I find myself looking at America’s founders much differently since I read William Hogeland’s book on the Whiskey Rebellion. Like most other Americans, I believed that thought and planning went into the Constitution. Having been educated in the American public schools, I was taught that there was nobility and self sacrifice amongst the founders of this once-great nation. Hogeland could not have busted those myths more thoroughly if he used C-4.
Sadly, the events between 1780 to 1789 looks more like the recent coup in Honduras than the establishment of a nation based on laws. France supported the new United States as a means of weakening their rivals in England. The British crown waited in the wings for a chance to take the colonies back. The Iroquois nations were still British allies, and they waited on America’s western borders for Britain’s order to attack. Other European nations saw the American Revolution as a chance to grab their own piece of the continent.
At the same time rivalry amongst the states created the very situation Europe was waiting for. Maryland and Virginia were at war over borders. While that madness was going on, New Jersey and New York were fighting over access to New York Harbor. The Confederate government was too weak to stop the fighting or to enforce trade agreements. The Continental Congress was funded by voluntary donations by the thirteen states, and nobody was sending money. All thirteen states were ignoring the authority of the Congress to enter and enforce trade agreements with Europe. The states also ignored Congress’s orders to stop fighting.
The only thing that could save America from becoming a colony again was a strong central government. The Constitutional Convention was called specifically to create a national government that could levy taxes, command the armed forces, establish trade regulations between the states, and enter into treaties with foreign governments. A handful of wealthy men exploited the situation to grab power for themselves. These Federalists were not interested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They were out for themselves. John Adams and John Jay were both unabashed royalists out to create the same sort government the wealthy enjoyed in England. Alexander Hamilton was a financier whose influence gave Wall Street the power it enjoys today.
Regulators, abolitionists, farmers, and small artisans watched in horror as the United States turned into a monstrous caricature of England. The final straw was when Washington and Hamilton used the army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. As the new American dictators were protected by an army of over 13,000, the angry populace turned to Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr as their saviors. After Burr shot Hamilton (to the delight of the Pennsylvania farmers) there was only Jefferson.
According to libertarian propagandists, the founders were a band of drinking buddies who slept with each others’ wives and were cool with it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Federalists and Democratic Republicans were at each others throats. Burr shot Hamilton over their political differences. Burr was lucky that Jefferson was president. Burr was a stone cold murderer and he finished his term as vice-president. If Hamilton won, I wonder if Jefferson would have been as lenient?
My questions about Jefferson began when I did my sophomore thesis on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was then that I discovered that most of the nastiest stereotypes of African-Americans came directly from Thomas Jefferson. As president he ended the practice of importing slaves from Africa. As president he owned 117 slaves, and the domestic slave markets still did a brisk trade. He fathered several children with a slave named Sally Hemmings. He owned those children like they were cattle. This is strange behavior for a man who has become “Liberty’s Poster Boy”.
All too many people are willing to rationalize bigotry. This is especially true when it comes to the American Founders. Hamilton, Washington, Adams, Burr, and Jefferson, all owned slaves. Many historians are all too willing to pass this off as the customs of the time, and ignore the growing abolitionist movement. At the same time, Jefferson also ignored all the other populist movements and demands, such as a progressive tax of wealth, the end of land speculation and absentee landlords, as well as full civil rights for people of African descent and First Nation People.
Jefferson is also the darling of the New Atheists for taking his oath of office on a law book. I wonder about the true significance of that. Could it be that he was sending a message to the religious populists of his day? Could he have been telling them that there would be civil rights for freed slaves and a progressive tax on wealth over his dead body? The Jefferson administration was not significantly different from the Adams administration. Many historians feel that Jefferson had more in common with Adams than he did with his friend Thomas Paine. Jefferson repealed the Whiskey Tax but did nothing to break the monopoly on whiskey production. While he opposed the Aliens and Sedition Act, he did nothing to remove it from common law, where it still exists as a valid precedent. John Yoo used it in his infamous torture memos.
In the end, Jefferson and John Adams ended their careers and lives as the closest of friends. This in itself makes me doubt that the Aliens and Sedition Act was specifically aimed against Jefferson. It was more likely to have been aimed at the populists, or as both Adams and Jefferson called them, the “White Savages”. I cannot see how Jefferson the slave owning plantation farmer and absentee landlord could have truly been a champion of freedom. Like Washington and Adams, he was a champion of his own class. He and Adams’ only real disagreement was how their class was to rule over the working classes. After all, slaves, white savages, and natives were not capable of running a nation. That was for men of wealth and culture.