolute political truth. William Rawle, a very prominent attorney from Philadelphia, wrote a book called A View of the Constitution in 1825, a textbook used most notably at West Point. He remarked that the “Union is an association of the people of republics; its preservation is calculated to depend on the preservation of those republics.” Referring to the Union as a “compact,” he writes, “The secession of a state from the Union depends on the will of the people of such state.” In other words, it’s not the will of the national government or the will of all the American people.
Lincolnians – people like Lincoln, Daniel Webster, Joseph Story – believed in the concept of a perpetual National Union, whereby the whole of the American people, who they believed created and empowered the Constitution, were deemed sovereign and the states were nothing more than provinces to be dominated and controlled by a central authority, a view that did not really exist until the 1830s. As Kenneth Stampp has written, the Jeffersonian idea of “state sovereignty and a constitutional right of secession flourished for forty years before a comparable case for a perpetual union had been devised.”
And it was the system of state sovereignty, supported by nullification and secession, that could preserve and peaceably keep the Union together. John C. Calhoun contended “that the great conservative principle of our system is in the people of the States, as parties to the Constitutional compact.” Senator Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina, an Anti-Jackson candidate for President in 1836, agreed with Calhoun, writing in 1834 to a friend and fellow Southerner that the “principles that you and I hold to be the only conservative principles of our Federative system, so far from having taken root in the North & the East, are scarcely comprehended by the most intelligent of the National republicans,” which, as you know, were the forerunners to the Whigs and the ideological heirs of Hamilton. “The basis of all party organization in the North & East is naked interest,” he continued. “Principles are silly things as contradistinguished from pecuniary interest.” New England has a principle, he said, “that we abhor, & believe to be destructive ultimately of our system, in case it shall prevail.”
And that abhorrent principle was centralization, or nationalism. This push toward the creation of a centralized state began with the increase of the New England Yankee, as a distinct group of people in both numbers and influence. Yankees were the polar opposite of Jeffersonians.
The Northern intellectual, Orestes Brownson, understood the mindset of the New England Yankee:
The New Englander has excellent points, but is restless in body and mind, always scheming, always in motion, never satisfied with what he has, and always seeking to make all the world like himself, or as uneasy as himself. He is smart, seldom great; educated, but seldom learned; active in mind, but rarely a profound thinker; religious, but thoroughly materialistic: his worship is rendered in a temple founded on Mammon, and he expects to be carried to heaven in a softly-cushioned railway car, with his sins carefully checked and deposited in the baggage crate with his other luggage to be duly delivered when he has reached his destination. He is philanthropic, but makes his philanthropy his excuse for meddling with everybody’s business as if it were his own, and under pretense of promoting religion and morality, he wars against every generous and natural instinct, and aggravates the very evils he seeks to cure.
This perfectly describes the Hamiltonian, and later Lincolnian, mindset. This is especially true of the abolitionists, who sought, through their magnanimity, to reach down into Southern states, immediately abolish slavery, upset the entirety of Southern society, without so much as a ripple of disruption to the North. And it was not because they cared about enslaved blacks in the South. As Salmon P. Chase said in 1859, “I do not wish to have the slave emancipated because I love him, but because I hate his master.” That should tell you a lot. It was about destroying the Jeffersonian South.
Jeffersonians as a whole, and Southerners in particular, never sought to do this to the North, unlike Northern conspiracy theories of the day. As Calhoun once asked, “When did the South ever lay her hand upon the North?”
By the 1850s and 1860s, this view was becoming widespread and the differences between the two pervasive philosophies more apparent. As Professor Clyde Wilson has written, in a fabulous book entitled The Yankee Problem: An American Dilemma, the “North had been Yankeeized, for the most part quietly, by control of churches, schools, and other cultural institutions, and by whipping up a frenzy of paranoia about the alleged plot of the South to spread slavery to the North, which was as imaginary as Jefferson’s guillotine.” This idea that the South sought to push slavery into the North is the main conspiracy theory they used to frighten people, which was exactly the theme of Lincoln’s famous 1858 “House Divided” speech. As James Henley Thornwell of South Carolina wrote in 1859, “There is at work in this land a Yankee spirit and an American spirit.” And that Yankee spirit, decidedly un-American, was working against the Jeffersonian ideal.
Jefferson, as politically astute as he was, saw these differences very early and wrote about them more than six decades before secession, during the darkest days of the Adams administration, to which he served as Vice President. To his friend John Taylor of Caroline, Jefferson wrote, in his famous “reign of witches” letter in 1798, the year of the Alien and Sedition Acts, that the young country was “completely under that saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut,” he said, who “ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings, as well as exhausting our strength and substance.” New Englanders, he wrote in agreement with what Brownson would write 66 years later, displayed a great “perversity of character,” which was a main reason for the “natural division of our parties.”
