In his Feb. 26 column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time,” New York Times columnist David Brooks praised the founding fathers in contrast to today’s tea partiers and other zealots for favoring politics over brute force, and compromise over intransigence. He’s partly right in that solving social conflict through politics and compromise is one of the founders’ legacies. But he’s also wrong in a dangerous way: violence and intransigence on the issue of white racial power are also central to our founding inheritance, and we would be a healthier society for recognizing that.
First, a moment of agreement: Brooks is spot-on in his interpretation of the present. In brief, he argues that the political right’s obstinacy in considering giving up any ground to be apostasy has resulted in a downward spiral for national governance.
But Brooks contrasts this behavior with that of the founders, who, according to him, chose politics over authoritarianism and compromise over brute force.
Let’s put aside some of the well-known counter-examples to Brooks’s argument in which the founding elites baldly used state force to put down their fellow-citizens, such as with the stillborn State of Franklin, Fries Rebellion, Shays Rebellion, and the Whiskey Rebellion. For the sake of this argument, we will even leave aside the bitter partisan fighting of the Revolutionary war.
What we should take pains to remember, however, is that the white South’s insistence on defending slavery at any cost, including the threat or use of violence, is central to how we should understand the American Revolution. As historian Woody Holton has argued, rich Virginia plantation owners (men like Washington and Jefferson) may very well have been pushed toward independence by Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation that slaves held by rebellious owners could gain their freedom by joining the British army. Nothing, not even facing up to Europe’s pre-eminent military power, was more frightening to these men than losing their slaves. So they went to war instead of finding a way to compromise.
Similarly, the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention threatened to walk out rather than consider any limits on their own slaveholding. Historian Gary Nash contended that the northern delegates might have called their bluff. I’m not so sure. Regardless, as historian David Waldstreicher has demonstrated, southern delegates got just about everything they wanted. Compromise? I suppose, but only because northern delegates knew that the southern states would only join the union if slavery were protected.
And, most egregiously, of course, what was slavery itself if not the authoritarian, violent subjugation of some people (blacks) by others (whites)?
We should remember that what I just detailed is exactly the lesson that antebellum southern politicians learned from the American Revolution, and what they cited in 1860 as their following the founders’ lead in seceding, rather than have slavery threatened. That same spirit animated the violence that the KKK used to repress blacks during and after Reconstruction, Southern congressmen’s insistence that Social Security exempt agricultural and service workers (read: the occupations blacks were most likely to have), southern whites’ resistance to the civil rights movement, the incarceration regime that still keeps more young black men in jail than in college, and recent efforts to roll back the Voting Rights Act that disproportionately affect black people’s access to the ballot box.
That same spirit that has fueled a tea party movement whose main glue is racial animus (as multiple studies indicate), and Donald Trump’s rise has been bolstered significantly by people who would rather that the Confederacy had won the Civil War.
The founders surely left us with many positive examples. But in this case, the heroes of today’s intransigent right, the ones who have never accepted even the fact of our first black president’s birth in the United States, have resisted every one of his policies, have called him a liar even during the State of the Union address, and have even refused to consider a Supreme Court nominee in his last year of office, are not, as Brooks would like to think, flouting our founding legacy. Unfortunately, they are the heirs of our founding generation’s racial ugliness.