American Counter-Revolution: a preemptive strike against liberty
by Richard Seymour  / March 16, 2008

“Insult the Founding Fathers as a bunch of genocidal, slave-holding white supremacist patriarchs, and you’re liable to irritate somebody’s stupid little fetish. You’re disdaining ‘progress’ or ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘modernity’ or something of that kind. Or, if your foil is the sort of boorish salon contrarian that likes to babble on about secularism while shovelling enough coke up his nose to cover the Himalayas from peak to base, you might be told that you’re being ‘obvious’ or ‘boring’. Of course, producing that sort of reaction is often the best reason for making such statements. But there are other reasons too. The fable of America’s origins in liberty and rebellion, and its peculiarly missionary quality, is still one that commands a great deal of irrational support from various quarters, and it is the basis for an unenlightened exceptionalism whose function is to turn the global projection of violence and tyranny into a story of the expansion of human freedom. At most, an acknowledgment of America’s serpentine origins in the system of colonial slavery might result in a grudging admission that, after all, progress didn’t go far enough on this occasion.

“Admiration of the World and Envy of Surrounding Nations”

Alfred Blumrosen and the late Ruth Blumrosen, who were civil rights lawyers when not writing history, performed a stunning attack on the commonplace interpretation of the American Revolution as one overwhelmingly motivated by the pursuit of liberty. Their compelling book, Slave Nation, which has been endorsed by no less an authority than David Brion Davis, is by no means politically radical, but the conclusions it draws are radically at variance with the consensus. There is compelling evidence that the revolution, at least from the perspective of the elites who led it and benefited from it, was motivated primarily by the desire to preserve slavery in the face of powerful emancipationist currents in British society, particularly the working class, which were already exerting a profound effect. The background is familiar. The early Hanoverian political order, issuing from the first truly capitalist settlement, was also a comparatively libertarian one for the colonists. Guaranteeing a number of minimum rights to subjects of the constitutional monarch, it both excluded the masses from political power and produced a doctrine of patriotic liberty – the ‘freeborn Englishman‘ – that was fully compatible with the lack of democracy, various kinds of coerced labour, and rigid class rule. It was a doctrine that would be appropriated in various ways: used to justify war against England’s colonial opponents by Pitt the Elder (the early days of democratic intervention); taken up as a weapon of opposition by John Wilkes; and of course conscripted to the cause of the American revolt. Given the pace of economic development in the colonies, the control exerted on matters of trade by the ruling oligarchy in London was a burden and increasingly depicted as a violation of the rights of all the freeborn colonists. The development of radicalism in North America was coterminous with an increasingly radical domestic critique of Hanoverian Britain, and it was the ideology of individual liberty that sustained both.

Introduction – The Counter-Revolution of 1776

Anti-slavery activism was increasingly evident in both the colonies and in England itself, again rooted in an asserion of the rights of the individual against tyrants of all kinds. In London, freed slaves were encouraging slaves brought back to the metropole with their master to rebel and escape, while radical activists such as Granville Sharp were waging legal battles to win freedom for slaves. In the American colonies, the anti-slavery movement was pioneered by the Quakers. Its demands made an impact on the direction of the Patriot movement and were reflected even in the gestures gestures and words of those who were up to their necks in the slave trade. So far, so familiar. What then follows is that the libertarian impulse, which radicalised in the course of the revolution, helped trigger the revolution in France and provided an opportunity for Haiti to throw off the shackles of slavery and produce the first serious omen that the institution was untenable in the long run. In doing so, it also contained the seed of the future liberation of slaves in the United States. Through a close reading of Locke, as President Bush has suggested, the American revolutionaries made individual dignity and freedom the abiding concern of what has become the world’s most powerful state, turning the latter into a matchless arsenal of liberty.

“Counter-Revolution of 1776”: Was U.S. Independence War a Conservative Revolt in Favor of Slavery?

But suppose that a significant motive behind the American revolution, a far more compelling immediate cause of revolt than taxation, was the defense of the institution of slavery – that, so far from being merely accomodated by revolutionaries, or conserved by them in spite of their rhetoric, it was actually a major cause of the revolt? The Blumrosens show that a potentially devastating legal precedent, a victory of anti-slavery advocacy in England, added flames to the tinderbox and ensured the cooperation of colonial elites to preserve the institution of slavery through the declaration of independence. In 1772, a slave named ‘Somerset’ by his master, an accomplished colonial entrepreneur named Charles Stewart, had been baptised and sought his freedom in England. He was recaptured, enchained, and placed on a ship to Jamaica where he would be sold. Those who had agreed to be his godparents petitioned the King’s Court on his behalf and – because of the previously successful legal advocacy of Granville Sharp, were able to win a decision to let him go, since his detention by force was incompatible with the laws of England. It was not that one slave had been freed – it was that any slave in England might, because of this precedent, claim the right to leave his or her master. And the news got around.