And by the 1850s the meddling of the New England Yankee was creeping in and there are many examples of this but consider one bill passed in 1854 during the presidency of a great Jeffersonian, Franklin Pierce. Most people have heard of this story, a proposal to provide help for the mentally insane, and Pierce’s reaction to it, but it was far from that simple. The law, passed by Congress and sent to the President, went much farther in how that help was allocated.
First, the bill would grant 10 million acres of land to the states; the federal government then set the per-acre price for the sale of the land, a dollar per acre, and if that price was not met, the land went back under federal control; the expenses for the care and management of the land was to be paid by the states; the proceeds for the sale and use of the land then had to be invested in “safe stocks,” which could never be sold, and the interest gained from those stocks would be used to treat the mentally insane.
Pierce, a Northerner, objected to every aspect of the bill. “It can not be questioned that if Congress has power to make provision for the indigent insane without the limits of this District it has the same power to provide for the indigent who are not insane, and thus to transfer to the Federal Government the charge of all the poor in all the States,” he wrote in his veto message. “I readily and, I trust, feelingly acknowledge the duty incumbent on us all as men and citizens, and as among the highest and holiest of our duties, to provide for those who, in the mysterious order of Providence, are subject to want and to disease of body or mind; but I can not find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States. To do so would, in my judgment, be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive of the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded. … With this aim and to this end the fathers of the Republic framed the Constitution, in and by which the independent and sovereign States united themselves for certain specified objects and purposes, and for those only, leaving all [other] powers … with the States.” Yet Pierce is today derided as one of America’s worst Presidents.
This growing philosophical divide eventually came to a head with the emergence of a purely sectional party, the new Republican Party, conceived in 1854 after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The party grew rapidly by coalescing many different elements into it: old Northern Whigs, various abolitionist parties, and anti-Nebraska Democrats. The South certainly saw the dangers apparent with the Republicans but some Northerners did as well.
“If this sectional party succeeds,” wrote Millard Fillmore to James Buchanan in 1856, “it leads inevitably to the destruction of this beautiful fabric reared by our forefathers, cemented by their blood, and bequeathed to us, a priceless inheritance.” During his presidency, also derided by historians, Franklin Pierce realized what Fillmore did about the new party and the divisions it would cause. “The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rock of the Constitution,” he said. In other words, if we stick to our ideals, embodied in the Constitution, we will survive the political storms that lay ahead.
But that was the problem – Would the Republicans follow the Constitution? Many Northern Yankees had already demonstrated a propensity toward lawlessness and interpreting the Constitution any way they chose, reserving the right to violate it for the noblest of reasons, an attitude described by Brownson.
The new Republican Party nominated a presidential candidate for the first time in 1856, the explorer John C. Fremont. The platform, though, was strictly about federal territories and the issue of slavery expansion. Yet even though the party was just two years old, Republicans nearly won the election, with Democrats only getting 45 percent of the vote. Two years later, in a fusion with other factions, they elected the US Speaker of the House. The South was beginning to see the political handwriting on the wall.
By 1860 the Republican Party took on a whole new appearance with the addition of vast economic proposals, essentially the old program of Hamilton and Henry Clay’s American System. The nominee for 1860 was not some erratic adventurer but a serious politician who was himself an economic animal – Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, who referred to himself as a “Henry Clay Tariff Whig.”
Lincoln was, in fact, a Hamiltonian, who believed in the merits of big government but most particularly in the area of economics. According to Gabor S. Boritt, in his book Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, if you examine Lincoln’s career before the war, well more than half of everything he wrote or said was on the subject of economics – protective tariffs, national bank, fiat currency, and federal funding for internal improvements, most particularly railroad construction. Lincoln always considered himself a Whig – Boritt and David Herbert Donald call him the “Whig in the White House” – and sought to put the plan of his “beau ideal of a statesman,” Henry Clay, into policy.
Such a plan was greatly concerning to the Jeffersonian South, realizing that the high tariff was designed to enrich the North, deplete the South, and reward well-connected cronies such as railroad magnates and other corporate hacks, who would also gain federal funding for internal improvements that would also benefit the North, while the bank would fund it and be perhaps as crooked and corrupt as it had been under Nicholas Biddle. In short, the new Lincoln government, based exclusively on Hamiltonian principles, would, most assuredly, intervene in the internal affairs of the Southern States and plunder them like never before. As Jerry C. Brewer has written in Dismantling the Republic, Northern interests were at work to turn the Jeffersonian republic into a “Consolidated Mercantile Empire.”
