Thomas Jefferson's Nationalist Vision of New England and the War of 1812
Scherr, Arthur, The Historian
UNTIL RECENTLY, Thomas Jefferson's nineteenth-century image as a herald of freedom and Union embodying "the definitions and axioms of free society," as Abraham Lincoln put it, seemed secure. (1) By contrast, many current historians adopt an image of Jefferson as an ethnocentric Virginian supporter of states' rights without a developed concept of nationhood. They argue that his proslavery, agrarian bias, particularly in such matters as his presidency's Louisiana Purchase and Embargo Act, his sentiments in favor of the War of 1812, his objection to the prohibition of slavery in Missouri, and protests against national "consolidation" in old age, were especially harmful to mercantile, Puritan, antislavery New England. (2)
This article opposes the claims of those historians. Jefferson, notwithstanding some angry outbursts, was essentially conciliatory toward New Englanders. During the War of 1812, he promoted a peaceful, gradualist strategy instead of urging the military overthrow and destruction of Massachusetts. This was perhaps inevitable, in light of his conviction that the New England town meeting best implemented direct democracy, which he considered the most legitimate form of government. A closer examination of Jefferson's view of New England may help us reassess his historical reputation and better comprehend the roots of sectionalism and nationalism in the early republic. After sampling some current scholarly assessments of Jefferson's outlook, this essay will analyze his opinions about the region, whose citizens' commercial and manufacturing lifestyle ostensibly offended his agrarian-provincial values. His attitudes during the War of 1812, the epoch of New England disunionism and the Hartford Convention, merit special attention. (3)
Several historians have recently examined aspects of Jefferson's opinion of New England. Ronald Hatzenbuehler discusses Jefferson's reactions, while U.S. minister to France, to Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786-1787. His main source is a letter from Jefferson to John Adams twenty-six years later that ignored the incident. Hatzenbuehler argues that the disorder appalled Jefferson, who thereafter regarded Virginians as exceeding New Englanders in competence for self-government. However, Jefferson's letters during 1786-1787 uniformly applauded Shays' Rebellion as a "good thing," which would ultimately enhance the rulers' responsiveness to the ruled. Moreover, rather than being extinguished by his alleged disgust at Shays' Rebellion, Jefferson's lifelong admiration for New England's democratic town meeting organization grew over the years. (4)
Garry Wills's provocative new work, "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power (Boston, 2003), views Jefferson as an ambitious politician determined to maintain Southern hegemony in the new government. Heartened by such measures as the "three-fifths clause" of the constitution, he thought that adding slave states to the Union would stymie the political progress of selfish Federalist "Northern merchants." Jefferson could not forgive these men. Led by idealistic Timothy Pickering (whose odious historical reputation Wills seeks to rehabilitate), New England Federalists had attacked slavery, disobeyed his Embargo Act, and opposed the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. A cabinet member under Washington's and Adams's administrations and senator and congressman from Massachusetts during Jefferson's and Madison's presidencies, Pickering, according to Wills, epitomized the selflessness, morality, and integrity that Jefferson lacked. (5)
On the other hand, Wills admits that Jefferson proposed the Embargo largely to protect New England shippers from British depredations, although they preferred to pursue unimpeded the lucrative profits derived from carrying Latin American tropical goods to continental Europe. Like Henry Adams and others, Wills notes that the Embargo more adversely affected …
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Publication information: Article title: Thomas Jefferson's Nationalist Vision of New England and the War of 1812. Contributors: Scherr, Arthur - Author. Journal title: The Historian. Volume: 69. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2007. Page number: 1+. © 2009 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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