The colonial context provided some reason for slaveholders to be alarmed. Colonial legislation could easily be overruled by the Privy Council, and already had been several times. The British imperial power had faced opposition to its taxation policies, and even stimulated serious revolutionary upheaval for short periods. It had perpetrated the infamous Boston massacre against opponents of its rule (one of those ‘motley crews’ of multiracial workers discussed by Linebaugh and Rediker). But even so, most of the insurgency had died down until the affront of 1772. If parliament asserted its supremacy in relation to the colonies, and the highest legal opinion in England held that slavery was such an odious state of affairs that it could not be permitted in England, might not a skilled campaign with mass support actually obtain the judgment that the colonies as territories subordinate to His Britannic Majesty were subject to the same law? The rise of slavery had enabled the colonial ruling class to contain social discontent in the south by phasing out white indentured labour, permitting white workers to own one or two slaves and thereby enabling them to school their children and reduce the burden of labour they had to contribute toward their own existence. It was seen as an essential component of the southern system, but the same senior spokesman for the British colonial administration who had represented the government in imposing the stamp tax was now also responsible for describing their system as ‘odious’. Virginia slaveholders were terrified that their slaves would take the opportunity to rebel, run away, and take their chances with the mother country. The southern colonists started to look at ways to secede, but they could not be sure that the northern colonists would join them in a bid to protect slavery: slavery was less common in the north, though still legal there, and anti-slavery agitation was more common. It has been imagined that the petition by the Virginia colonists requesting that the King abolish the international slave trade was an appeal to end slavery – clearly, no such thing. The fact was that the domestic slave population could reproduce itself, at least in Virginia if not in other parts of the south where conditions were more harsh. And voices were beginning to be raised that the importation of so many blacks was diluting the culture and intellectual advancement that whites could bring to bear. But what it did was permit a vague anti-slavery flavour, which Jefferson could take up without actually calling for the abolition of slavery itself (there is, as Gerald Horne writes, some doubt about the sincerity of his earlier anti-slavery opinions, but no doubt that he later drifted toward the belief in a biological inequality of races).

So, it was the Virginia Resolution calling for intercontinental correspondence on the topic of Britain’s abuses that first united the previously disunited colonies, leading to the first Continental Congress in 1774, which sought to assert the rights of the colonies with respect to their property. This was more than demanding the resolution of taxation issues, which could have been achieved without declaring independence from parliament. It was about ownership of all varieties, particularly of slaves. The southern rebels were able to cut a deal with John Adams, representing the other significant colony of Massachusetts, in the defense of slavery, and Adams would continue throughout the revolutionary era and beyond to resist all moves toward emancipation. Subsequent declarations repeatedly asserted and defended the rights of the ‘peculiar institution’, and it was no incidental matter that the British would try to fight its counterinsurgency war on the cheap by encouraging slave rebellions. If the colonists drew on Locke’s ‘natural rights’ theory to justify their independence, they had to prevaricate where this seemed to conflict with their defense of slavery. Jefferson provided the relevant tweaking: instead of all men being ‘born’ equal, they were ‘created’ equal. A state of manhood and thus equal right could thus be ‘created’ by the decisions of white slaveholders looking at the case of slaves whom they might wish to manumit. The Articles of Confederation would specifically defend slavery’s mandate across the states and implicitly rebuke the ‘Somerset’ decision.

And so on – without the original stimulus and the congress in 1774, without the deal over slavery ensured, northern and southern elites could not have united. There would have been no American nationhood since, until that point, the colonies were more integrated into the imperial centre than one another. Without the sustained efforts to preserve slavery by northern and southern revolutionaries, there would have been no revolution, or at least not then. That the ‘pecular institution’ would go on to exert such a dominating effect over the political life of the country, both in its domestic and foreign policies, is hardly surprising. It was the ‘property right’ par excellence, the reason for the revolt, and the basis for the future prosperity of the independent colonies.”

