The Long, Sordid History of the American Right and Racism
Racism has been a consistent thread weaving through the American Right from the early days when Anti-Federalists battled against the U.S. Constitution to the present when hysterical Tea Partiers denounce the first African-American president. Other factors have come and gone for the Right, but racism has always been there.
Though definitions of Right and Left are never precise, the Left has generally been defined, in the American context, by government actions – mostly the federal government responding to popular movements and representing the collective will of the American people – seeking to improve the lot of common citizens and to reduce social injustice.
The Right has been defined by opposition to such government activism. Since the Founding, the Right has decried government interference with the “free market” and intrusion upon “traditions,” like slavery and segregation, as “tyranny” or “socialism.”
This argument goes back to 1787 and opposition to the Constitution’s centralizing of government power in the hands of federal authorities. In Virginia, for instance, the Anti-Federalists feared that a strong federal government eventually would outlaw slavery in the Southern states.
Ironically, this argument was raised by two of the most famous voices for “liberty,” Patrick Henry and George Mason. Those two Virginians spearheaded the Anti-Federalist cause at the state’s ratifying convention in June 1788, urging rejection of the Constitution because, they argued, it would lead to slavery’s demise.
The irony of Henry and Mason scaring fellow Virginians about the Constitution’s threat to slavery is that the two men have gone down in popular U.S. history as great espousers of freedom. Before the Revolution, Henry was quoted as declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Mason is hailed as a leading force behind the Bill of Rights. However, their notion of “liberty” and “rights” was always selective. Henry and Mason worried about protecting the “freedom” of plantation owners to possess other human beings as property.
At Virginia’s Ratification Convention, Henry and Mason raised other arguments against the proposed Constitution, such as concerns that Virginia’s preeminence might not be as great as under the weak Articles of Confederation and that population gains in the North might erode Virginia’s economic welfare.
But the pair’s most potent argument was the danger they foresaw regarding the abolition of slavery. As historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in their 2010 book, Madison and Jefferson, the hot button for Henry and Mason was that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected.”
The Slavery Card
At the center of this fear was the state’s loss of ultimate control over its militia which could be “federalized” by the President as the nation’s commander in chief under the new Constitution.
“Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for ‘domestic safety’ if there was no explicit protection for Virginians’ slave property,” Burstein and Isenberg wrote. “Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections – the direct result, he believed, of Virginia’s loss of authority over its own militia.”
Henry floated conspiracy theories about possible subterfuges that the federal government might employ to deny Virginians and other Southerners the “liberty” to own African-Americans. Describing this fear-mongering, Burstein and Isenberg wrote:
“Congress, if it wished, could draft every slave into the military and liberate them at the end of their service. If troop quotas were determined by population, and Virginia had over 200,000 slaves, Congress might say: ‘Every black man must fight.’ For that matter, a northern-controlled Congress might tax slavery out of existence.
“Mason and Henry both ignored the fact that the Constitution protected slavery on the strength of the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave trade clause. Their rationale was that none of this mattered if the North should have its way.”
At Philadelphia in 1787, the drafters of the Constitution had already capitulated to the South’s insistence on its brutal institution of human enslavement. That surrender became the line of defense that James Madison, a principal architect of the new governing structure, cited in his response to Mason and Henry.
Burstein and Isenberg wrote, “Madison rose to reject their conspiratorial view. He argued that the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never ‘alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union’ by stripping southerners of their property. ‘Such an idea never entered into any American breast,’ he said indignantly, ‘nor do I believe it ever will.’
“Madison was doing his best to make Henry and Mason sound like fear-mongers. Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust ‘any man on earth’ with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy.”
Despite the success of Mason and Henry to play on the fears of plantation owners, the broader arguments stressing the advantages of Union carried the day, albeit narrowly. Virginia ultimately approved ratification by 89 to 79. However, the South’s obsession over perceived threats to its institution of slavery remained a central factor in the early decades of the Republic.
Though today’s Right pretends that the Second Amendment was devised to give individual Americans the right to own and carry any weapon of their choice – so they can shoot policemen, soldiers and other government representatives in the cause of anti-government “liberty” – it was primarily a concession to the states and especially to the South’s fears that were expressed at the Virginia convention.
Approved by the First Congress as part of the “Bill of Rights,” the Second Amendment explained its purpose as the need to maintain “the security of a free State,” an echo of Mason’s concerns about “domestic safety,” i.e. a Southern state’s ability to maintain slavery by force and defend against slave uprisings.
As the amendment emerged from various committee rewrites, it stated: “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But that right, of course, did not extend to all people, not to people of color.
