The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Race, Politics & Redistricting

Thomas Jefferson was less than sanguine about the future of race relations in the United States. Indeed, he thought we would not be able to manage to free the blacks and have both races live together, as when he wrote:

Jefferson felt that the injuries that the blacks had sustained would prevent them and their injurers from living together peacefully.

But that analysis supposes an immediate incorporation of the blacks into American society, and as we know, they have instead undergone the injustice of a 100-year "apprenticeship" as second-class citizens after obtaining their partial freedom. But even that 100 years has not been enough to eliminate the scars, the call for reparations and for compensations for past discriminations. Nevertheless, we are further along than Jefferson seemed to anticipate. There have been continued injuries, but there has also been salient progress. Now it seems that we have reached a cross-roads, a point of crisis: we can either move forward as one nation with multiple races, or we can separate and move independently, being forever at enmity with one another. And forever is not a rash judgment, for we see in Bosnia and in other parts of the world, peoples whose enmities have not been resolved and have broken out into uncivilized atrocities after many centuries. For love of country and for love of humanity, it is imperative that we not follow that path, that we resolve this question in a way that will bring us together, not keep us forever apart.

There are signs that such a peace between races is possible. Many persons of Oriental extraction are living amongst us, and although they, too, have known discrimination in the past, it is infinitely less today than, say, 50 years ago. In fact, people from the far east today are fully accepted in American society, and racial discrimination for them has virtually disappeared. This suggests that full assimilation of blacks into American society is possible. We only need maintain a course that will not undermine that assimilation. From the Jeffersonian Perspective, however, we are left with the sense that we are on our own. Jefferson offered no direct guidelines. Instead, he wrote:

Justice -- the right of black people to be free -- is in one scale, and self-preservation -- our right and need to preserve our republic -- is in the other. We are faced with this problem whether we like it or not, whether we can solve it or not. If we believe in the principles upon which this nation was founded, then it behooves us to seek a solution that accords with those principles, and to do what even the genius of Jefferson did not feel up to. One advantage that we have is that we are in the midst of it. Another advantage is that we have undergone a kind of gradualism, so that the ugliness of slavery is now only a memory, not the actual experience of anyone now living. For Jefferson, it was a theoretical problem, to be dealt with by a later age; for us, it is now upon us, and we are looking it straight in the face, though with the amelioration of time. And as Jefferson wrote,

We are passing through that revolution. The possibility of overcoming this evil lies at our feet.

Although Mr. Jefferson may have provided no direct help, we can try to extract from him every indirect help that we can, for as he himself said:

    "The organization of [government] may be thought [to entail great difficulties]. But follow principle, and the knot unties itself." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

By identifying what is proper principle, and then by following it unrelentingly, we have our best opportunity to find a solution in spite of the difficulty. If we abandon republican principles in order to accommodate the ends of appeasement, or expediency, or for any other seemingly reasonable end, we can only make the problem worse. As we have argued elsewhere, this nation is founded on principles that go to the very heart of what it means to be a human being. If those principles are true, and I sincerely believe they are, then by sticking to them unwavering, we will eventually make our way through these dangerous waters. They are our only hope. If instead, we let ourselves be turned away from those principles, how could we expect to succeed? What will we have if we do succeed? They will either carry us through, or they will preserve the republic intact and some other non-governmental forces will be required to carry us through. In any case, it would be fatal to forget the founding principles of this nation. We have no future without them.

    "If doubtful, we should follow principle." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

    "Principle will, in... most... cases open the way for us to correct conclusion." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

Discovering what is proper principle in any given case is not always obvious and easy. Assuring that blacks have a voice and are able to have their interests represented in the political arena are the rights of any full-fledged citizen. But representation along racial lines, and being certain that one will have representatives of one's own race, are not republican principles. It can certainly be argued that divisions along racial, ethnic, religious or ideological lines, rather than making us a unified people, leads to divisiveness, polarization, and real segregation. The winner-take-all system that is a part of our political process forces us to consider interests other than those of just one group in every election, and encourages us to build bridges between the divisions that naturally exist, and to come together and act as one people. On the other hand, such things as cumulative voting and redistricting along racial lines encourages the opposite and promotes the formation of splinter parties and interests. In all our procedures, we must strive for union at every level. This was Jefferson's point when he wrote concerning the President:

    "In a government like ours, it is the duty of the Chief Magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor by all honorable means to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people. This alone, in any case where the energy of the nation is required, can produce a union of the powers of the whole and point them in a single direction as if all constituted but one body and one mind, and this alone can render a weaker nation unconquerable by a stronger one." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Jefferson, 1810.

We cannot afford to have black elected officials for the blacks and white elected officials for the whites. Our aim is to produce a "union of the powers of the whole," as if "all constituted but one body and one mind." Divisions along racial lines is already working against this sense of oneness, of tolerance, and of fellow-feeling. Incorporating separateness into the very structure of our government can only perpetuate these feelings, not heal them.

    Avoiding Racial Factionalism

Factionalism occurs when a group seeks its own special interests as opposed to those of the whole, as explained by Madison, Jefferson's protege:

    "By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." --James Madison, Federalist No. 10.

