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  • Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America by Padraig Riley
  • David N. Gellman (bio)
Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America. By Padraig Riley. ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. 328. Cloth, $45.00.)

Northern Jeffersonians knew that slavery contradicted democracy. But from the emergence of the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1790s through the Missouri Crisis, they rarely figured out how to translate "universalist conceptions" (19) into antislavery success on the national stage. The refusal of southern Republicans to permit the national government from intervening against any aspect of domestic slavery constituted a major obstacle. In Padraig Riley's rendering, a divided mind played at least as big a role, for northern democrats had another, louder voice in their heads than an antislavery one. That voice insistently told political operatives that the best hope for democracy's survival was a cohesive, expanding nation. Repeatedly perceiving domestic and foreign threats to [End Page 561] the survival of the democratic nation, northern Jeffersonians checked or sublimated their antislavery rhetoric again and again. Because northern non-slaveholding democrats knew better, Riley finds compromises and defeats especially troubling. In his book, American democracy's near fatal entanglement with slavery and white supremacy was made, not born; early national nurture rather than postcolonial nature.

Featuring prominent publicists and second-tier politicians, Riley is able to identify substantive democratic critiques of slavery, as well as when and why those critiques lacked staying power. Religious outsiders in New England like Abraham Bishop and John Leland sought to combat entrenched hierarchies, while transatlantic radicals like William Duane and John Binns celebrated the United States as a haven for liberty from British oppression. Thomas Branagan denounced slavery in poetry and prose. Duane excoriated George Washington's slaveholding. Yet rather than underscoring their proclaimed opposition to African American enslavement, the use of slavery as a political metaphor diverted radical attention and weakened resolve. New England Republicans spoke of religious establishment and property requirements for the franchise as a form of slavery. Later, sailors impressed by the British navy became emblems of white enslavement. Republicans mobilized support for war in their defense.

Partisan blinders, perceived political necessity, and "wishful thinking" (112) impeded northern Jeffersonians' ability to speak or act consistently against actual black enslavement. In the process, a race-based vision of democracy emerged. In the 1790s, the Federalist nativism, legally embodied in the Alien and Sedition Acts, posed a threat to the liberty of foreign-born radicals. Republicans throughout the North relied on their southern political allies to dislodge their despised Federalist rivals and tormentors from office. Once the Republicans ascended to power, the escalating crisis in Anglo–American relations made national unity a priority; northern Republicans refrained from pressing their southern allies too hard on slavery. Sometimes ostensibly antislavery northern Republicans exaggerated Jefferson's antislavery commitments. Rather than making common cause with actual black freedom fighters, Duane, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, shifted blame for Gabriel's Rebellion to the Federalists and the British for their support of the Saint-Domingue slave rebellion. The radical publisher found little to like in that rebellion [End Page 562] either. Encouraging more white immigration from Europe would, he reasoned, make the United States less vulnerable to such interracial slaughter. By similar logic, slaves who achieved freedom and fought for the British during the War of 1812, as well as Indians defending their sovereignty on the frontier, supported foreign tyranny at the expense of American liberty.

Riley insists nonetheless that northern Republican antislavery was real and substantive. He points to "episodic but recurrent" (97) instances in which northern Republicans attempted to oppose the interests of slaveholders. These moments could be fleeting and technical. In 1802, northern Republicans helped defeat a proposal that would have required employers in the North to verify that black employees were not fugitive slaves. A strong majority of northern Republicans attempted to strengthen the U.S. renunciation of slave importation after 1807 with language to prohibit selling into slavery people seized during enforcement of the ban. That amendment failed. The unsuccessful attempt of the Clintons of New York, George and DeWitt, to wrest control of the party from the...


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pp. 561-564
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