How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution

“This carefully documented, chilling history presents a radically different view of the profound role that slavery played in the founding of the republic, from the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution through the creation of the Constitution. The book begins with a novel explanation about the impact of the Somerset Case on the founding of the republic. In 1772, a judge sitting in the High Court in London declared slavery “so odious” that it could not exist at common law and set the conditions which would consequently result in the freedom of the 15,000 slaves living in England. This decision eventually reached America and terrified slaveholders in the collection of British colonies, subject to British law. The predominantly southern slave-owners feared that this decision would cause the emancipation of their slaves. It did result in some slaves freeing themselves.

To ensure the preservation of slavery, the southern colonies joined the northerners in their fight for “freedom” and their rebellion against England. In 1774, at the First Continental Congress John Adams promised southern leaders to support their right to maintain slavery. As Eleanor Holmes Norton explains in her introduction, “The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation.”

Thomas Jefferson relied on this understanding when carefully crafting the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence. In 1787, about the time Benjamin Franklin proposed the first affirmative action plan, negotiations over a new Constitution ground to a halt until the southern states agreed to allow the prohibition of slavery north of the Ohio River. The resulting Northwest Ordinance created the largest slave-free area in the world. Slave Nation is a fascinating account of the role slavery played in the foundations of the United States that traces this process of negotiation through the adoption of Northwest Ordinance in 1787, and informs our understanding of later events including the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Metal tokens produced by the radical publisher Thomas Spence. Spence produced tokens like these as a means of circulating radical political messages and imagery amongst an audience which was often too poor to afford printed materials. The reverse of the top token contains an image of a man being press-ganged into military service against his will.


“As slave rebellions became more frequent and more violent, colonial editors adopted a new strategy: quashing all news about slaves. In South Carolina, suppression of such news started after the bloody Stono Rebellion near Charleston in 1739, in which 21 whites and 44 blacks lost their lives. The South-Carolina Gazette printed no information about similar revolts in the colony in 1739 and 1740. It never mentioned the colony’s newly enacted slave code that permitted any white person to stop and search a slave and kill him if he reacted violently. The depiction of blacks in those early colonial papers displayed a remarkable consistency. “African slaves revolted against their owners. Slaves murdered, robbed, raped and burned out whites,” Copeland notes of the coverage. As for any other aspect of black life, colonial newspapers “rarely printed a positive word,” except to praise “slaves who warned their owners of impending slave revolts.”

One of the rare condemnations of slavery in the colonial press appeared in 1740 in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which published a letter from Rev. George Whitefield challenging the morality of holding others in bondage. Ben Franklin was the paper’s editor at the time. Even though he had owned slaves as a young man, and often published ads from slave-traffickers in his Gazette, Franklin was one of the few editors willing to provide space for abolitionist commentaries. He turned increasingly against slavery in his old age, and in his last public act in 1790 he petitioned Congress to put an end to the practice. By then, he was serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.”

“An unknown artist depicts the burning of Washington on August 24, 1814”

The British View the War of 1812 Quite Differently Than Americans Do
by Amanda Foreman /  July 2014

As we look forward to celebrating the bicentennial of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, I have to admit, with deep shame and embarrassment, that until I left England and went to college in the U.S., I assumed the words referred to the War of Independence. In my defense, I suspect I’m not the only one to make this mistake. For people like me, who have got their flags and wars mixed up, I think it should be pointed out that there may have been only one War of 1812, but there are four distinct versions of it—the American, the British, the Canadian and the Native American. Moreover, among Americans, the chief actors in the drama, there are multiple variations of the versions, leading to widespread disagreement about the causes, the meaning and even the outcome of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the war, American commentators painted the battles of 1812-15 as part of a glorious “second war for independence.” As the 19th century progressed, this view changed into a more general story about the “birth of American freedom” and the founding of the Union. But even this note could not be sustained, and by the end of the century, the historian Henry Adams was depicting the war as an aimless exercise in blunder, arrogance and human folly. During the 20th century, historians recast the war in national terms: as a precondition for the entrenchment of Southern slavery, the jumping-off point for the goal of Manifest Destiny and the opening salvos in the race for industrial-capitalist supremacy. The tragic consequences of 1812 for the native nations also began to receive proper attention. Whatever triumphs could be parsed from the war, it was now accepted that none reached the Indian Confederation under Tecumseh. In this postmodern narrative about American selfhood, the “enemy” in the war—Britain—almost disappeared entirely. Not surprisingly, the Canadian history of the war began with a completely different set of heroes and villains. If the U.S. has its Paul Revere, Canada has Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who lost his life defending Upper Canada against the Americans, and Laura Secord, who struggled through almost 20 miles of swampland in 1813 to warn British and Canadian troops of an imminent attack. For Canadians, the war was, and remains, the cornerstone of nationhood, brought about by unbridled U.S. aggression. Although they acknowledge there were two theaters of war—at sea and on land—it is the successful repulse of the ten U.S. incursions between 1812 and 1814 that have received the most attention.

