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The Four Eras of the American Right

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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The Federalists, who were the principal Framers, understood the Constitution to grant the central government all necessary powers to "provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." However, Jefferson and his fellow Southern slaveholders were determined to limit those powers by reinterpreting what the Constitution allowed much more narrowly.

Partisan Warfare

Through the 1790s, Jefferson and his Southern-based faction engaged in fierce partisan warfare against the Federalists, particularly Alexander Hamilton but also John Adams and implicitly George Washington. Jefferson opposed the Federalist program that sought to promote the country's development through everything from a national bank to a professional military to a system of roads and canals.

As Jefferson's faction gained strength, it also pulled in James Madison who, in effect, was drawn back into the slave interests of his fellow Virginians. Jefferson, with Madison's acquiescence, developed the extra-constitutional theories of state "nullification" of federal law and even the principle of secession.

Historians Burstein and Isenberg wrote in Madison and Jefferson that these two important Founders must be understood as, first and foremost, politicians representing the interests of Virginia where the two men lived nearby each other on plantations worked by African-American slaves, Jefferson at Monticello and Madison at Montpelier.

"It is hard for most to think of Madison and Jefferson and admit that they were Virginians first, Americans second," Burstein and Isenberg said. "But this fact seems beyond dispute. Virginians felt they had to act to protect the interests of the Old Dominion, or else, before long, they would become marginalized by a northern-dominated economy.

"Virginians who thought in terms of the profit to be reaped in land were often reluctant to invest in manufacturing enterprises. The real tragedy is that they chose to speculate in slaves rather than in textile factories and iron works. " And so as Virginians tied their fortunes to the land, they failed to extricate themselves from a way of life that was limited in outlook and produced only resistance to economic development."

Because of political mistakes by the Federalists and Jefferson's success in portraying himself as an advocate of simple farmers (when he was really the avatar for the plantation owners), Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans prevailed in the election of 1800, clearing the way for a more constrained interpretation of the Constitution and a 24-year Virginia Dynasty over the White House with Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe, all slaveholders.

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By the time the Virginia Dynasty ended, slavery had spread to newer states to the west and was more deeply entrenched than ever before. Indeed, not only was Virginia's agriculture tied to the institution of slavery but after the Constitution banned the importation of slaves in 1808, Virginia developed a new industry, the breeding of slaves for sale to new states in the west. [For details on this history, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Right's Dubious Claim to Madison."]

Toward Civil War

The course to the Civil War was set, as ironically the warnings of Patrick Henry and George Mason proved prescient, the growing industrial strength of the North gave momentum to a movement for abolishing slavery. When Abraham Lincoln, the presidential candidate for the new anti-slavery Republican Party, won the 1860 election, southern slave states seceded from the Union, claiming they were defending the principle of states' rights but really they were protecting the economic interests of slave owners.

The South's bloody defeat in the Civil War finally ended slavery and the North sought for several years to "reconstruct" the South as a place that would respect the rights of freed slaves. But the traditional white power structure soon reasserted itself, employing violence against blacks and the so-called "carpetbaggers" from the North.

As white Southerners organized politically under the banner of the Democratic Party, which had defended slavery since its origins in Jefferson's plantation-based political faction, the North and the Republicans grew weary of trying to police the South. Soon, southern whites were pushing blacks into a form of crypto-slavery through a combination of Jim Crow laws, white supremacist ideology and Ku Klux Klan terror.

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Thus, the century after the Civil War could be designated the post-Confederate era of the American Right. This restoration of the South's white power structure also coincided with the emergence of the North's Robber Barons -- the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan -- who amassed extraordinary wealth and used it to achieve political clout in favor of laissez-faire economics.

In that sense, the interests of the northern industrialists and the southern aristocracy dovetailed in a common opposition to any federal authority that might reflect the interests of the common man, either the white industrial workers of the North or the black sharecroppers of the South.

However, amid recurring financial calamities on Wall Street that drove many Americans into abject poverty and with the disgraceful treatment of African-Americans in the South, reform movements began to emerge in the early Twentieth Century, reviving the founding ideal that the federal government should "promote the general Welfare."

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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