What is true conservatism? That question, more than anything else, is the argument raging in the Republican Party today – one side fully represented in the party’s establishment wing, while the other resides in the hearts of true patriots at the grassroots, those who carry the American Revolution’s sacred fire of liberty. Yet most true conservatives may not realize that their closely held philosophy of limited government originated in the South. It is a Southern institution, and conservatives outside the South are espousing Southern values, whether they know it or not.
America’s political divide began as an ideological battle, and thus far the only one in our history, between two of President George Washington’s Cabinet officers, a fight that 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. It is a clash that is still raging today. In essence, the real breakdown today is not Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, but Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian. This is the sum total of our whole political dispute. As Professor Clyde Wilson has written, “Friends, you must have either Jefferson or Hamilton. All the fundamental conflicts in our history were adumbrated during the first decade of the General Government in the contest symbolized by these two men.”
The original Hamiltonians, based in New England, believed in a strong central government, a national banking system, fiat currency, a national debt, high tariffs and internal taxes, direct aid to corporations, loose construction of the Constitution, the suppression of civil liberties, and, later on, an internationalist foreign policy.
Concentrated in the South, Jeffersonians, by contrast, believed in limited government, federalism, sound money, low taxes and tariffs, no national debt, government separation from banks, no support for corporations or big 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 government; Jeffersonians trusted in the people to govern themselves.
Operating under the label of Federalists, Hamilton and his arguments carried the day during the Washington and Adams administrations, the first twelve years under the new Constitution. The government created a national bank (an early forerunner to the Federal Reserve), levied an array of internal taxes that included duties on land and alcohol, and began running up a national debt, which Hamilton believed would be a “public blessing.” In 1798, the government suppressed civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of new laws designed specifically to quash the followers of Jefferson.
But Jefferson and his new Republican Party won a great victory in 1800, taking the White House and sweeping both houses of Congress, a triumph Jefferson himself predicted, which stopped the big government onslaught and killed the Federalist Party, but not Hamiltonian thought. President Jefferson immediately instituted what he termed in his first inaugural 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.” As President, Jefferson cut spending, eliminated all internal taxes, repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and pardoned all those prosecuted under it. He was no pseudo-conservative!
Over the next sixty years, for the most part, the nation was governed by Jeffersonian principles, operating 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. Yet the great political divide remained and culminated in the War for Southern Independence, when the Jeffersonian South had finally reached the breaking point and realized that 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 with Lincoln’s economic program that included a high tariff designed to enrich the North, deplete the South, and reward well-connected cronies such as railroad magnates and other corporate hacks.
Though he referred to himself as a “Henry Clay Tariff Whig,” Lincoln was, in fact, a Hamiltonian, who believed in the merits of big government. He claimed to hold the Declaration of Independence in the highest regard, but he once referred 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, for it was one American family. This was one of his legalistic arguments against the right of secession, or in his way of thinking, his belief that he could hold the South in the Union by force and against Southern will. Under such a belief, Lincoln was an imperialist.
In a political sense, though, Lincoln was wrong. There is no such entity as the “American people,” not today and not then. Northerners and Southerners, even in Lincoln’s day, did not see themselves as residing in a single American family. Opinions abound, from both sides of the Mason and Dixon Line, that the two regions were polar opposites. And most sentiments were quite strong. One Mississippian, writing to former governor John A. Quitman in 1857, put it this way: “The descendants of the narrow-minded, sanctimonious, bigots, who landed at Plymouth Rock from the ‘Mayflower,’ and the descendants of ‘the Cavaliers of Virginia’ who landed at Jamestown are two peoples – and they must ever so remain. The high-toned gentlemen descended from the ‘cavaliers,’ and the ‘round head’ fools descended from the Psalm-singing Pharisees of New England, can never really become ‘one people.’”
Ellen Renshaw House of Tennessee, writing in her diary on May 25, 1865, said, “Our hope is gone, President Davis is a prisoner. He was captured more than two weeks ago with all his family. General Smith has surrendered, and the people of the South are slaves – to the vilest race that ever disgraced humanity.” Edmund Ruffin, in his diary account at the end of the war, referred to Northerners as “the vile Yankee race.” These sentiments were prevalent throughout the South, before and after the war.
Northerners also held similar views, though not necessarily as harsh. The famous diarist George Templeton Strong of New York City, a political conservative, though not a Jeffersonian, wrote in December 1860: “I fear Northerner and Southerner are aliens, not merely in social and political arrangements, but in mental and moral constitution. We differ like Celt and Anglo-Saxon, and there is no sufficient force…to keep us together against our will.” In another entry in January 1861, he wrote: “I fear we are two peoples, unable to live in peace under one feeble ‘federal’ government.” In other words, it might take a strong central government to force the two differing peoples to live together. This is something the Jeffersonian South did not want to see, but what the imperialistic-minded Lincoln had in mind all along.