“This timber, which survived the burning of the White House 200 years ago, was donated to the Smithsonian after it was discovered during a 1950 renovation.” (David Burnett )

By contrast, the British historiography of the War of 1812 has generally consisted of short chapters squeezed between the grand sweeping narratives of the Napoleonic Wars. The justification for this begins with the numbers: Roughly 20,000 on all sides died fighting the War of 1812 compared with over 3.5 million in the Napoleonic. But the brevity with which the war has been treated has allowed a persistent myth to grow about British ignorance. In the 19th century, the Canadian historian William Kingsford was only half-joking when he commented, “The events of the War of 1812 have not been forgotten in England for they have never been known there.” In the 20th, another Canadian historian remarked that the War of 1812 is “an episode in history that makes everybody happy, because everybody interprets it differently…the English are happiest of all, because they don’t even know it happened.” The truth is, the British were never happy. In fact, their feelings ranged from disbelief and betrayal at the beginning of the war to outright fury and resentment at the end. They regarded the U.S. protests against Royal Navy impressment of American seamen as exaggerated whining at best, and a transparent pretext for an attempt on Canada at worst. It was widely known that Thomas Jefferson coveted all of North America for the United States. When the war started, he wrote to a friend: “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” Moreover, British critics interpreted Washington’s willingness to go to war as proof that America only paid lip service to the ideals of freedom, civil rights and constitutional government. In short, the British dismissed the United States as a haven for blackguards and hypocrites. The long years of fighting Napoleon’s ambitions for a world empire had hardened the British into an “us-against-them” mentality. All British accounts of the war—no matter how brief—concentrate on the perceived inequality of purpose between the conflict across the Atlantic and the one in Europe: with the former being about wounded feelings and inconvenience, and the latter about survival or annihilation.

To understand the British point of view, it is necessary to go back a few years, to 1806, when Napoleon ignited a global economic war by creating the Continental System, which closed every market in the French Empire to British goods. He persuaded Russia, Prussia and Austria to join in. But the British cabinet was buoyed by the fact that the Royal Navy still ruled the seas, and as long as it could maintain a tight blockade of France’s ports there was hope. That hope was turned into practice when London issued the retaliatory Orders in Council, which prohibited neutral ships from trading with Napoleonic Europe except under license. The Foreign Secretary George Canning wrote: “We have now, what we had once before and once only in 1800, a maritime war in our power—unfettered by any considerations of whom we may annoy or whom we may offend—And we have…determination to carry it through.” Canning’s “whom” most definitely included the Americans. The British noted that the American merchant marine, as one of the few neutral parties left in the game, was doing rather well out of the war: Tonnage between 1802 and 1810 almost doubled from 558,000 to 981,000. Nor could the British understand why Jefferson and then Madison were prepared to accept Napoleon’s false assurances that he would refrain from using the Continental System against American shipping—but not accept Prime Minister Lord Liverpool’s genuine promises that wrongly impressed American sailors would be released. Writing home to England, a captain on one of the Royal Navy ships patrolling around Halifax complained: “I am really ashamed of the narrow, selfish light in which [the Americans] have regarded the last struggle for liberty and morality in Europe—but our cousin Jonathan has no romantic fits of energy and acts only upon cool, solid calculation of a good market for rice or tobacco!”
The Missing 13th Amendment, against “Titles of Nobility” and “Honor”

“It was not until the beginning of 1812 that Britain belatedly acknowledged the strength of American grievances. Royal Navy ships near the American coastline were ordered “not to give any just cause of offence to the Government or the subjects of the United States.” Captains were also commanded to take extra care when they searched for British deserters on American ships. Parliament had just revoked the Orders in Council when the news arrived that President Madison had signed the Declaration of War on June 18. London was convinced that the administration would rescind the declaration once it heard that the stated cause—the Orders in Council—had been dropped. But when Madison then changed the cause to impressment of American sailors (which now numbered about 10,000), it dawned on the ministry that war was unavoidable. News of Madison’s declaration coincided with momentous developments in Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée of 500,000 men—the largest pan-European force ever assembled to that date—invaded Russia on June 24 with the aim of forcing Czar Alexander I to recommit to the Continental System. Britain decided its only course of action was to concentrate on Europe and treat the American conflict as a side issue. Just two battalions and nine frigates were sent across the Atlantic. Command of the North American naval station was given to Adm. Sir John Borlase Warren, whose orders were to explore all reasonable avenues for negotiation.

