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Lawrence Goodwyn: The Great Predicament Facing Obama

An interview with legendary historian Lawrence Goodwyn on Obama, the larger currents in our political life, and the possibility of a rebirth in our democratic culture.

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In parts of 20th-century America, proto-democratic advocates of the kind Jefferson sought to encourage proceeded to develop their own terminology to characterize anti-democratic tactics of one kind or another. They called such ploys "power trips." This unsavory habit is, of course, more than a political "ploy." It is part of the corporate world we live in. It is also part of the party-controlled world the Chinese people live in. In any case, during the American revolutionary period, the new democratic conduct had no name -- it was just something the author of the Declaration of Independence came to advocate: elementary republics.

This was a transcendent step in democratic thought. Jefferson's life was such that a fairly numerous contingent among the founders learned through their own experiences that the very practice of democratic conduct encouraged people to see themselves in a new and more enhancing light. Would that all of us could have been with them, drinking the nectars they were trying to brew in Philadelphia. All of us perhaps could have experienced a bit more precisely how democratic conduct enhances a person's self respect.

In any event, let us take a quick measure of the immediacy of political growth within colonial society. Proud as they were of their achievement in writing a constitution, the founders discovered they had unwittingly left vital parts of the job undone and that they did not possess remotely enough clout to gain popular ratification until they produced a far more precise recitation of popular rights to affix to their constitutional labors. Thus, the first 10 amendments. We call them the Bill of Rights. Apt. For many years now, I have tried to make certain I didn't leave home without them.

In any case, so much for the plus side of old Thomas Jefferson. His limits have a similar sweep. He was a slaveholder. While remaining pristinely theoretical, his projected elementary republics had all the ethnic unity of a Klan convention. It can be argued -- and has been -- that reciting this fact alone constitutes much too harsh an indictment of the author of our Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, over several decades his marital life embraced a similar trajectory: he had six children with an enduring resident of Monticello: Sally Hemings. He nurtured his children in selected ways but he also did not honor any with his name nor its attendant privileges. Those of his progeny who survived until 1863 were freed by Abraham Lincoln. It turns out that many of Jefferson's descendents through his first wife have been uncomfortable with their lately discovered kinsmen. I trust it is fair to say that their cultural exclusiveness is a social habit that is also Jeffersonian in origin.

We can never for one instant forget that Jefferson was crippled as an operational democrat because he was a slaveholder. Thanks to the impressive labor of one of his biographers, Annette Gordon-Reed, we now know his enduring relationship with Sally Hemings had many qualities. How many we cannot tell. But we can be certain of its limits. Autonomous love between Thomas and Sally was not possible. She was his slave. There are many ways this pivotal circumstance affected him, compared to the perspectives available to Lincoln and Obama.

To me, the greatest achievement of American culture is that Americans think they have the right to be free, that they can see themselves as their own authority and therefore ought to govern themselves. It is an assertion they feel proud in making. I think they have every right to be proud of it. Jefferson understood the underlying structural implications of this core component of a functioning democratic life as one of lived experience, of people speaking to one another in elementary republics they created for themselves. But beyond thinking about how it might happen, Jefferson encountered a problem which he never did recognize and therefore could not solve. He could talk about "the yeomanry," he could even talk about "a nation of freehold yeomen," but he could not walk among them as an exemplar to help make it happen. As a slaveholder, this was the kind of democratic experience he did not live. Indeed, his personal conduct was beyond defense. He routinely stiffed those he hired to execute refined improvements on his mansion at Monticello. He died owing many of them. They were artisans all. Cheated by a self-proclaimed democrat.

I say no. Jefferson could talk about freeholds and do so with flair; he could not live it. His status lends weight to an undemocratic component of our culture which has worn out its welcome, if it ever had any.

Lincoln's language of political description was seemingly less lofty than Jefferson's. The terms he employed in the autumn of 1863 were not so eloquent. But they were also much more profound -- as when Lincoln explained that the thing the Union was trying to save was a fundamental principle of democratic government: the "idea" of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. I think this was the first time anyone ever described the American collective endeavor as encompassing this stunning litany.

Lincoln was talking about very large dreams here. His route to such broad objectives was quite different from that taken by the Sage of Monticello. It also was more instructive. The political environment Lincoln grew up in on the Illinois frontier was almost entirely devoid of the pretension that infested the world of Virginia planters. As an aspirant to public office, Lincoln learned that plain talk was useful--and especially so when conjoined with thoughtful analysis. Indeed, the idea that a "House divided against itself" would have a hard time "standing" not only sounded sensible, it seems especially relevant in the midst of a critical public debate over slavery.