Thomas Jefferson could not believe a Black person wrote the poem. A Boston poet, Phillis Wheatley, had composed a lyrical tribute to George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, creating a sensation in the Patriot ranks. She was an enslaved African American woman, a fact that did not keep Washington (a slaveholder) from politely acknowledging her work.
Nonsense, said Jefferson. Blacks were an inferior race incapable of composing such beautiful words as Wheatley had lovingly set down on her page. This, in short, reflected Thomas Jefferson’s view of a race that he enslaved to the tune of 300 human beings: He was a racist, and a particularly virulent one even by the standards of slaveholding Virginians. His bigotry was not just a personal failing, but a central component of the political tradition that he would go on to father.
Jeffersonian ideology has a long history in American politics. The dictum that “that government is best which governs least” in fact flowed from the pen of Henry David Thoreau–and in fact it continued into anarchism–but it is often misattributed to Jefferson because the third president’s influence upon our politics has been so great. Jefferson’s brand of libertarianism differed in important ways from the style preferred by today’s Republicans; he wanted to catalyze human cooperation not empower entrepreneurs. But the basic sensibility, a semi-paranoid hostility to government power, has endured for centuries.
Just as Jefferson was in some ways a malignant personality, his vision for government is far from being a benign governing creed. The party he founded, called the Republicans but unrelated to today’s GOP, was premised firstly on a defense slave agriculture against Alexander Hamilton’s developmental program. From the Jacksonian era until the 1960s, Southern white supremacists carried the torch of limited government within a Democratic Party that gradually became hostile to the Dixiecrats’ racism. What happened next is remarkable only in the speed with which it transpired; the racist wing of the Democratic Party migrated with the force of an elephant herd into a party led by Richard Nixon that welcomed them with the “Southern Strategy.”
There is a great deal of continuity in American history. From the consistency with which Jefferson’s precepts have accompanied regressive race politics, we can infer two things. America may always have a party of white supremacy. As Justice Breyer observed, American racism is like a virus: It mutates into new forms as it inhabits new environments, but its fundamental substance persists. A constituency for white rule seems to be a fixed component of the American political landscape. And political operatives, so often cynical, have appealed to this cache of voters on the basest grounds.
But opportunism alone does not explain why the marriage of libertarianism and hate has held together for so long. In fact, in the United States of America, minimal government requires white racism. Beyond the highbrow world of intellectuals like Jefferson, support for limited government is sharply circumscribed. Thus, the only way to build a majority for small government is to convince white working people that activist government will enable the advance of Black people in America. Government, in effect, must be seen as an ally of the Other. Only when political elites have defined government action as inherently antithetical to the interests of white control will a majority for shrinking government take shape.
This is an old strategy, and politicians throughout or history have made use of it. It is not necessarily an effort to hoodwink whites into “voting against their self-interes,” because racism is in the interests of racists. By, for example, keeping the economy rooted in plantation agriculture or starving the welfare state, a large slice of white America can enrich itself fulsomely. Bigots from Jefferson to Trump have whitened small government. The hue will never change.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.