The first six months of the war produced a mixed bag of successes and failures for both sides. The larger U.S. warships easily trounced the inferior British frigates sent to the region, and in six single-ship encounters emerged victorious in every one. American privateers had an even better year, capturing over 150 British merchant ships worth $2 million. But the British took heart from the land war, which seemed to be going their way with very little effort expended. With the help of Shawnee war chief Tecumseh and the Indian Confederation he built up, the Michigan Territory actually fell back into British possession. In late November an American attempt to invade Upper Canada ended in fiasco. The holding pattern was enough to allow Henry, 3rd Earl of Bathurst, Secretary for War and the Colonies, to feel justified in having concentrated on Napoleon. “After the strong representations which I had received of the inadequacy of the force in those American settlements,” he wrote to the Duke of Wellington in Spain, “I know not how I should have withstood the attack against me for having sent reinforcements to Spain instead of sending them for the defense of British possessions.” Yet the early signs in 1813 suggested that Earl Bathurst might still come to regret starving Canada of reinforcements. York (the future Toronto), the provincial capital of Upper Canada, was captured and burned by U.S. forces on April 27, 1813. Fortunately, in Europe, it was Napoleon who was on the defensive—bled dry by his abortive Russian campaign and proven vulnerable in Spain and Germany. What few Americans properly grasped was that in British eyes the real war was going to take place at sea. Although the death of Tecumseh in October 1813 was a severe blow to its Canadian defense strategy, Britain had already felt sufficiently confident to separate nine more ships from the Mediterranean Fleet and send them across the Atlantic. Admiral Warren was informed, “We do not intend this as a mere paper blockade, but as a complete stop to all Trade & intercourse by sea with those Ports, as far as the wind & weather, & the continual presence of a sufficing armed Force, will permit and ensure.”

New York City and Philadelphia were blockaded. The Royal Navy also bottled up the Chesapeake and the Delaware. To the British, these successes were considered payback for America’s unfair behavior. “However, we seem to be leading the Yankees a sad life upon their coasts,” wrote the British philanthropist William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley, in July 1813. “I am glad of it with all my heart. When they declared war they thought it was pretty near over with us, and that their weight cast into the scale would decide our ruin. Luckily they were mistaken, and are likely to pay dear for their error.” Dudley’s prediction came true. Despite the best efforts of American privateers to harass British shipping, it was the U.S. merchant marine that suffered most. In 1813 only a third of American merchant ships got out to sea. The following year the figure would drop to one-twelfth. Nantucket became so desperate that it offered itself up to the Royal Navy as a neutral trading post. America’s oceanic trade went from $40 million in 1811 to $2.6 million in 1814. Custom revenues—which made up 90 percent of federal income—fell by 80 percent, leaving the administration virtually bankrupt. By 1814 it could neither raise money at home nor borrow from abroad.”

Thomas Jefferson’s First Version of the Declaration of Independence
by Erin McCarthy

“Jefferson submitted the “rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress on June 28, 1776. Delegates argued the details of the document for two days before making a number of changes to it—and Jefferson was not pleased. In the days after the document was ratified, the founding father handwrote several copies of his original version, underlining what had been changed, and sent them off to several friends. Most of the changes were made to the last half of the document; notably, the following passage, which referred to slavery, was omitted to appease delegates from Georgia and South Carolina. Of the King, Jefferson wrote (bold indicates an underlined portion):

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Also omitted was this rallying cry (again, emphasis Jefferson’s):

we might have been a free & a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom, it seems, is below their dignity. be it so, since they will have it: the road to happiness and to glory is open to us too; we will climb it apart from them, and acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our eternal separation!

Today, only two complete copies of the document (and one fragment) remain intact. Each year before the fourth of July, the New York Public Library puts its copy (from which this text is taken) on display; you can see one of the photos from when we checked it out above, and get a closer look at it yourself here.”