Lincoln and his philosophy were also dangerous in another regard. He claimed to hold the Declaration of Independence in the highest regard, once referring to the American Revolution as “a struggle for national independence by a single people.” His inference was that a “single people,” whom he considered Northerners and Southerners to be, could not legally break up. He denied the right of any state to secede from the Union. As he said in his first inaugural address, “Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this.”
Of this Jefferson Davis said, “The monstrous conception of the creation of a new people, invested with the whole or a great part of the sovereignty which had previously belonged to the people of each state, has not a syllable to sustain it in the Constitution.”
So by November 1860, it was apparent to many Southerners, particularly after the horrors of John Brown’s raid the year before, that the country was about to undergo sweeping change, or a transformation, if you will, with Lincoln and this new party that was completely sectional in its nature, a party that was concerned only with Northern opinion, principles, ideals, and policies, most specifically economic.
In 1861, Southerners, completely exacerbated by the threats of the North, determined to create a government of their own, one reflecting their principles, and they believed that they had every right to do so, as believers of the right of self-determination of peoples, the very heart of the Declaration of Independence.
The contrast then between the Southern and Northern governments was vast. As the London Times opined on May 7, 1861, “The South wants independence, the North wants empire.” Lincoln, and most Presidents after him, being of the Hamiltonian mode of thinking, established all the central tenants of Hamilton’s political thought: a national banking system, a fiat currency, high protective tariffs, an income tax, money for corporations, and the suppression of civil liberties.
The Confederacy, as a government under Jefferson Davis, was administered on Jeffersonian principles, the polar opposite of Lincoln’s administration. The Confederate Constitution was a culmination of Jeffersonian political thought. It was much like the U.S. Constitution, because Southerners believed that was their birthright, but it did contain numerous important changes, which only made it more Jeffersonian.
One key difference can be found in the Confederate Constitution’s Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5, which gave the state legislatures the power to impeach and remove “any judicial or other Federal officer, resident and acting solely within the limits of any State.” This was the heart and soul of Confederate governing principles. If federal officials meddled in state and local affairs, they could be banished from the state. This was one of the crucial components of Jeffersonian political thought, designed solely to preserve federalism. Yet establishment historians say it wasn’t about states’ rights.
There were also other notable differences in the Confederate Constitution that fall along Jeffersonian lines: God was mentioned in the Preamble. The President could serve only one six-year term and had a line item veto to control spending. It outlawed protective tariffs, banned the international slave trade, removed the “general welfare” clause, prohibited federally-funded internal improvements (today known as “earmarks”), required a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress for appropriations, forbid recess appointments, and prohibited persons of foreign birth who had not obtained citizenship from voting for any office on the state or federal level. All of these provisions upheld the Jeffersonian ideal.
Now consider an important question: Was this movement for Southern self-government an act of revolution? Some scholars have said it was. One definition of “revolution” reads: “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Does that sound like something the South had done? Or does it sound more like what Lincoln did? The answer should be obvious.
The South’s stand was no more a revolution than what America’s fathers had done in 1776. But there’s little question that Lincoln’s illegal invasion and conquest of the South was a revolutionary act. The South understood and saw very clearly what Lincoln and the Republicans were up to, seceded in order to save and preserve the Jeffersonian ideal, and govern themselves, just as Americans had done 85 years before; Lincoln invaded, not to overthrow slavery, but to conquer the South, end Jeffersonian governance, and fasten on the nation his nationalistic economic policies, in precisely the same stance as the former Mother Country. As he said in his famous 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, “The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’” His meaning was clear: to restore the “national authority” over the States.
James Henley Thornwell wrote of these issues in the midst of the war, in a book entitled Our Danger and Our Duty, published in 1862:
The consequences of success on our part will be very different from the consequences of success on the part of the North. If they prevail, the whole character of the Government will be changed, and instead of a federal republic, the common agent of sovereign and independent States, we shall have a central despotism, with the notion of States forever abolished, deriving its powers from the will, and shaping its policy according to the wishes, of a numerical majority of the people; we shall have, in other words, a supreme, irresponsible democracy.
On the other hand, we are struggling for constitutional freedom. We are upholding the great principles which our fathers bequeathed us, and if we should succeed, and become, as we shall, the dominant nation of this continent, we shall perpetuate and diffuse the very liberty for which Washington bled, and which the heroes of the Revolution achieved. We are not revolutionists – we are resisting revolution. We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution. We are conservative. Our success is the triumph of all that has been considered established in the past.
Thornwell was not only correct but also eerily prophetic, for that’s exactly what the South was fighting for and the North hoped to prevent.