What Madison calls "the mischiefs of faction" bring instability to government and make of faction a "dangerous vice." It is something to be avoided, not encouraged. It fosters disunion, and "instability, injustice, and confusion," and becomes one of "the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished." Lessening the opportunity for these "mortal diseases" to wreak havoc was one of the happy consequences of the organization of government under our Constitution, and avoiding any measures that would increase the mischiefs of factions should be our primary goal today. Those who would propose things like proportional representation are attempting to divide this nation into interest groups in opposition to one another and to deliberately introduce factionalism, not to bring people together in a common struggle. The advantage of representative government in the American system was not that factional interests would all be represented but that our system would...

    "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations." --James Madison, Federalist No. 10.

In other words, voters should elect representatives who will not merely represent the view of a segment of the people, but will act in the best interests of ALL the people. This, Madison was convinced, will produce a public voice that "will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose." Manipulating voting districts to give representation to a particular race, or religion, or other interest group, is precisely in opposition to this principle of representative government that seeks the best interests of the whole.

    "Without union of action and effort in all its parts, no nation can be happy or safe." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Sullivan, 1807.

Schemes to divide people into interest categories only perpetuates and deepens the divisions along which such people are already separated. Instead of candidates for office that represent national factions, we need candidates who will appeal to broad segments of the population and who will so structure their stand as to enlist as large a portion behind them as possible of the people whom they represent. The idea is not to get minority representatives, but to have representation that accommodates minorities and makes their interests a part of considerations beginning at the grass roots level in the electoral process itself. This will then translate into a legislative body that will act in the best interest of all.

    The Politics of Polarization

Attempts to design voting districts so that they consist principally of one race or another blatantly reinforces factional racial politics. It makes those members of a minority race within the district persons without representation, since the deliberate design chosen for the district was for the purpose of promoting single-race politics, and the minority happens not to be a member of the preferred race. It turns other districts into a camp of the opposing race, since there is less need to temper politics to make it appeal to a diverse populace. The size and shape of a voting district is irrelevant as long as it is not determined by factional politics. Racial factionalism does not give minority voters a more effective voice in the political process; it gives them a less effective voice. As long as they are a minority, it means they will always be overruled by the opposition majority. Their most effective voice comes not through the politics of separateness, but through the process of union and political coalition. If instead race is made a factor in government organization, it will result not in the lessening of racial tensions but in further national polarization.

It is undeniable that there is racial polarization in the United States in the year 1996. One only need look at the political situation in America today to note that the increase in the move toward black separateness (of which racial gerrymandering is a part) has not resulted in less racial divisiveness but more! If anything, there has been a resurgence of racial tensions in the last decade, not an amelioration. Manipulating voting districts in order to send more blacks to Congress has permitted candidates in the remaining white districts to have less concern about issues important to blacks. Blacks may have more representatives, but they have less influence in the majority decisions of Congress. Black and white interests have become polarized, and with the whites in the majority, black influence then tends to be shut out. The lines are more deeply drawn than ever before.

The solution to all this is not promoting racial factionalism, but rather reducing its effect. It will not come about by translating racial differences at the level of the individual voters into polarization in the structure of the legislature. It will come about by having mixed districts that will compel candidates to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters in order to be elected, rather than appealing to a faction. The integration, not the segregation of voting districts creates political influence.

The question is not whether whites will vote for black candidates. And it is certainly not whether only blacks can represent black interests. Candidates must represent the concerns of both white and blacks. The fact that sometimes whites do vote for black candidates is encouraging, but that is not the crucial point. The main question is, Are we going to cast aside republican principles in order to appease racial attitudes, and promote polarization and disintegration; or will we follow the politics of inclusion and union?

Perhaps the solution to our racial problems is beyond the power of government to resolve. Perhaps getting whites to accept and vote for black and Hispanic candidates is a social problem, not a political problem. But drawing sharp lines between racial and ethnic groups will only serve to undermine America as a united people and make the solution to those problems further out of reach. Racial attitudes must be changed by education, not by promoting divisions. It is no easy task. Our most brilliant Founding Father has already expressed his doubts that it can be done at all. But this much is certain: if we undermine the very principles upon which our republic is founded, if we encourage instead of lessen the effects of racial factionalism and destroy the forces that promote a sense of community, the future can only be worse than the present.

The task we face of having one nation that includes people of different races and different ethnic backgrounds all united together as one people is perhaps the most difficult challenge we as a nation have ever faced. If we can overcome these difficulties, if we can learn to live together as one people, we will not only have resolved our own problems, but we will have shown to the rest of the world the path to tolerance, harmony and peace in a nation committed to self-government and the equal rights of every member. Thomas Jefferson saw clearly the example our struggle for freedom created at the inception of our nation:

    "It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind; that circumstances denied to others but indulged to us have imposed on us the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Priestley, 1802.

We today face the challenge of proving that our founding principles are sufficient not just for an homogeneous people united by race and heritage, but also for a great nation composed of a diverse people, with different backgrounds, races and heritages, and with all of them coming together to share their diversity and to participate in a measure of freedom and self-government that is beneficial to every member of society.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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