Honourable East India Company flag from 1707 to early 1800’s

Thomas Jefferson: American Fascist?
by Corey Robin /  December 2, 2012

“Yesterday in the New York Times, legal historian Paul Finkelman wrote a bruising attack on Jefferson titled “The Monster of Monticello.” This was a followup to some of the controversy surrounding the publication of Henry Wiencek’s new book on Jefferson, which makes Jefferson’s slaveholding central to his legacy. Finkelman’s essay has already prompted some pushback. David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy liberally quotes from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, “an extraordinary book” according to Post, in which Jefferson does voice some of his ambivalence over slavery. Curiously, Post never cites the lengthy and disturbing passages from Query XIV, where Jefferson offers his most considered views on the nature and status of  black people and their fate in America. And it’s clear why. It makes for chilling reading.  I’ll just cite some brief excerpts here:


The first difference which strikes us is that of colour.  Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us.  And is this difference of no importance?  Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races?  Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?  Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.  The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?  Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race.  They have less hair on the face and body.  They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.  This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites.  Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it.  They seem to require less sleep.  A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning.  They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome.  But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.  When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites.  They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.  Their griefs are transient.  Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.  In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.  To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour.  An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.  Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.  It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation.


The Indians, with no advantages of this kind [as that enjoyed by black slaves in America], will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit.  They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation.  They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated.  But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.  In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch.  Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.  Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.  Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet.  Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.  Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet.  The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.  The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.  Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition…But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky.  His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration.  Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column.


With the Romans, the regular method of taking the evidence of their slaves was under torture.  Here it has been thought better never to resort to their evidence.  When a master was murdered, all his slaves, in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death.  Here punishment falls on the guilty only, and as precise proof is required against him as against a freeman.  Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists.  They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children.  Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves.  But they were of the race of whites.  It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.

To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history.  I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.  It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them?  This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.  Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty.  Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be done with them?’  join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only.  Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort.  The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master.  But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history.  When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.

I bring up these passages less because I’m interested in Post’s omissions and his arguments than because of the general way the debate about Jefferson has been framed thus far. The basic idea seems to be that Jefferson had some fine ideas—and terrible practices. And whatever of his legacy that’s terrible, the argument goes, is entirely caught up with, and consumed by, the institution of slavery. So once we abolish slavery, thanks in part to the words of the Declaration that Jefferson wrote, we’re in the land of the good Jefferson. But as this passage in Notes on the State of Virginia suggests, Jefferson’s real and lasting contribution to the American experiment is not exhausted either by the Declaration or by the institution of slavery. It is as a theorist of race domination—of white supremacy, of the perdurability of race (and specifically the black race), of the ineradicable shallowness of blackness as against the textured profundity of whiteness—that he stands out. And that is a legacy that persists to this day.

Jefferson was not a liberal hypocrite, a symptom of his time. He was the avant garde of a group of American theorists who were struggling to reconcile the ideals of the Declaration with the reality of chattel slavery. His resolution of that struggle took the form of one of the most vicious doctrines of racial supremacy the world had yet seen. That is his legacy, or at least part of his legacy. He was by no means the only one to take this route, but he was one of the earliest and easily the most famous. He is the tributary of what would become an American tradition.And as I argue in what follows, which is an excerpt from a paper on Louis Hartz that I never published (though a passage or two of it may appear in The Reactionary Mind), Jefferson’s race theory—along with that of such men as Thomas Dew, James Henry Hammond, and William Harper, who feature prominently in my discussion—points not only to the eighteenth century (he was much more than a man of his times) and not only to the categories of liberalism and republicanism, which are so familiar to US intellectual historians. It also points, albeit only in a suggestive way, to the future, to the twentieth century and European doctrines of racialized fascism. Jefferson, I would submit, should be remembered not only as the writer of the Declaration of Independence and owner of slaves, but also as a contributor, along with his successors, to a doctrine of race war and what Hannah Arendt would later call, in another context, “race imperialism”—which would find its ultimate fulfillment a century later, and a continent away. [In the interest of legibility and flow, I’ve eliminated all the footnotes.]

Racism was tailor made to the counterrevolutionary task of combating abolition, of reconciling the Declaration of Independence with the reality of chattel slavery.  It combined ideas of equality and inequality, and fused the radical’s vision of political plasticity with the conservative’s notion of the stubbornness of history.  It proved an ideology of extraordinary and protean—extraordinary because protean—resilience, precisely because it had something for everyone, save of course for the slaves themselves. According to Josiah Nott, races are “marked by peculiarities of structure, which have always been constant and undeviating.  Human races—as opposed to other species of animal or plant—are particularly immutable.”  From these deep and enduring differences of physical structure, moral differences, equally enduring, followed.  “Is it not a law of nature, that every permanent animal form…carries with its physical type a moral of its own, which cannot be obliterated, changed, or transferred to another, so long as the physique stands?”