Others saw this as well. Just consider the fact that by 1860, there were four ex-Presidents – Tyler, Van Buren, Fillmore, Pierce – still alive and another soon-to-be in James Buchanan, yet all five opposed Lincoln’s election – and actively worked to derail him – and his revolution, even though four of the five were Northerners. They understood what was happening to the country.
And a revolution is exactly what we had. The Governor of Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, Richard Yates, wrote in 1865, “The war has tended, more than any other event in the history of the country, to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that ‘the best government is that which governs least.’ The war has not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate prevision of the government over every material interest of society.” This last point was one of Hamilton’s, and Lincoln’s, main goals.
When Confederate General Richard Taylor, son of former President Zachary Taylor, returned home to his Louisiana plantation in 1865, he found that “society has been completely changed by the war. The [French] revolution of ‘89 did not produce a greater change in the ‘Ancien Regime’ than has this in our social life.”
Historians, even those who lived through the conflict, understood the profound changes the war brought. George Ticknor wrote in 1869 that the war had left a “great gulf between what happened before it in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen thereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.” In short, Lincoln’s revolution destroyed the Age of Jefferson.
Modern scholars have also made note of this fact. As the Lincoln cult member James M. McPherson points out in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, “after the war the old decentralized federal republic became a new national polity that taxed the people directly, created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, established a national currency and a national banking structure. The United States went to war in 1861 to preserve the Union; it emerged from war in 1865 having created a nation. Before 1861 the two words ‘United States’ were generally used as a plural noun: ‘The United States are a republic.’ After 1865 the United States became a singular noun. The loose union of states became a nation.”
Lincoln and his party, writes historian Heather Cox Richardson, “transformed the United States.” Before the war the “national government did little more than deliver the mail, collect tariffs, and oversee foreign affairs. By the time of Appomattox, the United States had changed.” Wartime Republicans constructed “a newly active national government designed to promote” a worldview of an industrialized America, with Washington playing an increasingly interventionist role. “A strong central government dominated the postwar nation. It boasted a military of over a million men; it carried a national debt of over $2.5 billion; and it collected an array of new internal taxes, provided a national currency, distributed public lands, chartered corporations, and enforced the freedom of former slaves within state borders.” Each of these developments flew in the face of the Jeffersonian tradition. And as a result, the United States essentially lost its constitutional republic during this War of Northern Aggression and the later period of Reconstruction.
What had happened was nothing short of a crime. In fact, Henry Clay Dean of Pennsylvania, a Methodist Episcopal Preacher and Copperhead, who was featured in Mark Twain’s book, Life on the Mississippi, authored an 1869 book with that theme in mind, entitled The Crimes of the Civil War. He dedicated the book to four different groups of people, descriptions that sound much like a revolution:
The first group was people like him, Northerners who had resisted:
“To the brave men, who, unmoved by the violence of party; unseduced by the temptations of wealth, and unawed by the cruelty of war, defended the priceless treasures of Constitutional Liberty; endured banishment, tortures, and death, rather than surrender their birthright, transmitted by the Fathers of 1776.”
The second group was decent Union soldiers:
“To those upright soldiers, who, through, five years of carnage, corruption, plunder, rapine, and desolation, preserved their hands unstained with innocent blood, their souls unpolluted with plunder, and maintained their manhood inviolate.”
The third group was working people of the North:
“To the laboring poor, whose subsistence is devoured by the combinations of Monopoly, Bankruptcy, Usury, Extortion, Standing Armies, Tax-gatherers and Usurpation.”
The fourth group was Confederate soldiers:
“To the immortal dead, who surrendered their lives in defense of the honor and safety of their homes, and poured our their blood in rich libations to the God of Liberty.”
But unfortunately the North’s crimes did not end with the war but continued on during the twelve years of Reconstruction. Brownson wrote of the attitudes prevailing in his section of the country during that period. “We have some madmen amongst us who talk of exterminating the Southern leaders, and of New Englandizing the South. We wish to see the free-labor system substituted for the slave-labor system, but beyond that we have no wish to exchange or modify Southern society, and would rather approach Northern society to it, than it to Northern society.”
Reconstruction, like the war before it, continued the goal of destroying the old Jeffersonian Union and erecting a new one in its place, one based on federal government control rather than on states’ rights and individual liberty. Many of the Radical Republicans, the “madmen” referred to by Brownson, like Thaddeus Stevens, sought to ethnically-cleanse the former Confederacy during Reconstruction, viewing the South as conquered territory to be treated as such. Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan said it this way: “A rebel has sacrificed all his rights. He has no right to life, liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness. Everything you give him, even life itself, is a boon which he has forfeited.” Stevens said the South should “be laid waste, and made a desert,” then “re-peopled by a band of freemen.”
