We Sell Ourselves Short When We Ignore Our History
The recent arguments over American history have given the impression that conservatives – particularly White conservatives – are largely afraid of it. Whether true or not (I cannot read the minds of others, only their actions), conservatives have clearly been on the defensive lately regarding American history. The refusal to acknowledge that the Founding generation and their ancestors were not infused with White supremacy removes them as actual people with actual struggles.
Make no mistake, the Founders et al did struggle whenever their principles collided. Like White Americans before and since, the founding generation had moments where they had to choose between their principles and White Supremacy for centuries. Most tried to smooth the conflict in their own minds; others shamefully chose their “race” over their principles. However, many other White Americans chose their principles, and they were, by and large, conservatives.
This may come as a surprise to Virginians, who have largely assumed that Jefferson and Madison were among those considered “conservative.” Simply put, that’s wrong. The conservatives in early republican America were Jefferson’s opponents, the Federalists.
Indeed, Linda Kerber has detailed how opposition to Jefferson led northern Federalists to oppose slavery in general in Federalists in Dissent. The main political issue driving this was policy towards Haiti – then a French colony fighting for independence. Federalists from north and south preferred an independent Haiti over a French victory there. This was driven in part by commercial interests and the quasi-war with France in the late 1790s.
Importantly, however, when Jeffersonians and French diplomats raised the specter of slave revolts inspired by an independent Haiti, the Federalists held firm. Even when Haiti’s independence was secured in the early 1800s, Jefferson and his allies enacted a trade embargo against it – over the objections of nearly every Federalist.
To be clear, this would hardly be considered racially enlightened today – or even among Americans of color at the time. However, it does show that even Americans steeped in the supremacist belief were willing to look outside it – and work against it – for American interests. Increasingly in the early nineteenth century, Federalists (now limited in support to non-slavery states) came to see slavery not just as damaging to them politically, but bad for the country.
This wasn’t the only example of this either. Kerber noted how the earliest anti-slavery Federalists passed on their views to their children, some of whom became abolitionists.
When Andrew Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act (impetus for the hideous Trail of Tears), supporters of the defeated John Quincy Adams (whose father first began supporting Haiti during his Administration as part of the quasi-war with France) were among Removal’s most virulent opponents (including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster). John Quincy Adams himself became a leading opponent of slavery in the House of Representatives.
Again, I am not claiming that these were enlightened proponents of equality. I am saying that there were White Americans who as early as two centuries ago were prepared to limit White Supremacy’s influence – and the overwhelming majority of them considered themselves conservative – to the point where the few Americans of color who could vote were near unanimous in support for Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans throughout the nineteenth century.
Today, White Americans are once again seeing the principles of freedom and democracy collide with White Supremacy, weaponized by yet another tyrant – this one from Moscow. I can only imagine what the conservatives of two centuries ago would say about how their ideological descendants are behaving.
I doubt they’d be happy.