The Second Congress put substance to the structure of state militias by passing the Militia Acts, which specifically mandated that “white men” of military age obtain muskets and other supplies for participation in state militias. At the time, the concerns were not entirely over rebellious slaves, but also over rebellious poor whites.
Part of the backdrop of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 had been Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786-1787, an uprising of white farmers led by a former Continental Army officer, Daniel Shays. After ratification of the Constitution, the first significant use of federalized militias was in 1794 to crush an anti-tax revolt in western Pennsylvania led by poor whites known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
That uprising was treated as an act of treason as defined by the U.S. Constitution, although President Washington used his pardon power to spare rebel leaders from execution by hanging. Similar mercy was not shown when Southern states confronted actual or suspected slave revolts. In 1800, Virginia Gov. James Monroe called out the militia to stop an incipient slave uprising known as Gabriel’s Rebellion. Twenty-six alleged conspirators were hanged.
Of course, slavery and racism were not the only defining characteristics of the Right during the country’s early years, as economic interests diverged and political rivalries surfaced. James Madison, for instance, had been a key protÃ©gÃ© of George Washington and an ally of Alexander Hamilton during the fight for the Constitution.
Madison had even advocated for a greater concentration of power in the federal government, including giving Congress the explicit power to veto state laws. However, after the Constitution was in place, Madison began siding with his Virginian neighbor (and fellow slave-owner) Thomas Jefferson in political opposition to the Federalists.
In the first years of the constitutional Republic, the Federalists, led by President Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, pushed the limits of federal power, particularly with Hamilton’s idea of a national bank which was seen as favoring the financial interests of the North to the detriment of the more agrarian South.
The Jeffersonians, coalescing around Jefferson and Madison, fiercely opposed Hamilton’s national economic planning though the differences often seemed to be driven by personal animosities and regional rivalries as much as by any grand ideological vision regarding government authority. The Jeffersonians, for instance, were sympathetic to the bloody French Revolution, which made a mockery of the rule of law and the restraint of government power.
Nevertheless, history has generally been kind to Jefferson’s enthusiasm for a more agrarian America and his supposed commitment to the common man. But what is left out of this praise for “Jeffersonian democracy” is that Jefferson’s use of the word “farmers” was often a euphemism for his actual political base, the slave-owning plantation aristocrats of the South.
At his core, despite his intellectual brilliance, Jefferson was just another Southern hypocrite. He wrote that “all men are created equal” (in the Declaration of Independence) but he engaged in pseudo-science to portray African-Americans as inferior to whites (as he did in his Notes on the State of Virginia).
His racism rationalized his own economic and personal reliance on slavery. While desperately afraid of slave rebellions, he is alleged to have taken a young slave girl, Sally Hemings, as a mistress.
Jefferson’s hypocrisy also surfaced in his attitudes toward a slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue, where African slaves took seriously the Jacobins’ cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” After their demands for freedom were rebuffed and the brutal French plantation system continued, violent slave uprisings followed. Hundreds of white plantation owners were slain as the rebels overran the colony. A self-educated slave named Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as the revolution’s leader, demonstrating skills on the battlefield and in the complexities of politics.
The ‘Black Jacobins’
Despite the atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, the rebels – known as the “Black Jacobins” – gained the sympathy of the American Federalists. L’Ouverture negotiated friendly relations with the Federalist administration under President John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, a native of the Caribbean himself, helped L’Ouverture draft a constitution.
But events in Paris and Washington soon conspired to undo the promise of Haiti’s emancipation from slavery. Despite the Federalist sympathies, many American slave-owners, including Jefferson, looked nervously at the slave rebellion in St. Domingue. Jefferson feared that slave uprisings might spread northward. “If something is not done, and soon done,” Jefferson wrote in 1797, “we shall be the murderers of our own children.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the chaos and excesses of the French Revolution led to the ascendance of Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant and vain military commander possessed of legendary ambition. As he expanded his power across Europe, Napoleon also dreamed of rebuilding a French empire in the Americas.
In 1801, Jefferson became the third President of the United States – and his interests at least temporarily aligned with Napoleon’s. The French dictator wanted to restore French control of St. Domingue and Jefferson wanted to see the slave rebellion crushed. President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison collaborated with Napoleon through secret diplomatic channels. Napoleon asked Jefferson if the United States would help a French army traveling by sea to St. Domingue. Jefferson replied that “nothing will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything and reduce Toussaint [L’Ouverture] to starvation.”