Radical Republicans hated the South and Southern institutions, particularly the Jeffersonian philosophy of government, which they hoped to destroy for good. They wanted the complete subjugation of the region, vindictive punishment of the rebels, the overthrow of all Southern state governments, and the confiscation of all land and homes. Peoples from the North and West would then be sent to the South to repopulate it, ensuring that it would remain firmly Republican and solidly Lincolnian. In other words, they wanted to make the South like the North, just like Brownson had said, sweeping away all vestiges of Southern culture and politics. Such thoughts are certainly revolutionary. Lincoln’s Navy Secretary, Gideon Wells, the lone conservative Democrat in the Cabinet, called the Radical plan “an atrocious scheme of plunder and robbery.”
Thankfully the radical viewpoint did not prevail. Although it seemed as though the war and Radical Reconstruction killed Jeffersonianism completely, it did receive a brief revival under Grover Cleveland, a Northern proponent of Jefferson’s ideas. Cleveland saw himself as in the mold of the nation’s founders, especially Jefferson, who could reverse the destruction of political institutions the war and Reconstruction had wrought, just as the Sage of Monticello turned back the destructive Federalist tide in 1800. This is why the Lincolnians of his day fought so hard against his election as President, for Cleveland stands out as the lone Jeffersonian among all Presidents from Lincoln to Obama, a statesman who held as tight to those principles as any President in American history.
First elected in 1884, after twenty-four consecutive years of Lincolnian White House rule, Cleveland became the first Jeffersonian to serve as President since before the war. A quarter century of corruption, profligate spending, high taxes, and ever-expanding government had been the norm. When Cleveland entered office, he instituted honest government, ended presidential luxury, slashed the bureaucracy, halted out-of-control spending by vetoing a record 414 bills, protected the massive budget surplus that Republicans were all too eager to spend, and reduced the national debt by 20 percent. Not a bad record for a first term.
In 1888, he was defeated for a second consecutive term by Benjamin Harrison, although he won the popular vote. Though determined not to seek another term, he quickly changed his mind when he saw what the Lincolnians under President Harrison were doing to the country, and what some were doing within his beloved Jeffersonian Democratic Party, moving it closer to the Party of Lincoln in the hopes of being more successful in future elections. In 1892, Cleveland threw his hat back in the presidential ring and, like Jefferson in 1800, took back the White House and led his party to a sweep of both houses of Congress, the first time Jeffersonians controlled the entire government since 1858 under James Buchanan. The future seemed bright indeed.
Yet, sadly, fate intervened. During his second term, from 1893 to 1897, Cleveland faced a severe economic depression, one that had resulted from the massive re-imposition of Lincolnian fiscal policies during the preceding Harrison Administration. A month before Cleveland took his second oath of office, the economy began to crumble. And even though neither he nor his party had anything to do with the collapse, and even though he used Jeffersonian methods to end it within two years, Cleveland and the Democrats received all the blame. In the mid-term election in 1894 Democrats were routed, losing both houses of Congress, and in 1896, the Lincolnians were back in charge with the election of William McKinley.
In my view, the Panic of 1893 killed Jeffersonian Conservatism, as Republicans successfully spun it as a “Democratic Depression,” which seemed plausible when prosperity returned under McKinley. To get around that label, Democrats began shedding Jeffersonian principles and began embracing more Lincolnian ideas, beginning with William Jennings Bryan in 1896.
But consider a few of the policy proposals that came about during the Gilded Age, which many consider a time of laissez faire conservatism: A peacetime income tax that was crafted for the express purpose of re-distributing the nation’s wealth but, after passage, was killed by the Supreme Court; another wealth re-distribution scheme that called for a cap on inheritance at $500,000 and all fortunes above that level would be confiscated by the government and distributed to those less fortunate; a New Deal-style public works program that would have spent $500 million to combat the Panic of 1893. Those ideas were out there and the Democratic Party began to embrace them.
By the early 20th century, one disgruntled Jeffersonian Democrat wrote that the old party “as we knew it, is dead.”
As the columnist George Will has written, “We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton’s country.” But in reality we live in Lincoln’s country.
Our political heritage of Jeffersonian values seems as if it died with Grover Cleveland because it has never been resurrected in a major political party. It’s only seems to be alive in the hearts of true Sons of Jefferson and true Sons of the South. As Senator Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina wrote, it is Southerners, he said, that were “the real conservators of our political system.” And even though radicals today are working to destroy our heritage, as John F. Kennedy once said, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.” Indeed, ideas are bulletproof.