02 December 2012

The origins of American racism

Readers may know me to be a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, but that includes me having read enough of his writings to know just how bigoted he really was.

Corey “The Reactionary Mind” Robin digs into the roots of the racist ideology undergirding American slavery and finds some troubling connections in his long essay Thomas Jefferson, American Fascist? The title is deliberately provocative, of course, but it proves to be only a modest overstatement of his thesis. Robin connects the dots between Jefferson's ideas about race and the ideology which would come to animate the Confederate contention that slavery was a positive good, and then in turn to the racialized nationalism that would manifest in fascism. The argument is pretty involved, but I found it discomfortingly persuasive.

Jefferson’s race theory—along with that of such men as Thomas Dew, James Henry Hammond, and William Harper, who feature prominently in my discussion—points not only to the eighteenth century (he was much more than a man of his times) and not only to the categories of liberalism and republicanism, which are so familiar to US intellectual historians. It also points, albeit only in a suggestive way, to the future, to the twentieth century and European doctrines of racialized fascism.

Jefferson, I would submit, should be remembered not only as the writer of the Declaration of Independence and owner of slaves, but also as a contributor, along with his successors, to a doctrine of race war and what Hannah Arendt would later call, in another context, “race imperialism”—which would find its ultimate fulfillment a century later, and a continent away.

Update: Robin has a follow-up on Jefferson.

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