Even foreigners saw the differences. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1835 book, Democracy in America, wrote: “Two branches may be distinguished in the great Anglo-American family, which have…grown up without entirely commingling; the one in the South, the other in the North.”
These vast differences – between North and South – were reflected in their political philosophies and the way they believed the country should be governed, visions that were often miles apart, though not in the opinion of most academic historians, many who contend that political parties of the day were not all that different. Yet by the late 1850s, Southerners were moving closer and closer toward separation, which a great many Northerners, though not all, were unlikely to allow without a struggle.
The Northern intellectual, Orestes Brownson, who has been described as the “greatest writer of the 19th century,” understood this growing divide. As a New Englander himself, residing in Vermont, Brownson sized up the attitudes prevailing in his section of the country in an essay published in 1864 in Brownson’s Quarterly Review. “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.”
Brownson went on to describe the mindset of the Yankee in a chilling similarity to modern-day liberals: “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 mindset. Jeffersonians, however, did not think this way at all.
Jefferson himself saw these differences very early and wrote about them more than six decades before secession. To his friend John Taylor of Caroline, Jefferson wrote, in his famous “reign of witches” letter in 1798, as if he were speaking of two differing people, one seeking to control, even conquer the other. The young country was “completely under that saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut,” who “ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings, as well as exhausting our strength and substance.” New Englanders, he said, displayed a great “perversity of character,” which was a main reason for the “natural division of our parties.”
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. Yet the Hamiltonian Lincoln 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.”
By contrast, Jefferson also faced a secession movement upon his election to the presidency in 1800, as many New England states considered establishing their own Northern Confederacy rather than live under the rule of this radical Virginian. In his first inaugural address he dealt with the issue of sectional unhappiness far differently than Lincoln would 60 years later. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, believed in the right of self-determination for all peoples; the Hamiltonian Lincoln clearly did not.
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 Conservatism. It was much like the U.S. Constitution but with numerous important changes.
One key difference can be found in the Confederate Constitution’s Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5, which gave the state legislature 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 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.
There were also other notable differences in the Confederate Constitution that fall along Jeffersonian lines: 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 most 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.
But the contrast with the Northern government was vast. 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. And as a result, the United States nearly lost its constitutional republic during this War of Northern Aggression and the later period of Reconstruction.
Most importantly, the destruction of republicanism culminated with Lincoln’s quashing of the federal system. States’ rights were crushed and buried. The very act of militarily blocking a state’s right to leave the Union did irreparable damage to the country and its republican form of government. “The war,” wrote Governor Richard Yates of Illinois in 1865, “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 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, the war destroyed the Age of Jefferson.
Modern scholars have also made note of this fact. As the Hamiltonian 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.
And all of this at the hands of the Hamiltonian Party of Lincoln, which hoped to dominate the “new nation” as no other political entity had before it.
Other scholars have also noted at how profoundly the nation had been changed. 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 Jeffersonian Conservatism.
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 government control rather than on 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. Unlike Lincoln, they believed the Southern states had, in fact, seceded from the Union, or at least used it to their advantage, 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.”
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 Hamiltonian. In other words, they wanted to make the South like the North, sweeping away all vestiges of Southern culture and politics. Lincoln’s Navy Secretary, Gideon Wells, the lone conservative Democrat in the Cabinet, called the Radical plan “an atrocious scheme of plunder and robbery.”
But neither the war nor Radical Reconstruction killed Jeffersonianism completely; it received a brief revival under Grover Cleveland, a rare Northern proponent of Jefferson’s ideas. As a conservative, Cleveland saw himself as one who could, as President, put the spilled milk back in the bottle, or at least some of it. He believed himself to be 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 Hamiltonians 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 Hamiltonian 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 Hamiltonians 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 Hamiltonian 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 Hamiltonians were back in charge with the election of William McKinley.
In my view, the Panic of 1893 killed Jeffersonian Conservatism for good, 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 Hamiltonian ideas. By the early 20th century, one disgruntled Jeffersonian Democrat wrote that the old party “as we knew it, is dead.”
In 1912, after 16 years in the political wilderness, Democrats managed to rebound and elect Woodrow Wilson to the Presidency, but even though he had Southern roots, he was no Jeffersonian, and his two terms showed him to be more progressive than any President since Lincoln, a trend that has continued for the last century. As the columnist George Will has written, “We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton’s country.” And so it is. The Southern political philosophy of Jeffersonian Conservatism that died with Grover Cleveland has never been resurrected, for today we have no major party that espouses those values. It is only alive in the hearts of true Sons of the South.