The Anti-Jeffersonian Party
Originally published in The American Conservative
There was a time when the Democratic Party viewed itself as a somewhat populist party, and had the custom of sponsoring Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. These are no more. The ostensible reason for their abandonment are the honorees’ identification with slavery and the Trail of Tears, but the real reasons lie deeper.
That Mr. Jefferson participated in the Southern slavery economy of his time is well known; his modern critics have rendered themselves indentured servants of the economy of their own time, with its large governmental, law firm, foundation, and academic bureaucracies. Unlike them, Jefferson did his utmost to dismantle the system he was a part of. There was, of course, the incandescent language of the Declaration of Independence, which would have been even more incandescent had it not been diluted by others. There was also Jefferson’s effort at the 1776 Virginia constitutional convention to ban slavery in Virginia’s western provinces, which then extended to the Mississippi; his effort in Congress in 1784 to ban slavery in all territories acquired or to be acquired by the United States, which failed by one vote and which would have extended to the Louisiana Purchase acquired in 1803; as well as his sponsorship of the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the better part of six midwestern states. His early views about the capacities of African Americans were changed by his encounter with Benjamin Banneker. In his Annual Message in 1806, he successfully urged enforcement of the Constitutional ban on importation of slaves after 1808. He manumitted his household servants, and could not have freed others without being guilty of a fraud against his numerous creditors.
Jefferson’s real sin, in the eyes of his present day detractors, is that he was a decentralist. On his tombstone, he listed what he considered his three greatest achievements: the Declaration, the foundation of the University of Virginia, and the Virginia declaration on religious freedom. The last had analogies in other states, notably Rhode Island and Maryland; the university, though the first state institution, has become largely privatized under recent dubious leaders, and his meritocratic ideals, placing it at the apex of an educational pyramid, are anathema to what was once his party. His most enduring achievement to American constitutionalism is the Northwest Ordinance and the Land Ordinance, which provided for the erection of new self-governing territories and states in the West once certain populations had been achieved. While this design was not perfectly followed, admission of some states being delayed because of the slavery and other controversies, it enfranchised “flyover country” and ensured that states other than the coastal centers had a decisive voice in government. Without it, the United States might have resembled the centralized regimes of Europe: essentially colonial regimes dominated by one or two large cities.
The influence of the interior states in the Senate and the Electoral College is a bone in the throat of today’s Democrats. They lament the equal representation of New York, California, and Wyoming in the Senate, though they can scarcely maintain that Wall Street and New York’s media or Silicon Valley and Hollywood each only have 2 percent influence on American government. They seek to alter the Senate by admitting the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as states, notwithstanding their below-average populations; no doubt the Virgin Islands will not be far behind. As for the Electoral College, they seek by interstate compact to make the national popular vote—heavily influenced by the New York and California media—controlling. The ideal is a nation whose political values are almost entirely determined by Hollywood, the New York Times, and the White House, the “font of all news” as the German Ambassador Count von Bernstorff observed more than a century ago. As for political finance, its primary sources now are Wall Street, the Hamptons, and Silicon Valley; ceilings on “hard money” individual contributions limit the influence of local elites and further nationalize the financing of elections.
The notion of the national government as a government of limited powers has been cast into the discard pile. The national courts and Congress are assumed to have plenary power over social issues, as illustrated by the Justice Department’s recent interventions in abortion and transgender cases, and local protests over school curricula and the masking of schoolchildren. The expansion of national policing agencies, which Justice Robert H. Jackson among others regarded as uncontrollable and viewed with dread, proceeds apace.
As for President Jackson, his opposition to a centralized “money power” is no longer the concern of Democrats, who have helped preside over the concentration of banking in the hands of four or five national banks. The concerns about the political influence of public creditors that led Jefferson and his Treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, to pay down the national debt, have been cast aside. In his veto of the Maysville Road bill in 1828, President Jackson declared: “the works which might be thus aided should be of a general, not local; national, not state character. A disregard of this distinction would of necessity lead to the subversion of the federal system.” He feared “a scramble for appropriations that have no relation to any general system of improvement.” He urged instead that “surplus revenue” be “apportioned among the several states according to their ratio of representation.” Lest this idea seem quaint, one must point out that it underlies the German fiscal reforms of 1968 which forbid conditional spending by the national government and allocate to the Lander assigned shares of income and value added taxes. Similar principles inform Scottish devolution and the Mitterrand decentralization reforms in France.
The only efforts in this direction in the United States in recent times were the revenue-sharing measures of the Republican Nixon administration, ultimately done in by Congress, though urged also by several Democratic economists of a bygone era, including Walter Heller and Alice Rivlin. The present Democratic view of an ideal polity, which will be enormously extended by the pending Reconciliation proposals, is that described by the Cornell political scientist Theodore Lowi in his End of Liberalism:
[The President] is authorized to use any powers, real or imagined, to set our nation to rights by making any rules or regulations the President deems appropriate; the President may sub-delegate this authority to any other official or agency…actual policymaking will come from a process of tripartite bargaining between the specialized administrators, relevant members of Congress, and the representatives of self-selected organized interests.
In our time, another political scientist, Robert Wiebe, observed, “few laws were designed for more than a tiny minority to comprehend. In the nineteenth century, democracy measured public policy against a universalist standard, an ideal of one land policy or one corporate policy for all. Separate laws for separate groups automatically suggested corruption.” Under Biden, separatism is now being extended not only to economic groups, but to racial and ethnic ones. The consequences of this new form of corruption, antithetical to Enlightenment values, are not pleasant to contemplate.
George Liebmann is the author of America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation (Bloomsbury: 2018), which discusses ten laws of the earlier type and their framers.