Tuesday, January 06, 2004

I didn't spend all the last two weeks skiing, sunning, and swimming. I also read, beginning with "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills. (You can also find an excerpt from this on the web in The New York Review of Books.) Wills explains how the "three-fifths" compromise in the Constitution, which counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for Congressional representation, and therefore for Presidential electoral votes, made Jefferson's victory in 1800 possible despite his getting fewer votes. (Don't mention Florida 2000 to me again!) He claims the logic of this so-called corrupt bargain between Southern slave owners and northern democrats led them to further tyranny to protect slavery, including censorship and destruction of civil liberties in the northern states, and even politically motivated attempted impeachments. Now my faithful readers will no doubt expect me to point to all this as an example of the hypocrisy of current Democrats, who claim to represent the will of the majority and stand for judicial independence. No, I'm going to denounce this book instead, no matter how well written and researched it is.

Jefferson is praised as an icon by today's liberals, mostly for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Naturally they like it, since it espoused virtual anarchy and was literally treasonous under British law at the time. Wills, cowering before Political Correctness, felt he had to appease liberal conventional wisdom by writing gushingly "I have admired Jefferson all my life, and still do. ...there is much else I revere in him." He adds that of his criticism here "that fact does not mean that I would prefer that John Adams had won." We should be suspicious of any symbol people dare not question without such apologies. Why, even Jefferson's sex life was an example of "affirmative action".

Twisting the Constitution to preserving the slave power was almost the only good thing Jefferson did in his long career. This is not because he was protecting ownership of slaves as such, but because he was protecting sacred property rights (carried to their ultimate extreme -- owning other people), and imposing a wonderfully conservative cultural stasis on society. The Democratic lip service to liberalism could never be more than hot air as long as they moved in lockstep with the "slavocracy". Wills loves the "good" liberal Jefferson, but attacks the "bad" conservative one. Like a typical intellectual, he gets it all backwards. He also stops his story short, missing how conservatives have evolved changed with the times over the years.

Yes, the slave power was overrepresented and disproportionately in control of America before the Civil War War Between The States, but Wills misses how much better off the Southern elite were after that war. Now a black citizen counted for Congress and the electoral college not as three-fifths of a person, but as a whole person. This gave the Southerners an even greater voice in the government. Nevertheless, segregation and denial of voting rights meant the former slaves and their descendants had exactly the same political voice as before -- none whatsoever. The former slaveholders were also spared the burden of owning old unproductive slaves. In the New South those who could not work were simply allowed to starve -- a great cost saving for the plantation owners.

This agrarian utopia lasted until the 1950s when an intrusive U.S. Extreme Court began striking it down, aided by the images broadcast by nosy television cameras of Southern police dogs (really only doing their jobs) attacking crowds of "peaceful" demonstrators. But though segregation has passed away (at least in law), conservatism has continued to grow. Today the owning elite is reinstating a class society, polarized between the haves and the have nots. Once the underclass was all black, and wasn't even allowed to own their own lives in the South. Today, social progress has been made so that both white and black poor are equally free to own nothing but their own lives. ("The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." --Anatole France) Each year Bush's tax and fiscal policies make it more difficult for the middle class to move up in the world and challenge their betters, or even to continue to exist. More of them sink into the growing mass of the working poor, helping keep wages down and profits up -- the very purpose of a sound government. To quote Martha Stewart, a contributor to Democrats who is thankfully about to be shut up and shut away on trumped up charges, this is a GOOD thing.

I'll post another book report in a day or two; check back for more.

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