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  • Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America by Padraig Riley
  • Elizabeth Fenton (bio)
Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America Padraig Riley Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016 328 pp.

The study of political history often focuses on the works of larger than life figures. Certainly this has been true of scholarship dealing with American Republicanism: Thomas Jefferson and his ilk loom over any discussion of early US democracy. This makes sense, of course: those “founders” left copious, often beautifully rendered records—official and otherwise—and their writings still form the backbone of American politics. Padraig Riley’s new book, however, joins a growing body of work acknowledging the fact that political systems are not forged solely by powerful men. Covering roughly the period from 1790 through the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience charts the ascendance of the Democratic-Republican Party, showing how its success involved a complex series of ideological negotiations and compromises, often by those removed from direct political power and particularly by northerners who opposed the practice of slavery. Although Riley’s book includes assessments of writings by major figures such as Jefferson and James Madison, its main object of analyses is the work of “middling” party members—the farmers, ministers, newspapermen, and immigrants who simultaneously supported and contended with the Democratic-Republican agenda. That party’s reach was broad, but the simple hyphen linking southern Democrats and northern Republicans in its name belies the complex philosophical struggles that ever threatened its undoing. Slavery and the [End Page 227] Democratic Conscience is thus a study of the tension between ideology and realpolitik, as it assesses the kind of everyday negotiations citizens must make between their moral commitments and their political necessities.

Rather than treating slavery as anathema to democracy or as an ugly truth Democratic-Republicans simply accepted, Riley shows that over the course of many years Republicans from different walks of life grappled with the relationship between the two, often shifting their positions regarding slavery in the service of arguments favoring democracy. Riley’s book begins with a set of tantalizing questions: how did nonslaveholders committed to democracy justify supporting a party that endorsed slavery? Why did white northerners flock to a political movement committed to preserving southern power? What is the link between slavery and freedom in the American imagination? And what were the long-term consequences of this early accommodation of slavery? Drawing on an impressive archive that includes newspapers of the period, political pamphlets, and congressional records, Riley uncovers a previously untold story within the master narrative of early US politics. Through its nuanced account of the origins of Jeffersonian Republicanism, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience reveals what might be effaced if we focus solely on that movement’s namesake: the deep but deeply fraught links between white notions of liberty and the material realities of slavery in the early United States.

One of the strengths of Riley’s work is its attention to regional difference. Although the Democratic-Republican Party attempted to paper over distinctions among its constituents, the variety of men who joined it related differently to its promises and reacted differently to its shortcomings. Each chapter in Slavery and the Democratic Conscience addresses a different facet of northern approaches to Republican Party slavery. Chapter 1 focuses on New England, where Federalist power held the most sway at the turn of the century. As Riley demonstrates, Republicans in these states managed the question of southern slavery by foregrounding their own oppression at the hands of Federalist elites, often focusing on the suppression of the Republican press and the tyranny of established churches. The second chapter turns to Philadelphia, where Irish immigrants similarly aligned themselves with the Jeffersonian movement as a protest against Federalist nativism. This is a particularly fascinating chapter, as Riley complicates the standard narrative of the Irish population’s transition into “whiteness” by showing how that transition entailed “making [End Page 228] cognitive and ideological allowances for the extreme authority of slaveholding” while simultaneously asserting the inalienable rights of citizens in a free state (53). As each of these chapters demonstrates, white northern men frequently came to...


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