Debunking American History, Part IV: The Second American Revolution

The United States were in origin a confederation of American republics, ruled for the most part by their own constitutions and laws and whose member states were bound in a contract of union with very strict limits.  Between 1776 and 1860, the complex and republican system was devolving--by a sort of political entropy--into a simpler system that concentrated more and more power at the top.  The American regress somewhat resembles the evolutionary history of parasites, which begin by attaching themselves occasionally to vulnerable hosts and, after  losing much of their powers of locomotion and perception, come to depend entirely on the independent organisms whose strength they are sapping.

Those who supported the devolution were compelled to misrepresent the Constitution and to deride their political opponents who remained loyal to the original system.  By 1860,  the strain had become unbearable, and the the two views, one false and one true, were tried by the fire of combat.  As so often happens in this sublunar world,  the wrong side won and gained the power to reinvent the plural United States as a singular unitary state along the lines of the governments established in the wake of the French Revolution.

How this happened is a very long and complicated story that does not easily lend itself to the morality plays concocted by textbook authors or Ken Burns documentaries.  Even educated Southerners sometimes portray the struggle as entirely sectional, when in fact there were Southern Federalists and Nationalists and Northern Jeffersonians.  Nonetheless, the error of reducing the conflict of visions to a sectional competition is comparatively minor, since it is truer than the textbooks.

In the textbook version most of us were taught, we learn that Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian republic with a strictly limited national government was impractical for a growing nation that had developed commerce and industry.  That would explain why commercial and industrial Switzerland is today a highly decentralized state, whose citizens are the poorest in Europe.  

We are also told that the crisis of the American Civil War required strong leadership and that in the aftermath of the war more enlightened opinions on the rights of minorities required the development of a strong central state.  There is some truth in this, though not much.  Randolph Bourne’s famous statement that “war is the health of the state” certainly applies to the United States, where the most rapid and enduring increases of state power have occurred during the War Between the States, the two World Wars, the Vietnam War, and—for anyone who has read the versions of the "Patriot Act--the War on Terrorism.

The textbook explanation is that the South was a society based on slavery and that the War between the States was fought to free the slaves.  This is utter nonsense.  Abraham Lincoln disliked and feared African Americans and wanted to send them to Africa or anywhere but the United States.  The commercial north had in fact made the easy money out of slavery by running the slave trade.  There is not time to refight the Civil War and this is not the place to decide who was right in that conflict, and so rather than discuss Mr. Lincoln and his war, I want to look briefly at an event that convinced one of America’s most important founding fathers that the republic was doomed.  I am referring to the controversy that broke out in 1818 over admitting Missouri into the Union.

The settlers of Missouri territory came largely from the South, and it was expected that Missouri would be a slave state.   Although it is hard for us to believe today, the admission of a slave state should not have caused problems.  The Constitution had treated slavery as an acknowledged legal fact of life in many American states, and many of the signers of the Declaration—including some Northerners—owned slaves, Nonetheless, when a statehood bill brought before the House of Representatives, James Tallmadge of New York proposed an amendment that would forbid importation of slaves and would bring about the ultimate emancipation of all slaves born in Missouri. This amendment passed the House (Feb. 1819), but not the Senate. The bitterness of the debates sharply emphasized the sectional division of the United States. 

In January, 1820, a bill to admit Maine as a state passed the House. The admission of Alabama as a slave state in 1819 had brought the slave states and free states to equal representation in the Senate, and it was seen that by pairing Maine (certain to be a free state) and Missouri, this equality would be maintained. The two bills were joined into a single bill in the Senate, with the clause forbidding slavery in Missouri replaced by a measure prohibiting slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30'N latitude (the southern boundary of Missouri). 

The House rejected this compromise bill, but after a conference committee of members of both houses was appointed, the bills were treated separately, and in March, 1820, Maine was made a state, and Missouri was authorized to adopt a constitution having no restrictions on slavery.  However, many Northern Congressmen objected to the provision in the Missouri constitution barring the immigration of free blacks to the state, and this required another congressional compromise. Not until the Missouri legislature pledged that nothing in its constitution would be interpreted to abridge the rights of citizens of the United States was the charter approved and Missouri admitted to the Union (Aug., 1821). 

Henry Clay, as speaker of the House, did much to secure passage of the compromise—so much, in fact, that he is generally regarded as its author, even though Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois was far more responsible for the first bill.  The bitterness of the debate was extreme and raised the bleak prospect that the Union might be dissolved after less than 50 years of existence.  I quote from a memoir of the debate written later by James G. Blaine, the crooked Maine Republican defeated by Grover Cleveland in a presidential election:

Mr. Clay, then an accepted leader of Southern sentiment—which in his later life he ceased to be—made an earnest, almost fiery, speech on the question. He declared that before the Maine bill should be finally acted on, he wanted to know "whether certain doctrines of an alarming character, with respect to a restriction on the admission of new States west of the Mississippi, were to be sustained on this floor." He wanted to know "what conditions Congress could annex to the admission of a new State; whether, indeed, there could be a partition of its sovereignty.