But Napoleon had a secret second phase of his plan that he didn’t share with Jefferson. Once the French army had subdued L’Ouverture and his rebel force, Napoleon intended to advance to the North American mainland, basing a new French empire in New Orleans and settling the vast territory west of the Mississippi River.
In 1802, the French expeditionary force achieved initial success against the slave army, driving L’Ouverture’s forces back into the mountains. But, as they retreated, the ex-slaves torched the cities and the plantations, destroying the colony’s once-thriving economic infrastructure. L’Ouverture, hoping to bring the war to an end, accepted Napoleon’s promise of a negotiated settlement that would ban future slavery in the country. As part of the agreement, L’Ouverture turned himself in.
But Napoleon broke his word. Jealous and contemptuous of L’Ouverture, who was regarded by some admirers as a general with skills rivaling Napoleon’s, the French dictator had L’Ouverture shipped in chains back to Europe where he was mistreated and died in prison.
Infuriated by the betrayal, L’Ouverture’s young generals resumed the war with a vengeance. In the months that followed, the French army – already decimated by disease – was overwhelmed by a fierce enemy fighting in familiar terrain and determined not to be put back into slavery. Napoleon sent a second French army, but it too was destroyed. Though the famed general had conquered much of Europe, he lost 24,000 men, including some of his best troops, in St. Domingue before abandoning his campaign. The death toll among the ex-slaves was much higher, but they had prevailed, albeit over a devastated land.
By 1803, a frustrated Napoleon – denied his foothold in the New World – agreed to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana territories to Jefferson, a negotiation handled by Madison that ironically required just the sort of expansive interpretation of federal powers that the Jeffersonians ordinarily disdained. However, a greater irony was that the Louisiana Purchase, which opened the heart of the present United States to American settlement and is regarded as possibly Jefferson’s greatest achievement as president, had been made possible despite Jefferson’s misguided – and racist – collaboration with Napoleon.
“By their long and bitter struggle for independence, St. Domingue’s blacks were instrumental in allowing the United States to more than double the size of its territory,” wrote Stanford University professor John Chester Miller in his book, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. But, Miller observed, “the decisive contribution made by the black freedom fighters … went almost unnoticed by the Jeffersonian administration.”
Consequences of Racism
Without L’Ouverture’s leadership, the island nation fell into a downward spiral. In 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the radical slave leader who had replaced L’Ouverture, formally declared the nation’s independence and returned it to its original Indian name, Haiti. A year later, apparently fearing a return of the French, Dessalines ordered the massacre of the remaining French whites on the island. Jefferson reacted to the bloodshed by imposing a stiff economic embargo on Haiti. In 1806, Dessalines himself was brutally assassinated, touching off a cycle of political violence that would haunt Haiti for the next two centuries.
Even in his final years, Jefferson remained obsessed with Haiti and its link to the issue of American slavery. In the 1820s, the former president proposed a scheme for taking away the children born to black slaves in the United States and shipping them to Haiti. In that way, Jefferson posited that both slavery and America’s black population could be phased out. Eventually, in Jefferson’s view, Haiti would be all black and the United States white.
While the racism of Jefferson and many of his followers may be undeniable, it is not so easy to distinguish between Right and Left in those early years of the American Republic. Though Hamilton was more open-minded toward freedom for black slaves, there were elements of his government intervention on behalf of the fledgling financial sector that might today be regarded as “pro-business” or elitist as there were parts of Jefferson’s attitude toward greater populism that might be seen as more “democratic.”
Stumbling toward War
Yet, as the first generation of American leaders passed away and the nation expanded westward, the issue of slavery remained a threat to America’s unity. The South’s aggressive defense of its lucrative institution of slavery opened violent rifts between pro-slave and pro-free settlers in territories to the west.
The modern distinctions between America’s Right and Left also became more pronounced, defined increasingly by race. The North, building a manufacturing economy and influenced by the emancipationist movement, turned increasingly against slavery, while the South, with a more agrarian economy and much of its capital invested in slaves, could see no future without the continuation of slavery.
Politically, those distinctions played out not unlike what Anti-Federalists George Mason and Patrick Henry had predicted at Virginia’s ratification convention in 1788. The North gradually gained dominance in wealth and population and the South’s barbaric practice of slavery emerged as a hindrance to America’s growing reputation in the world.
So, a key divide of U.S. politics between Right and Left became the differences over issues of slavery and race. The racist aspects of the Anti-Federalists and the “Jeffersonian democrats” became a defining feature of the American Right as captured in the argument for “states’ rights,” i.e., the rights of the Southern states either to nullify federal laws or to secede from the Union.
