Scandalously, Thomas Jefferson once wrote to James Madison, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and is as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
In the same year, 1787, in regard to what is known as Shays’ Rebellion, he wrote another friend, “God forbid that we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” A lack of rebelliousness among the people would demonstrate “a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. . . . And what country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance?”
The “rebellion” in Massachusetts had alarmed many, especially the masters of that commonwealth, who were imbued with a Puritan longing for regulated behavior and saw the tax revolt of Capt. Daniel Shays and his farmers as a threat to their control. In Jefferson’s perspective, the “rebels” were merely adhering to good American practice. What, indeed, had the recent War of Independence amounted to but resistance to heavy-handed government? And such rebellions against unsatisfactory government officials and policies had been a regular occurrence during the long colonial history of the Americans, especially in the Southern colonies.
Persistent misrepresentation of Jefferson’s words here and elsewhere by later generations has obscured what he meant. A dangerous radical? A chronic upsetter of social order? No. Jefferson does not call for an overturn of society and its reconstruction according to some abstract plan. Think of the root meaning of the term revolution. Jefferson, in fact, is mostly satisfied with his society (Virginia), although he is interested in a few small reforms that might broaden its base. So are his followers satisfied with their portions of America. That is why they support him. Despite the hysterical and sometimes insincere denunciations of the New England clergy, the Virginia planter is no Jacobin. As he sees things, any government, with the passage of time and the accretion of abuses and bad precedents, becomes corrupted. It needs to be revolved back to its original principles.
This is not a radical program but a deeply reactionary one. What Jefferson fundamentally wants to tell us is that the people should never fear the government, but the government should always fear the people. This is not the battle cry of a movement with a radical agenda. President Jefferson comes to the White House with no agenda except to preserve the joint independence of the States United and their separate rights as “the best bulwark of our liberties.” To carry out this agenda requires a rollback of the economic and judicial corruptions introduced by the Hamilton/Adams innovators.
For the Jeffersonian democrats, Americans were fortunate to enjoy widespread property ownership, with a large body of independent citizens, and to be free of the class hegemony and conflict of the Old World, thankfully an ocean away. There is no French or Russian revolutionary fantasy here. The government is not to be used as a sledgehammer to destroy and rebuild society. In this way of thinking, the greatest enemy of society and of individual liberty is government itself. The tendency of power is everywhere and forever toward concentration. As a popular Jeffersonian saying has it, “Power is always stealing from the many to the few.”
It is this basic orientation that separates Jeffersonian democrats from “conservatives” of Jefferson’s own time and later. It explains the curious phenomenon that throughout American history the people have been “conservative,” and revolutionary changes have always come from the top down.
My point is illuminated by the argument between John Adams in his A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States and John Taylor of Caroline, the systematic philosopher of Jeffersonian democracy, in his Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated. Adams’ view of history was that the popular majority always had a tendency to envy the wealth of its betters and use the government to appropriate it, and that this tendency was the chief source of destruction of a free regime.
He hoped to avoid the subversion of American republicanism by various devices that would dilute and delay an unwise popular majority: a bicameral legislature with an upper house remote from popular opinion, an executive veto, and an independent judiciary. All Adams’ devices have catastrophically failed to limit government and to preserve freedom, as Taylor plainly predicted.
For Taylor, Adams had got his history wrong. The people, in a society like that of Americans, were not dangerous. Most of the time they went quietly about their own business and demanded nothing—unless they were intolerably provoked by abuses of government. It was the “court party” that was the enemy of liberty and that would subvert the free commonwealth. History showed that there were always self-seeking minorities, would-be elites, ready to use the machinery of government to live off the labor of the majority. Sometimes this was done by force, and sometimes by fraud, as in the Hamiltonian maxim “a public debt is a public blessing.” The remedy was not to erect artificial “checks and balances” but to make sure power was widely dispersed, limited, and amenable to recall.
The Jeffersonian Constitution has been misrepresented as much as or more than Jeffersonian philosophy. It was not “strict construction,” a nonstarter, nor even states’ rights. It was state sovereignty. Jefferson (and Madison, too) may be quoted ad infinitum to this effect. The Virginia and Kentucky documents of 1798-1800 spell out beyond any doubt that the final defense of freedom in the American system is the people acting in their only constitution-making identity, that of their sovereign states. The states were the legitimate and peaceful resort to protect the liberties of their citizens and themselves as communities from federal encroachment.
Years after leaving the White House, Jefferson writes to an inquisitive foreigner,
But the true barriers of our liberty in this country are our State governments; and the wisest conservative power ever contrived by man, is that of which our Revolution and present government found us possessed. Seventeen distinct States, amalgamated into one as to their foreign concerns, but single and independent as to their internal administration.
