The Abbeville Institute, an academic organization with the stated goal to “preserve and present what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition,” recently published an article by Dave Benner defending the legacy of Thomas Jefferson from an attack by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Benner is the author of Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution.
Benner begins his historical narrative by presenting Virginian James Madison as one of many leaders who were together responsible for the US Constitution; he opposes the “unwarrented” idea of Madison as the Father of the Constitution. Benner also notes that Madison desired a “highly nationalistic government” (conflating nationalism with centralization and statism) and presents the US Constitution, with its alleged checks and balances, as a failure from that point of view.
He continues, noting that Jefferson was mostly satisfied with the Constitution, primarily concerned about its lack of a Bill of Rights (which was added a short time later). In this manner Benner rightly associates Jefferson with Unionism even though he wasn’t instrumental in writing its founding document. He notes that “Jefferson exhibited more support toward the [constitutional] framework than disdain.”
The writer goes on to present Alexander Hamilton as the chief mastermind of consolidation, someone who took what was otherwise a limited and sensible government and gave it undue powers over the States.
Finally, he presents Madison and Jefferson as States’ rights advocates who fought to nullify Federal supremacy – overlooking the fact that both were early US presidents who expanded Federal powers and supported protective tariffs. As Occidental Dissent has pointed out, “Hamiltonianism triumphed because the Jeffersonians enacted Hamilton’s program.”
Throughout the piece we see a narrative presented which looks with favor upon the Constitution, Jeffersonianism and the Union as it existed prior to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. This is consistent with the overall leanings of the Abbeville Institute.
In contrast, I present in my book Our Southern Nation: Its Origin and Future (American Anglican Press, 2015) evidence that the South’s decision in 1776 and 1789 to throw its lot in with Northern merchants and religious and political radicals was a disaster which doomed Dixie to decades of abuse and finally invasion, destruction and occupation. It was foolish to separate from an empire which granted Southerners enormous economic benefits and political influence in order to form a democratic Union with radicals whose economic, political and cultural interests were opposed to ours. Likewise, Jefferson’s Enlightenment-inspired language in the Declaration of Independence was a disaster which was used to advance egalitarianism and radical republicanism at home and around the globe. By the 1830s Southerners were consciously moving away from Jeffersonianism. I quote prominent Southern leaders and intellectuals denouncing Jefferson’s rhetoric in strong language.
Jefferson was wrong about universal human equality – even if that is not exactly what he had in mind when he falsely claimed that “all men are created equal.” He was wrong in supporting the creation of a Union (in which Southerners were a minority) with those hostile to Southern interests. He was wrong in his support for the French Revolution and the radical republicanism and destructive egalitarianism it unleashed. He was wrong in expanding the powers of the central government, especially in granting it the power to create new States from wilderness, ultimately undermining Southern parity in the Senate. And this is to say nothing of the admittedly brilliant man’s embarasssing personal failing – his long-term relationship with a mulatto slave woman. Jefferson, though a gifted Southern planter and intellectual, was a disaster for Dixie. We can find far better heroes in our past to inspire us – Rhett, Simms, Miles, Fitzhugh, Yancey, Tucker, Wigfall, Keitt, Debow, etc. – who defended Southern interests and advanced Southern nationalism against the hostile Union which Jefferson helped create and empower.