Clay’s point was constitutional: the states entering the Union were supposed to be equal with the original 13 sovereign states, but how could they be equal if the Congress could impose unconstitutional restrictions on their social and economic life.  Imagine, for example, if when we admitted Tennessee in, Congress had insisted on special protections for Cherokee Indians.  Even opponents of slavery grasped the danger: the Missouri Compromise line divided the nation.  

Thomas Jefferson, who sincerely wanted to end slavery, understood immediately what the debate portended.  He explained his position in a famous letter that has been almost always misrepresented as Jefferson's realization that the evils of slavery might destroy the Union.  In fact, what Jefferson feared was that Northern politicians, seeking to aggrandize their own power, would employ abolition as the pretext for dividing the country.

This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. 

Jefferson said he was happy to sacrifice his property interests if “a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected.”  But, he explained, “we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

Jefferson hoped that North and South could work together to abolish slavery.  If northerners abstained from an act designed to punish slave-holders,  it “would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a state. This certainly is the exclusive right of every state, which nothing in the Constitution has taken from them and given to the general government.  Jefferson concluded with a melancholy resignation to the inevitable:

I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons…

The former President signed this depressing missive, truthfully, “as the faithful advocate of the Union.”  

John Quincy Adams, secretary of state at the time, supported the Compromise.  Though he had not yet lost hope of being a national political figure and was not yet, therefore, prepared to attack the South, he too saw the issue for what it was.  In his diary he recounts a conversation with John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who explained to him that in South Carolina no one would willingly hire a white household servant because domestic work--unlike manual labor in the fields--was inherently degrading.  Adams disagreed.  What he demanded of Southerners is what Puritans--even atheist Puritans in his case--always demand: you must agree with them and concede them the moral high ground:

I told Calhoun I could not see things in the same light.  It is, in truth, all perverted sentiment--mistaking labor for slavery, and dominion for freedom.  This discussion of the Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls.  In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim all participation in the introduction of it, and cast it all upon the shoulders of our old Grandam Britain.  But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom.  They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat Negroes as dogs.

    Small wonder that Southerners learned to quit apologizing for slavery--it gave people like John Quincy the upper hand.  Adams, nonetheless, supported the Compromise in order to save the union, “But perhaps,” he concluded,

it would have been a wiser as well as a bolder course to have persisted in the restriction upon Missouri, till it should have terminated in a convention of the states to revise and amend the Constitution.  This would have produced a new Union of 13 or 14 states unpolluted with slavery, with a great and glorious object to effect; namely that of rallying to their standard the other states by the universal emancipation of their slaves.  If the Union must be dissolved…

Then he warned, ominously, “slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break.  For the present, however, this contest is laid asleep.”

So here we have the truth.  The third president of the United States, a slaveholding Virginian, turns out to be a defender of Union, while the 6th president, a Massachusetts Yankee whose father had been the 2nd president, wanted to use the slavery issue as a pretext for breaking up the United States.  John Quincy Adams had not always been so resolutely anti-slavery: He had married a Southern heiress and had the expectation of managing her daddy’s plantations.  It was only when his father-in-law went bankrupt that John Quincy discovered how much he hated slavery, just as it was only when the lucrative slave trade ended that rich Yankee merchants and ship-owners discovered their anti-slavery sentiments.

It was entirely within the realm of possibility that slavery could have been ended peacefully—as it was elsewhere, that the two sections could have lived together on terms of mutual respect, that the Constitution could have endured as the basis of the American political system, subject to necessary modifications to meet changing circumstances.  But that was not to be, and the Constitutional Republic loved by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison is gone with the wind. Most Americans do not realize this, because they know as little of our constitution as they do of American history.  

Then where does this leave the American republic?  In fact we have lost a great deal more than the sovereignty of the states or the rights explicitly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.  As I said at the beginning, many traditional or prescriptive rights are not spelled out because they are taken for granted.  No one in the 1780’s would have dreamed that marriage was anything but a compact involving a man and a woman or that an unborn child could be killed with impunity or made the subject of scientific research. 

No one in his right mind supposed that serial rapists and killers deserved any therapy less stringent than a noose.  And no one was so wild enough as to imagine that the government had the power, much less the right to determine how children were reared and educated, to confiscate a significant part of our income before we receive it, to grant special rights and privileges to non-citizen aliens and even illegal aliens.  They did, however, think that one of the primary functions of their government was to secure the common defense by guarding the borders against invasion.  

When the British surrendered at Yorktown, the band struck up a popular tune “The World Turned Upside Down.”  Neither Washington nor the politicians who drafted the Constitution intended to turn the political world upside down, much less to foment social and moral revolution, but in the course of the 20th century, that is exactly what happened.

