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The Tea Party's Legacy of Racism

By       Message Robert Parry       (Page 4 of 6 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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Though Madison had served essentially as Washington's right-hand man in developing the Constitution and shepherding it through ratification, Madison gradually shifted his primary political allegiance to Thomas Jefferson, his Virginia neighbor and fellow slaveholder.

Jefferson was in France during the Constitution Convention, but he later took up the Henry-Mason concern about federal abolition of slavery. Perhaps more than any early national leader, Jefferson also injected a bitter "factionalism," ignoring Washington's warnings against it as a threat to the new constitutional Republic.

Jefferson proved to be a clever politician as he built a movement that challenged Washington's Federalists and their vision of a vibrant central government. Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party supposedly represented the interests of modest "farmers," although his true base of support was among Southern plantation aristocrats. By the early 1790s, Madison had been pulled from Washington's orbit to Jefferson's.

Despite his intellectual brilliance, Jefferson was really just another Southern hypocrite. He wrote that "all men are created equal" (in the Declaration of Independence) but he engaged in pseudo-science of skull measurements to portray African-Americans as inferior to whites (as he did in his Notes on the State of Virginia).

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His racism rationalized his own economic and personal reliance on slavery. While desperately afraid of slave rebellions, he is alleged to have taken a young slave girl, Sally Hemings, as a mistress. Jefferson's hypocrisy also surfaced in his attitudes toward a slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue (today's Haiti), where African slaves took seriously the Jacobins' cry of "liberty, equality and fraternity."

After their demands for freedom were rebuffed and the brutal French plantation system continued, violent slave uprisings followed. In 1801, President Jefferson (along with his Secretary of State James Madison) sided with French Emperor Napoleon in his effort to crush the slave uprising. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Racism and the American Right."]

Ironically, after the slaves of Haiti defeated the French army, Napoleon was forced to abandon his dream of building a French empire in the center of the North American continent and instead sold the Louisiana territories to Jefferson in a deal negotiated by Madison (although the purchase exceeded the Constitution's "enumerated powers," thus violating their supposed strict constitutional principles).

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Madison also flip-flopped on the issue of a national bank, opposing it when the bank was created by Treasury Secretary Hamilton under Washington's presidency. But -- as President -- Madison struggled with financing the War of 1812 and then embraced the necessity of a bank.

Loyal to Slavery

Even after their presidencies, Jefferson and Madison remained loyal to their neighbors, the slaveholders of Virginia who -- as a group -- had discovered a lucrative new industry, breeding slaves for sale to the new states emerging in the west. Jefferson himself saw the financial benefit of having fertile female slaves.

"I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm," Jefferson remarked. "What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption."

While recognizing the economic value of slavery, Jefferson suggested that the ultimate resolution of slavery would be to expatriate black Americans out of the country. One of Jefferson's ideas was to take away the children born to black slaves in the U.S. and ship them to Haiti. In that way, Jefferson posited that both slavery and America's black population could be phased out.

Jefferson and Madison also insisted on framing the slavery issue as one in which the white Southerners were the real victims. In 1820, Jefferson wrote a letter expressing his alarm over the bitter battle surrounding the admission of Missouri as a slave state. "As it is, we have the wolf by the ear and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go," Jefferson wrote. The imagery sought sympathy for the South as the ones caught in a dangerous predicament, tenuously holding onto a ravenous wolf.

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After returning to his Virginia plantation, Madison expressed his own sympathy for the slave-owning South in a play that he wrote, entitled "Jonathan Bull and Mary Bull." The plot involved the wife Mary having one black arm, which husband Jonathan had accepted at the time of their marriage but later found offensive. He demanded that Mary either have her skin peeled off or her arm cut off.

In Madison's script, Jonathan Bull becomes obnoxious and insistent even though his remedy is cruel and even life-threatening. "I can no longer consort with one marked with such a deformity as the blot on your person," Jonathan tells Mary, who is "so stunned by the language she heard that it was some time before she could speak at all."

Madison's play clumsily made the belligerent and cruel Jonathan represent the North and the sympathetic and threatened Mary the South. As historians Burstein and Isenberg note...

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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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