In the last months of his life Jefferson suggested to influential Virginians that it was time once again to consider interposing the sovereignty of the state against unconstitutional federal legislation. Never for a day in his life did Jefferson doubt that the people of a state could exercise their sovereignty by leaving the Union, though it was not something to be encouraged rashly. He rather expected that the expanding country would break up into two or more confederacies. That was fine, if it was what the people wanted. Americans were rightly joined together by fellow feeling—shared blood and sacrifice—not by the armed force of Washington City.
Commentators have twisted themselves into incredible acrobatic postures and wholesaled semiplausible lies to assert that Jefferson did not really mean the plain language of what he said. Others have “explained” that Jeffersonian states’ rights was only a temporary and expedient device to defend liberty, a device now made unnecessary by the establishment of the American Civil Liberties Union. They miss the point, unwelcome to all adherents of elitist agendas and centralized power—for Jefferson, individual liberty and state sovereignty were indivisible. Properly rebellious free men defended themselves and their communities from Leviathan.
The eclipse of the Jeffersonian preference for limited power and economic freedom had less to do with politics than it did with changes in the spirit of society as the 19th century progressed. Almost from the first days of the United States, New England leadership undertook to establish the New England way as the true and only American way. This was carried out in politics, religion, education, literature, historical writing, and even in lexicography, with vigor and persistence. This is a subject worthy of a multivolume study of a phenomenon that is unrecognized today, although it was a decisive event in our history and clearly understood while it was taking place. Louis Auchincloss, in The Winthrop Covenant, gives a surface account of the persistence of this Puritan mission throughout American history.
The Puritan conquest of the North was not as easy as has been thought, but was accomplished by about 1850. James Fenimore Cooper in his Littlepage trilogy describes and laments how the unique Anglo-Dutch society of old New York was transformed by the swarm of immigrants from east of the Hudson. Meanwhile, Emerson went to Europe and absorbed the Germanized version of the French Revolution, which was really just going back to his Puritan roots. He came home a Unitarian. The mission was changed, but the intensity of the need to correct the world to conform to the New England plan remained the same. It soon brought to heel the West and the unruly Catholic immigrants.
The South was a different matter. It had developed from a different base and in a different way. Southerners were proud and determined to do it their way, individually and as a people. The South could not be converted or subverted, so it had to be destroyed, the grapes of wrath had to be trampled out. A 30-year campaign of slander and hatred, combined with economic developments, finally brought on in 1861 the circumstances in which this could be accomplished. Americans like to think that their campaign for the abolition of slavery was all about benevolence and liberty. A bit of genuine historical research into what they actually said at the time paints a different picture. The Yankees hated slavery because the slaves were a non-Anglo-Saxon element who had, in their view, hopelessly corrupted white Southerners. In the slaveholding society, white men had far too much liberty and independent power. Such liberty offended puritan sensibilities and created an evil disposition to thwart New England economic and cultural hegemony. It was not that the black man had too little liberty; it was that the Southern white man had far too much.
That crusade pretty well finished off Jeffersonian democracy. As Gen. R.E. Lee wrote to Lord Acton the year after his surrender, “the consolidation of the States into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home,” was the precursor of American ruin. Lincoln rightly remains the truly representative American. He is the symbol of the highly successful synthesis of capitalist oligarchy, puritan conformity, and perpetual social revolution from the top down that is the mainstream of American life. There are many who find that synthesis beautiful, though most often they do not really understand what it is, identifying with one or another of the elements and not with the combination itself. Money rules and permits a politics that consists almost entirely of sham battles between the old puritans, the “conservatives,” and the secular ones, the “liberals.” From time to time they all join together in a messianic war to destroy the latest menace to Lincoln’s vision: the South, the kaiser, the Red Menace, drugs, terror, etc.
They share the sense that the meaning of “America” is a mission to bring the abstract ideals of the American standard to all mankind. The only difference is that the “conservatives” want to do it by force, and the “liberals” by welfare. A Jeffersonian, if any still existed, would insist that Americans are not here to be used for anybody’s mission, and the proper point of reference is what is good for them.
The Jeffersonian spirit survived for a while underground, and now and then a weak and confused revival occurred, as in the days of William Jennings Bryan and populism. The last significant appearance was perhaps the agrarian, non-Marxist critique of capitalism in the 1930’s. Nowhere to be seen now are the old Jeffersonians, once a major American type, rebellious men who dared defend the rights of themselves and their communities from outside impositions. But buried somewhere deep in the American soul is a tiny ember of Jeffersonian democracy that now and then gives off an uncertain, feeble, and futile spark.
Clyde Wilson proudly reports that one of his ancestors took part in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.
This article first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.