More than classifying men and women into distinctive types, slavery’s racial theorists made the quite radical argument that humanity’s every attempt to rise above its physical nature was a misbegotten enterprise.  We are, they claimed, beings of the utmost and comprehensive constraint.  Our character, personality, individuality—none of these is self-fashioned or amenable to artifice.  Each is an irrevocable and irreversible given. If the intransigence of biology was the back-story of race, it followed that there was only one race, properly understood, in America:  the black race.  According to Nott, white people reason, imagine, and create—activities of transcendence that do not jibe with the liabilities of race.  The white man “takes up the march of civilization and presses onward.”  He frees himself of his inheritance, his circumstance, history itself.  For that reason, “the Caucasian races have been the only truly progressive races of history,” which means nothing so much as that whites were not a race at all.

Among blacks, however, “one generation does not take up civilization where the last left it and carry it on as does the Caucasian—there it stands immovable; they go as far as instinct extends and no farther.”  In the words of Thomas Cobb, the black man’s “mind is never inventive or suggestive.  Improvement never enters into his imagination.  A trodden path, he will travel for years, without the idea ever suggesting itself to his brain, that a nearer and better way is present before him.”  Blacks can no more rise above their station than they can sink below it.  They are what they are, have been and will be.  As William Harper wrote, “A slave has no hope that by a course of integrity, he can materially elevate his condition in society, nor can his offence materially depress it…he has no character to establish or lose.”  Even contempt or scorn, claimed Harper, would not spur the black race to do better.

Writing long before these theories of racial difference were fully formulated, Thomas Jefferson offered a glimpse of what it means to think of blacks as a race, as the race, and whites as individuals.  Blacks are brave, he says, but this is due to “want of forethought.”  The black man is “ardent,” but this is lust, not love.  “In general,” he says, “their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”  In “imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”  One can see their brute incapacity for historical transcendence and moral or political freedom in the color of their skin.  While whites sport “fine mixtures of red and white,” reflecting the diverse range of passions and sensibilities at their disposal, blacks suffer from the “eternal monotony” of blackness, that “immovable veil” that makes any subtlety or nuance, any gradation of feeling, any distinctiveness or idiosyncrasy of character and personality, impossible.

No mere contradiction or sleight of hand, this dual portrait of whites as individuals and blacks as a race was the perfect counterrevolutionary argument.  It ascribed to whites all the virtues of a ruling class—capable of action, freedom, politics itself—and to blacks all the deficits of a class to be ruled.  “This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people,” wrote Jefferson of black slaves.  Even among free blacks in the North, Thomas Dew argued, “the animal part of the man gains the victory over the moral.”  After the Civil War, Nott would write that “all the powers of the Freedmen’s Bureau, or ‘gates of hell cannot prevail against them’ [the inequalities between whites and blacks].”

But while race thinking prescribed the most vicious forms of domination, it also absorbed a mutant strain of the egalitarianism then roiling America and turned it into a justification for slavery.  “Jack Cade, the English reformer, wished all mankind to be brought to one common level,” wrote Dew.  “We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery had eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks of society.” Anticipating the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, Edmund Morgan, and David Roediger, the slaveholders openly acknowledged that slavery made white men feel equal.  Equal and, more important, superior:  under slavery, freedom became a scarce privilege, a prized distinction that just happened to be possessed by all white men.  It thus discharged the egalitarian debts of America—not by paying them (Alexander Stephens would claim that the claim of equality in the Declaration of Independence was “fundamentally wrong”) but by democratizing feudalism.

However vigorous were these nods to a feudal—if democratized—past, the defenders of slavery remained firmly fixed upon the future.  Refusing the identity of the staid traditionalist, they preferred the title of the heretic and the scientist, that fugitive intelligence who marched to his own drummer and thereby advanced the cause of progress and civilization.  John C. Calhoun compared the criticisms he received for his positions to the “denunciation” that had fallen “upon Galileo and Bacon when they first unfolded the great discoveries which have immortalized their names.”  Like all the great modern—William Harvey, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and James Mill were also among their other models—the slaveholders were guided, or claimed to be guided, by the light of truth and reason. Just as Galileo was initially persecuted and now revered, so would the South one day be hailed for its innovations.  “May we not,” asked Stephens, “look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?”  In 1837, Calhoun declared that the “experiment” of racialized slavery “was in progress, but had not been completed.”  The “judgment” of society, he warned, “should be postponed for another ten years,” when the experiment would presumably be concluded.