Though the concentration of power in Washington D.C. gave rise to legitimate questions about authoritarianism, the federal government also became the guiding hand for the nation’s economic development and for elimination of gross regional injustices such as slavery. Federal action in defense of national principles regarding justice eventually helped define the American Left.
But the slave-owning South would not go down without a fight. After the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union and established the Confederate States of America with the goal of perpetuating slavery forever. It took four years of war to force the Southern states back into the Union and finally bring slavery to an end.
However, the Southern aristocracy soon reclaimed control of the region’s political structure and instituted nearly a century more of racial oppression against blacks. During this Jim Crow era, racism – and the cruel enforcement of racial segregation – remained central elements of the American Right.
An Anti-Government Coalition
In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth Century, other political and economic factors bolstered the Right, particularly a class of Northern industrialists and financiers known as the Robber Barons. Their insistence on laissez-faire economics in the North – and their opposition to reformers such as Theodore Roosevelt – dovetailed with anti-federal attitudes among the South’s white aristocracy.
That coalition, however, was shattered by a string of Wall Street panics and other economic catastrophes culminating in the Great Depression. With millions of Americans out of work and many facing starvation, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration initiated the New Deal which put people back to work building national infrastructure and imposing government regulations on the freewheeling ways of Wall Street.
Under Roosevelt, laws were changed to respect the rights of labor unions and social movements arose demanding greater civil rights for blacks and women. The Left gained unprecedented ascendance. However, the old alliance of rich Northern industriasts and Southern segregationists saw dangers in this new assertion of federal power. The business barons saw signs of “socialism” and the white supremacists feared “race-mixing.”
After World War II – with the United States now a world superpower – the continued existence of institutionalized racism became an embarrassment undermining America’s claim to be a beacon of human freedom. Finally, spurred on by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, the federal government finally moved against the South’s practice of segregation. That reignited the long-simmering conflict between federal power and states’ rights.
Though the federal government prevailed in outlawing racial segregation, the Right’s anger over this intrusion upon Southern traditions fueled a powerful new movement of right-wing politicians. Since the Democratic Party led the fight against segregation in the 1960s, Southern whites rallied to the Republican Party as their vehicle of political resistance.
Opportunistic politicians, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, deftly exploited the white backlash and turned much of the Dixie-crat South into solid Republican Red. This resurgence of white racial resentments also merged with a reassertion of “libertarian” economics as memories of the Great Depression faded. In essence, the late Nineteenth Century alliance between segregationist whites in the South and laissez-faire businessmen in the North was being reestablished.
This right-wing collaboration reached a new level of intensity in 2008 after the election of the first African-American president whose victory reflected the emergence of a multi-racial electorate threatening to end the historic white political domination of the United States. With the election also coming amid a Wall Street financial collapse – after years of reduced government regulation — Barack Obama’s arrival also portended a renewal of federal government activism. Thus, the age-old battle was rejoined.
Yet, given the cultural tenor of the time, the Right found it difficult to engage in overt racial slurs against Obama, nor could it openly seek to deny voting rights to black and brown people. New code words were needed. So Obama’s legitimacy as an American was questioned with spurious claims that he had been born in Kenya, and Republicans demanded tighter ballot security to prevent “voter fraud.”
Today’s Right also recognized that it could not simply emphasize its Confederate heritage. A more politically correct re-branding was needed. So, the Right shifted its imagery from the “Stars and Bars” battle flag of the Confederacy to the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of the American Revolution. That way, Americans who don’t overtly see themselves as racist could be drawn into the movement. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Re-Branding: 1860 to 1776.”]
However, the historical narrative that the Right constructed around the nation’s Founding was not the one that actually happened. In seeking to present themselves as the true defenders of the Constitution, the Right had to air-brush out the failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, which had made the states “sovereign” and “independent” with the central government just a “league of friendship.”
The Constitution represented the nation’s greatest transfer of power into federal hands in U.S. history, as engineered by Washington, Madison and Hamilton. Indeed, Madison favored even greater dominance by the central government over the states than he ultimately got in the Constitution.
However, in the Right’s revisionist version, the Articles of Confederation are forgotten and the Framers were simply out to create a governing system with strong states’ rights and a weak federal government. That fabrication played well with an uneducated right-wing base that could then envision itself using its Second Amendment rights to fight for the Framers’ vision of “liberty.”
As this right-wing narrative now plays out, Barack Obama is not only a black Muslim “socialist” oppressing liberty-loving white Christian Americans but he is a “tyrant” despoiling the beautiful, nearly divine, God-inspired Constitution that the Framers bestowed upon the nation — including, apparently, those wonderful provisions protecting slavery.