Southern History Series: Nathaniel Macon on Jeffersonian Democracy

National Review is full of praise for Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina who was the Speaker of the House under President Thomas Jefferson because of a few superficial similarities on government spending to mainstream conservatism:

“Today, Nathaniel Macon would strike his countrymen, depending on their politics, as either crazy or courageous. Or both. This fixture of American politics for four decades was an early-19th-century version of Dr. No — Ron Paul in a frock coat.

Macon, whose career began in the North Carolina legislature, was originally opposed to any form of national government. When asked by his state to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he refused. He then fought against the ratification of the document that the convention produced. When that effort failed, he dedicated himself in the new House of Representatives, where he served from 1791 to 1815 (and as Speaker from 1801 to 1807), and then later in the Senate to the strictest possible interpretation of it.

Macon, a staunch Jeffersonian Republican, opposed a standing national army and navy, voted against the institution of the First Bank of the United States, and ridiculed the idea of the United States Mint. His fear of debt, personal as well as public, was so great that hours before his death he summoned an undertaker to pay any future bills lest he owe a single cent from the grave. Unsurprisingly, he opposed most forms of government spending — including a grand monument to George Washington.”

The following excerpt comes from Elizabeth Varon’s book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

“What ought surely to be inferred from Mr. Jefferson’s notes and life, is, that he thinks slavery is a curse, but thinks it is a greater curse to emancipate in his native Virginia. His democracy like that of his great countrymen who have been before mentioned, appears to be of the white family.”

Nathaniel Macon was one of the Tertium Quids (Old Republicans) who along with John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline County both of whom were Virginians can be described as the progenitors of the Confederate states’ rights compact political theory:

“President Jefferson would find the extreme states’ rights vanguard in his own party, the “Tertium Quids” (or “Old Republicans”) led by John Randolph of Roanoke, willing to use imitations of disunion to counter any threat to slavery and to keep the Republican administration honest – loyal to the “principles of ’98” as embodied in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. Randolph personally threatened disunion in 1807 to oppose Northern proposals that the interstate coastal slave trade be restricted even as the African trade was prohibited. …

But the threats were nonetheless more than transparent pressure tactics – for Randolph, together with fellow Virginian John Taylor of Caroline County and Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, led a group that began to weave from the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions and the Tenth Amendment an intricate philosophy of state sovereignty. The Old Republicans maintained unequivocally that the states were sovereign (indeed, Taylor, the political theorist in the group, called them “state-nations”) and that the Union was a revocable compact, a treaty of sorts, between the states. In other words, the central government – they preferred the term “confederacy” to “nation” – was subordinate to the states. From this political philosophy, Randolph, Taylor and Macon derived the right of secession : that is, each state could, if the government or other states tried to impose unwanted measures on it, secede, as a sovereign, from the confederacy. While Randolph and the leading Quids lacked an interest in “careful political planning,” as Cooper has put it, they did hope to furnish successive generations of Southerners with a rationale for resisting any encroachment on the “agrarian independence” of the South.”

John Randolph described “Old Republican” principles as “love of peace, hatred of offensive war, jealousy of the state governments toward the general government; a dread of standing armies; a loathing of public debts, taxes, and excises; tenderness for the liberty of the citizen; jealousy, Argus-eyed jealousy of the patronage of the President.” The “Old Republicans” were also unflinchingly loyal to the South. Jefferson nicknamed Macon – Ultimas Romanorum – “the last of the Romans.”

Randolph, Macon and Taylor were all Old South classical republicans, not New England classical liberals. Randolph is best known for his pithy quote, “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.”

“Macon’s private life was the source of his public principles. Indeed, his classical Republicanism postulated that leaders should possess virtue independent of office and should reflect and defend their social fabric rather than attempt to mold it to their own design. His father died when he was five, leaving him land and slaves; both increased under his mother’s management and his own. Above average in height, of impressive presence, dignified yet simple in manners, treating all classes with courtesy and attention, a pillar of his neighborhood, colloquial in private conversation, devoted to agriculture, horses, hunting, and an outdoor life, laboring in his own tobacco fields, sipping whiskey before meals and keeping fine wine only for guests, Macon was an exemplary patriarchal southern planter. He never joined a church but attended services accompanied by his slaves and, not surprisingly, is said to have found the Baptist most to his taste. A lifelong resident of the most slaveholding county of the state, he is said to have owned two thousand acres and seventy slaves and to have divided his estate equally with his two daughters, Betsy and Seignora, on their marriages. His home, Buck Spring, about twelve miles northeast of Warrenton, was built in the most isolated portion of his holdings and was modest for so wealthy and eminent a statesman. The plantation has in recent years been the subject of a restoration project. Macon married Hannah Plummer on 9 Oct. 1783. She died in 1790, leaving the two daughters and a son who died in 1792 at age six.”

What would Nathaniel Macon have thought about David French? I’m fairly certain he would disputed being a classical liberal!

Note: There is a Macon County, NC, a Macon County, GA, a Macon County, AL, a Macon County, MO and a Macon County, IL all named in Nathaniel Macon’s honor. My own paternal ancestor moved from around Wilmington, NC to southeast Alabama in the 1830s.

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