But there was another side to this embrace of the fugitive intellect: the acute sense of wounded victimhood, which sounded like nothing so much as the grievances of a revolutionary class in the making.  The master class performed that strange alchemy, so peculiar to privileged groups, by which the enjoyment of power—not just on the plantation or in the South but in national political institutions as well—is turned into the anxiety of persecution.  Calhoun was the master of this transposition, borrowing directly from the abolitionist canon to make the case that it was the slaveholder that was the true slave.  He compared the tariff to the exploitation and extraction of slavery and the federal government’s use of coercive power against the states to the “bond between master and slave—a union of exaction on one side and of unqualified obedience on the other.”  Burke made a similar move in his account of the fate of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution: his treatment of the hounded queen resembles those stories of feminine victimhood—think of Richardson’s Pamela—that Lynn Hunt has recently argued helped give rise to the popular discourse of human rights during the eighteenth century.

The slaveholders’ sense of being besieged was not imaginary: outside of Brazil and the Caribbean, they were a lonely outpost of domination; with the abolitionists beginning to gain traction in some northern circles, they were acutely aware—Calhoun earlier than most—of the writing on the wall.  Even so, their perception of themselves as aggrieved subalterns subjugated by imperious elites reflects more than a prophetic realism.  It testifies to the curious ways in which a revolutionary idiom can infiltrate the most exalted of classes.  “We…are in a hopeless minority in our own confederated republic,” cried Harper.  “We can have no hearing before the tribunal of the civilized world.”

With their orientation to the future and acute sense of victimhood, the southern writers adopted an ethos geared less to liberalism or conservatism—ideologies arising from previous centuries of European conflict—than to fascism, the one ism of the twentieth century that could and would make a legitimate claim to novelty.  They beat the drums of race war. Like the Nazis ca. 1940, they offered deportation and extermination as final solutions to the Negro Question.  If blacks were set free, Jefferson warned, it would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.”  Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported from France with their parents, Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.”  If the slaves were freed, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.”


Like the Nazis, the defenders of slavery spoke of lebensraum.  We often forget that Hitler, in Mein Kampf, spurned Europe’s pursuit of overseas colonies, arguing instead that his countrymen should “direct [their] eyes toward the land in the East” where Germany could escape the industrial present and build an agrarian future.  In Poland and Russia, the Germans could “finally put an end to the prewar colonial and trade policy and change over to the land policy of the future” based on the slave labor of the Slavic peoples. The slaveholders spoke of expanding to the west, where they too would create an alternative modernity, an agricultural utopia that would validate their new political economy of land and forced labor.  They dreamed of vast empires, like the Roman or the Egyptian, but on the Mississippi.  (Why Memphis, after all, or Cairo, Illinois?) “In our own country, look at the lower valley of the Mississippi,” wrote Harper, “which is capable of being made a far greater Egypt.”  In “the great valley of the Mississippi” James Hammond thought he saw “the acknowledged seat of the empire of the world,” perhaps even “an empire that shall rule the world.”

Lurking beneath the South’s notions of race war and land empires was a vision of life as permanent struggle, of history as a ledger of agonistic conflict.  Not for the slaveholders the pastorals of old Europe, where time stood still or moved forward at glacial pace.  “Mutation and progress is the condition of human affairs,” wrote Harper.  Like Nietzsche and the Social Darwinists, the master class believed that social friction and political contest made for passion and greatness.  The problem with the abolitionist creed, Harper argued, was that it would create a society where “if there is little suffering, there is little high enjoyment.  The even flow of the life forbids the high excitement which is necessary for it.”  Only in struggle and domination could “the moral and intellectual faculties…be cultivated to their highest perfection.” Better the inequality of slavery, which allows for the highest cultivation of the few, than the mediocrity of equality.  Only the “inequality of condition between the front and rear ranks,” wrote Calhoun, gives “so strong an impulse to the former to maintain their position, and to the latter to press forward into their files.”  Only inequality, in other words, would guarantee “the march of progress.” Slavery, Dew concluded, would produce not only an efficient economy but also the most dynamic and expansive society the world had ever seen.