Hatred of Traditional Hierarchy—The Democrats’ Link from the Old South to “Anti-Racism”

Republicans’ and Democrats’ rival interpretations of the relationship between their parties’ past and present racial policies are well-known. Republicans stress their predecessors’ role in the elimination of slavery and their party’s consistent support for racially neutral law—arguing that Democrats have merely changed which race they legally privilege. Democrats claim racial neutrality was a “first step” in a “pro-black direction” but is now (at best) de facto tolerance of racism. 

Few ask the crucial question: Why did the Democrats change so drastically? The reason is that their positions on race have never really been about race. Race politics have consistently been a means to an end: destruction of traditional class hierarchies. The change from denying to accepting the equal humanity of blacks has changed only the place Democrats have given them within an otherwise consistent vision.

As University of Virginia Professor Jeffrey Zvengrowski has recently demonstrated in his magisterial Jefferson Davis, Napoleonic France, and the Nature of Confederate Ideology, 1815-1870, popular impressions of the Old South stem not from historical fact but from post-Civil War glorification of the Lost Cause and from Leftist criticism.

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Thomas Jefferson’s attempted libertarian-egalitarian synthesis was marginalized even before his death, torn apart by the tension between a freedom that allows the development of class hierarchies and an equality that can only be approximated through expansive government. Though lip service and appeals to Jefferson’s memory were widespread, the Democratic Party was actually an uneasy alliance between libertarian and egalitarian factions—whose philosophical leaders were, respectively, John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun.

Randolph’s faction was the one that fit the aristocratic, quasi-traditionalist, libertarian stereotype. But it was never strong enough to be more than a junior partner. In practice, it functioned almost as a third party, the “Tertium Quids.” Though holding the most extreme States’ Rights doctrines, it sometimes allied with the strongly pro-federal government Whig Party (roughly the successor of the earlier Federalists and predecessor of the later Republicans). 

Both favored a more restrained, non-expansionist foreign policy. Both championed property rights and the established social order. Both considered the country’s small numbers of middle class and aristocratic free blacks the social equals of their white counterparts. The Tertium Quid faction, however, was also America’s most unequivocally pro-slavery faction—some within it advocating the creation of white slavery in northern factories.

All such views were anathema to the dominant ideology of the antebellum south—that largely developed by Calhoun. This ideology didn’t embrace States’ Rights out of broad commitment to limited government. It did so because of: 1) A belief that States’ Rights correctly interpreted the legal relationship between federal and state governments, and 2) The need to assure that the Tertium Quid faction would be allies more than enemies. At the state level, however, some adherent of the dominant antebellum ideology favored governments more centralizing, activist and expanding than anything the pro-federal Whigs would have accepted at any level of government. Its goal was a combination of egalitarianism among whites (including early steps toward feminism for white women) and white supremacy.

Bizarre as it may be, white supremacy was seen not as an exception to egalitarianism but as a pillar of it. “Scientific racism” glossed over the contradiction by declaring blacks an inferior subspecies. With that excluding them from egalitarian concerns, white supremacy was proclaimed necessary for dismantling traditional class hierarchies. (The parallel to contemporary Leftists’ denial of the full humanity of unborn babies and linking of abortion to feminist egalitarianism should be obvious.) Attitudes to slavery were ambivalent—it was considered the best means of assuring white supremacy but partly distrusted as the southern aristocracy’s economic prop. Abolition would have been accepted in return for reducing aristocratic power and for the strengthening of white supremacy at the expense of middle- and upper-class blacks.

Whigs were considered the supreme enemy, and not just because of their pro-federal government and anti-slavery positions. They were also hated as the party of traditional social hierarchy. Many today do not realize that their pro-federal stance was linked to defense of a social hierarchy that most 19th century Democrats wished to destroy through decentralization. Even hatred of the anti-slavery movement was partly motivated by belief that it was dominated by conservative members of the upper and middle classes (which, outside of the radical fringes, it largely was) and a tool for reinforcing class hierarchy at the expense of lower-class whites (which it wasn’t).

Just how conservative the Whigs were would reduce contemporary Leftists to apoplexy. They believed the best political order combined technical legal equality under republican structures with practical dominance by a “natural aristocracy”—membership in which would in some cases result from individual accomplishment but mostly be a consequence of birth into elite families whose preservation of status would be neither enforced nor impeded by government policy. Consent of the “common people” would be necessary for passing laws, exercised through direct election of members of the House of Representatives. 

Majority rule, egalitarian democracy, was considered a dangerous road to demagoguery and dictatorship. Selection of presidential electors and senators by state government was therefore favored, as was limiting the franchise to landowners. Those with such views didn’t consider abolition egalitarian. Its goal was to make blacks free individuals within a traditional social hierarchy, able to compete for higher status.

The original Civil Rights Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century maintained this orientation. Its leading figure was Booker T. Washington. A former slave who lived until 1915, Washington advocated a conservative program of black advancement allied to the Republican Party. He believed the key to creating social and economic parity among the races was the accomplishments of individual blacks who climb the social ladder through the excellence of their achievements. As long as Washington lived, his prestige assured his vision a strong following within the black community.

After Washington’s death, his rivals rapidly took control of the Civil Rights Movement. Embracing socialistic ideologies and tying opposition to racism into a broader Leftist agenda, they abandoned the Republicans for a Democratic Party that was still the home of segregationists. For this new “anti-racism,” segregationists could be tolerated as allies provided they were otherwise egalitarian—particularly in opposing the class structure and favoring Leftist economics. Supporters of traditional social hierarchies, property rights, and the market were the enemy—no matter how opposed to racism and segregation they might be.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People became the “reformed” Civil Rights Movement’s flagship. In fact, however, its title is a misnomer. Founded largely by white socialists, the NAACP has never existed purely, perhaps not even primarily, for “the advancement of colored persons.” Its real purpose is, in its own words, “To ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of all citizens.” 

Economic and social equality are blatantly socialistic. They necessitate the obliteration of property rights and of the traditional class hierarchies concomitant with them. Educational equality can only be created if the affluent are prevented from exercising their property rights to obtain superior educations for their children. “Political equality” might sound like “equality before the law.” But it can also be a euphemism for destruction of the “informal power” through which those of greater wealth and higher social status maintain “disproportionate control” over political life.

Ironically enough, this meant that, on most issues, the ideology of the mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement was in sympathy with the orientation of the majority of southern Democrats of the antebellum and Jim Crow eras—and antithetical to that of Whigs, who first led the charge against slavery, and their Republican Party successors. Once “old-fashioned Democrats” accepted the equal humanity of blacks, their worldview and that of the Civil Rights Movement inevitably merged into a single Leftist vision encompassing members of all races. The fact that historical injustices had resulted in blacks generally being poorer than whites even made them useful allies in the Democrats’ long-standing war against America’s traditional class structure.

Today, property rights and traditional class structures (not real or imagined racism) remain the true targets of Leftists—including the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, and other professedly “anti-racist” organizations.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • James Baresel

    James Baresel is a freelance writer. Publications for which he has written include Tudor Life, Catholic World Report, American History, Fine Art Connoisseur, Military History, Catholic Herald, Claremont Review of Books, Adoremus Bulletin, New Eastern Europe and America’s Civil War.

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