The task of restoring republic, if it is to be undertaken, does not lie with the politicians who have usurped the power that belongs to the states and the peoples of the states: it lies with each of us.  If we begin to live as free people in our own minds and our own lives, if we refuse to be the pawns either of government or of party, if we choose our friends from among the free remnant and in their company bring up free children who shun the poisonous propaganda that passes for American history and moral philosophy, if we insist on educating ourselves into the truth of our history, then we might hope that our American grandchildren—if there still are Americans 30 years from now—will have the virtue to take back the power their ancestors surrendered.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Clyde Wilson says:

    It is clear that from beginning to end the attack on slavery had NOTHING to do with the black people, their freedom or welfare. The thing the North most agreed upon was keeping the black people confined to the South. Many abos believed and hoped (like Emerson) that the blacks, unprotected by masters, would die out. Your picture of Adams makes clear that the basic motivation was envy and hatred of Southerners. Unlike his son, the elder John Adams, as he wrote Jefferson, considered slavery not really an issue but merely one aspect of the condition of the labouring class everywhere. Factor in the rising power of the industrialists demanding that the government guarantee free access to the resources of the South without Constitutional scruples, and you have the formula for brutal invasion and conquest covered by a pretense of charity. When will the South ever get an apology and reparations for the great crime against its people?

  2. Stephen Chaplin says:

    Dr. Fleming – A few comments on your excellent article:

    1. “There is not time to refight the Civil War and this is not the place to decide who was right in that conflict . . .”

    But you already did (and correctly so, IMO): “As so often happens in this sublunar world, the wrong side won . . . .”

    2. “However, many Northern Congressmen objected to the provision in the Missouri constitution barring the immigration of free blacks to the state . . . .”

    I thought the North would have welcomed such a restriction on free blacks. Wasn’t the North interested in keeping the west for “free white labor” only?

    3. “Missouri legislature pledged that nothing in its constitution would be interpreted to abridge the rights of citizens . . . .”

    I thought that blacks (free or slave) at that time were not recognized as citizens.

    4. “In the textbook version most of us were taught, we learn that Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian republic with a strictly limited national government was impractical for a growing nation that had developed commerce and industry. That would explain why commercial and industrial Switzerland is today a highly decentralized state, whose citizens are the poorest in Europe.”

    I have been to Switzerland. Excluding having lots of “stuff,” the Swiss are the richest people in Europe (but I suspect you know that). 

  3. Roger McGrath says:

    Chaplin’s comments have left me with but one more of my own. It was the Northeastern states where secession was often talked about and occasionally threatened. The Hartford Convention is but one example.

  4. James D. says:

    Dr. McGrath,

    As I’m sure you are aware, Dr. Wilson and Kirkpatrick Sale have written/spoken extensively about the Yankee inclination to threaten/actuate secession. What I didn’t know, or hadn’t recalled from prior reading, was that Richard Weaver also wrote about this in his essays. I believe that it was in his essay about John Taylor of Caroline where he spoke about it most extensively. One interesting note I took from this essay was that Weaver claimed that Patrick Henry became a centralizer late in life while Taylor remained an orthodox “localist.” I had never read about Henry adopting or endorsing centralizing tendencies and I’m not sure what is the basis of this accusation.

  5. Thomas Fleming says:

    Clyde, thanks for driving the point home. Mr. Chaplin, thanks too for the kind words. I believe I made it plain that I was not going to go over the War, not that I did not have a view of it. Comment 2, I don’t quite get. Many Northerners–and also Lincoln–explicitly said they objected to the spread of slavery into the newer territories because it meant the spread of Blacks. On 3, the position of Free Black was not settled. Without going back over notes, I believe the Missourians were pledging not to enslave or mistreat Blacks who entered the state–a common practice in Midwestern states culminating in the Black Codes of Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota. Yes, I’ve been to Switzerland a number of times.

    And Roger, let us not forget that the Hartford Convention took place during a War and really constituted treason. As for Patrick Henry, I don’t know what, precisely, Weaver has said, but on the face of it, the charge is absurd. Now, it is true of course that any practical statesman must, when charting a course, take account of winds and currents in order to arrive at a possible solution. What we do know is that he turned down many offers of high position in the national government. He died a dozen years after ratification. His last political act in the House of Delegates was to oppose, as a violation of states’ rights, the Federal government’s assumption of state debts. I leave it to Prof Wilson, though, to enlighten us on this question.

    Finally, I do want to underscore a simple fact. The intention of this lecture turned into a series of essays was not to provide an historical summary of events, much less a comprehensive history, but to address, as an essayist, some of the larger issues raised by American political mythology. I dwelt on the Missouri case, partly because I have studied it, and partly because it is not well known even to some people who take an interest in American history.

  6. theAlabamian says:

    I enjoyed reading the article and the point about President Adams father-in-law going bankrupt I did not know.