Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Part III: Rhetoric, and its Uses

Though for the most part the Kentucky Resolutions represent Thomas Jefferson in a more prosecutorial mode than was his custom, they still contain flashes of the idealist he was often known to be. At times these moments seem to incline toward naiveté, or even intolerance, and at others the sort of high-minded radicalism that Jefferson was so quick to express and quicker to disregard. They are collectively of interest because they depict the man at a moment of intersection in his career. In 1798 he was a former congressman, governor, and diplomat, Vice-President in an administration whose policies he despised, and intellectual leader of a burgeoning political opposition movement. He was on the cusp of becoming President himself, and yet seemed prepared to see the country torn apart if it meant preserving what he regarded as the natural rights of the people. The Resolutions are a snapshot in the life of a great and contradictory man, and the great and contradictory nation he helped to create; in addition to showcasing his sharp political mind they capture his errors, assumptions, and petty accusations.

 Among the many and various statements that Jefferson made in his Resolutions about the nature of American government under the Constitution, or the crisis surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts, certain of them strike me as slightly erroneous or skewed in some way. Whether this was the result of honest error on Jefferson’s part, or a calculated attempt to mislead, it’s hard to say. Likely they represented what Jefferson believed at that moment; at times a little out of touch with reality, but offered sincerely. Some are relatively minor; an overly simple characterization of the relation between the states and the federal government, or a claim to have knowledge of the true intentions of the Framers of the Constitution. Others seem rather more severe; a veiled promise of revolt, or an entire philosophical premise that he himself later completely ignored. Whatever their size or nature, I find them to be fascinating reflections of both Jefferson, the principled man, and Jefferson, the cunning politician, and are well worth a brief examination.

As quickly as the first resolve Jefferson put forth a rather matter-of-fact statement that arguably elides the rather complex relationship that exists between the state and federal governments. Specifically, he described the United States as a compact that, “each state acceded as a state, and is an integral party.” It is simply put, and true in point of fact, but there is more to the state/federal bond than Jefferson lets on. While it is the case that every state that acceded to the Union did so after first establishing a constitution and a provisional government, and thus their existence as a formal political entity technically pre-dated their admission to the United States, not all of them arrived at statehood in the same fashion. The Thirteen Colonies, which formed the thirteen original states, were all founded at least fifty years prior to the existence of the Union. The federal government that they formed in the 1770s could accordingly be thought of as a pact among thirteen co-equal republics whose sovereignty was based in their respective independent foundings. Vermont, the fourteenth state, also existed as an autonomous republic before being admitted to the Union in 1791, but the states that followed did so by somewhat more complicated routes.

Tennessee, which was admitted in 1796, was formed out of the organized, federally administered Southwest Territory. This political entity was comprised of western land ceded to the federal government by North Carolina in 1790 as payment for outstanding debts. It was overseen, as all organized, incorporated U.S. territories were, by a governor appointed by the President, and whose powers were practically absolute. Though there can be no argument that the residents of the Territory were responsible for creating a provisional government and drafting what would become Tennessee’s first constitution, the Territory’s very existence was owed to actions taken by the federal government. Indeed, I would submit that Tennessee itself would not exist were it not for the federal government claiming North Carolina’s debt, accepting western land as payment, and organizing and administering the Southwest Territory in the interim. Consequently, though Tennessee did accede to the Union as an independent and legally equal state, it was more a creation of the Union itself than any state that had come before.

It’s also worth noting that the formula used to create the Southwest Territory, and that structured the admission of Tennessee and later states, was set out by the United States Congress in 1787 in the Northwest Ordinance. One of the few acts of congress under the Articles of Confederation that had a lasting effect, the Ordinance spun out of the efforts of, among others, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to compel certain states to abandon their competing land claims on the western frontier and cede the territory to the federal government. The resulting federally-administered region, the Northwest Territory, was to be then subdivided into separate states as the population increased and constitutions were written by the settlers living there. In all, five states were carved out of the land covered by the Northwest Territory, including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. All of these states gained admission to the Union after Jefferson’s Resolutions were made public in November 1798, but the process by which they did so was laid down and set in motion over a decade prior.

Jefferson was undeniably aware of this fact, but it would not have served his purpose to acknowledge it. His conception of the United States in 1798 was as a union of sovereign political entities that voluntarily surrendered a portion of their authority to a central government and could take it back if they wished. There are times when this has been an accurate description, but so often America is more than the sum of its parts. When the federal government set out to create new states, and laid down policies and created territories for that purpose, it transcended its origins as an alliance of independent political entities and became a sovereign entity in and of itself. While I would not go so far as to say that Jefferson was wrong in his thinking, it would be fair to say that his characterization of the matter is somewhat misleading.     
The aforementioned ninth revolve contains several other noteworthy statements by Jefferson, evidence of the hyperbole to which he so often resorted. First, he claimed while discussing the necessity of opposing the Alien and Sedition Acts that they violated the Constitution, “according to the plain intent and meaning in which it was understood and acceded to by the several parties.” He added no special emphasis to this passage in particular, and moved on to other topics in short order, but it strikes me as a rather odd thing for him to say. For one thing, and as I mentioned previously, he was not present at the Philadelphia Convention when the Constitution was being drafted. Nor was he even in the United States when the approved final draft was being debated and ratified by the various state conventions. It therefore would seem a rather strange claim for Jefferson to make that he knew the “plain intent and meaning” by which the “several parties” understood and voted in favour of the Constitution.

Granted he no doubt exchanged opinions and insights in letters with men like James Madison, who were present, or discussed the issue with colleagues in the various states upon his return to America in 1789. But the ferocity of the ratification debates in some states and the closeness of some of the final convention votes (the New York convention, for instance, voted in favour of ratification, 30-27) demonstrates how far people in the United States were from holding any “plain intent and meaning” in common about their newly minted government. Opinions on the Constitution varied state by state, county by county, according to economic class, occupation, and any number of other social and political distinctions. For Jefferson to tacitly claim that there was a consensus of opinion concerning the Constitution and that the Alien and Sedition Acts ran counter to it would seem to wilfully ignore the complexity of the situation. But then that was Jeffersonian rhetoric; soaring, charismatic, and inspirational, but also often exaggerated and distorted.

Similar embellishments appear further on in the ninth resolve. While detailing all the many and various negative effects that would result from a common acceptance of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson wrote that, “these and successive acts of the same character, unless arrested on the threshold, may tend to drive these states into revolution and blood, and will furnish new calumnies against republican governments, and new pretexts for those who wish it to be believed that man cannot be governed but by a rod of iron.” It would be difficult to say whether this was intended as a premonition or a promise. It’s possible that Jefferson was honestly trying to forecast what he believed would be the regrettable result of a growing concentration of power in the hands of the federal government. At once it seems equally possible that he was instead attempting to subtly but unmistakably intimate to supporters of the Alien and Sedition Acts that bloodshed would be the inevitable result of their efforts.

Though by all accounts a peaceful man, there were times over the course of his career when Jefferson seemed indifferent to violence, or even encouraged it, provided it served a higher motivation. His support of the French Revolution was just one such occasion; no matter how bloody the streets of Paris became Jefferson maintained that the result, a free, republican France, was worth the turmoil. That he would have adopted a similar attitude toward his own country seems, to me, far from inconceivable. However much the thought of a sitting Vice-President encouraging an anti-government insurrection would seem today to be beyond the pale, revolution was not so far from the minds of Americans in 1798. Revolts over war debt in Massachusetts in 1786 and tax collection in Pennsylvania between 1791 and 1794 proved that in the early decades of the United States armed resistance was still a widely accepted protest tactic. 

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