Civic nationalism is our topic this month.
What is civic nationalism? It is liberal nationalism. Specifically, it is a sense of nationhood and pride based on belief in liberal abstractions – freedom, equality, tolerance, individual rights, constitutionalism, citizenship – which is contrasted with nationalism based on shared race, ethnicity, culture, religion. Civic nationalism is based on a voluntary proposition – you agree with it or you don’t – as opposed to ascriptive categories which are inherited like race.
The American tragedy is that Americanism as an ideology was based on BOTH civic nationalism and racial nationalism. The Declaration of Independence talks about the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” A few paragraphs later, it condemns King George III as a tyrant for exciting “domestic insurrections amongst us” and endevouring “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Thomas Jefferson was the embodiment of this contradiction. He was simultaneously both a broadminded liberal and ideological republican and a white supremacist and slaveowner. He believed in human equality and the racial inferiority of the black race. This species of American isn’t a combination which is commonly found today but it was far more common in the early years of the Republic. America unironically presented itself to the world as a beacon of freedom while building the world’s largest slave state.
From the beginning of the United States, Americans have wrestled with this contradiction. The US Constitution created by the Founding Fathers was a series of bitter compromises. It included the 3/5ths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause which were bitter pills to swallow in New England. The Declaration of Independence originally indicted King George III on anti-slavery grounds but that was omitted and changed to inciting “domestic insurrection among us” in the final version.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 is commonly cited by White Nationalists as proof that the United States was founded as a White Nationalist country. In reality, the truth is that the Founding Fathers were of two minds about race. There were the Southerners led by Jefferson who clung to the older view that blacks were inferior and that America was a White country. There were the Northerners led by Benjamin Rush and Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith (the president of Princeton) who argued in favor of racial equality.
This is how Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith put it in his response to Jefferson:
“I am inclined, however, to ascribe the apparent dullness of the negro principally to the wretched state of his existence first in his original country, where he is at once a poor and abject savage, and subjected to an atrocious despotism: and afterwards in those regions to which he is transported to finish his days in slavery, and toil. Genius, in order to its cultivation, and the advantages display of its powers, requires freedom: it requires reward, the reward at least of praise, to call it forth; competition to awaken its ardor; and examples both to direct its operations, and to prompt its emulation. The abject servitude of the negro in America, condemned to the drudgery of perpetual labor, cut off from every mean of improvement, conscious of his degraded state in the midst of freemen who regard him with contempt, and in every word and look make him feel his inferiority; and hopeless of ever enjoying any great amelioration of his condition, must condemn him, while these circumstances remain, to perpetual sterility of genius.”
Jefferson’s arguments about negroes weren’t uncritically accepted by his contemporaries:
Benjamin Rush argued that “Slavery is so foreign to the human mind, that the moral faculties, as well as those of the understanding are debased, and rendered torpid by it. All the vices which are charged upon Negroes in the southern colonies and the West Indies, such as Idleness, Treachery, Theft, and the like, are the genuine offspring of slavery, and serve as an argument to prove that they were not intended, by Providence for it.”
By the 1770s, many Northerners were denying the inferiority of blacks because it was inconsistent with civic nationalism. Benjamin Franklin thought that negroes were “not deficient in natural Understanding” and Alexander Hamilton believed “their natural faculties are probably as good as ours.” The typical argument that was that blacks weren’t racially inferior to Whites. They only seemed that way because Southern slave owners had oppressed and imbruted them. It was something for all Whites to feel guilty about. These arguments were made on the floor of the First Congress.
Benjamin Franklin’s last public paper was a defense of slavery by a Barbary pirate. He was arguing with James Jackson of Georgia and William Loughton Smith of South Carolina. The latter shot back that “It was well known that they were an indolent people, improvident, averse to labor: when emancipated, they would either starve or plunder.” Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina argued that “there was not a gentlemen in North Carolina who did not wish there were no blacks in the country. It was a misfortune – he considered it as a curse; but there was no way of getting rid of them. Instead of peace-makers, he looked upon the Quakers as warmakers, as they were continually endeavoring in the Southern States to stir up insurrections amongst the Negroes.”
Before the American Revolution, these arguments were never heard of except in the most radical Quaker anti-slavery circles. After the American Revolution when Locke’s arguments were seized on by New England propagandists in the 1770s (his Two Treatises of Government were unknown in the American colonies before then), they became the conventional wisdom in the Northeast. The blank slate mind of the negro was equal to Europeans and only slavery had brought about the inequality.
The slide down the slippery slope began with the American Revolution. Samuel Johnson had charged the Americans with hypocrisy in his famous quip, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for freedom from the drivers of negroes
Civic nationalism isn’t just incompatible with monarchs and aristocrats. It was also incompatible with slavery and racial hierarchy and produced the world’s first White genocide.