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Anti-colonial rebellions, 1810-1822

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Interviewer: In Chapter 10 you discuss the rebellions in Spain’s Latin American empire that led to the creation of a number of independent nations between 1810 and 1822. To what degree did these anticolonial rebellions parallel or differ from the tensions that led to the American Revolution?

Eric Foner: Of course the history of every nation is different in some respects and the Latin American wars of independence, which created the independent nations of Latin American that we know today, arose out of local causes and local events. But in some ways they did parallel the causes of the American Revolution in both Spanish Latin America and the British North American colonies. It was the efforts of the mother country, the imperial country in Europe, to assert greater control over the colonies after a period of considerable autonomy that led local elites to resist and establish their own claim to local self-government. A lot of this had to do with taxation. Just as in the United States the American colonists resisted British efforts to raise money by taxing the colonists, so also Spain, a country which after the wars of the Napoleonic era and the wars of the French Revolution era was in dire need of money, began taxing their Latin American colonies more. That led to these local leaders, what we call Creoles, that is, people of Spanish ancestry but born and raised in the colonies, to assert their claim to local control. As in the United States, as in the American Revolution, the first claim is not to independence but to greater control of your own affairs, and when the mother country rejects that, then they move forward to eventually demanding their own independence.

Now of course the Latin American revolutions came after the U.S. Revolution so they were influenced by what had happened here, and they picked up the language of national independence and local rights, which had circulated outward from the American Revolution, and applied it to their own circumstances. But of course the populations are very different. In Latin America you’ve got this vast indigenous population of Indian peoples—in the United States we didn’t have anything nearly that large—who had to be mobilized to fight. So in fact the new Latin American nations established a broader concept of citizenship than the United States had at that time. They brought in the Indian populations as equal citizens, at least on paper, not in terms of their actual existence. The concept also led to the freeing of slaves and their incorporation as citizens. So in a way as the United States and the early republic move more and more toward a more racial boundary that is mainly for white people in citizenship, in Latin America they go the other way and try to create a concept of the people that is multiracial and multicultural. So in that sense they differ from what happens in this country.

Public life in the Jacksonian period

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Interviewer: You say that American public life in the Jacksonian period was both expansive and exclusive. What do you mean by that, and what is the basis for exclusion changing in this period?

Eric Foner: The Jacksonian era is sometimes called the "era of the common man" or the "age of Jacksonian democracy." It was a time when participation in public life expanded enormously. By this time, virtually all white men had the right to vote; property qualifications for voting had been eliminated except in one or two places. Moreover, you had two very well-organized political parties: the Democrats and the Whigs, which were competing nationally for votes, and their competition brought people into politics, mobilized large numbers of people in political rallies and gatherings, and enhanced interest in politics. So it was a thriving democratic political system that encompassed a very large part of the population; but it also had, of course, its limits. Women could write things and take part in politics one way or another but they couldn't vote, they couldn't hold office, they couldn't attend political conventions. They were supposed to be outside the political realm. African-Americans were largely excluded; there were a few states in New England where blacks were only 1 or 2 percent of the population and they could vote (Massachusetts, for example). But even free African-Americans could not vote in most of the northern states, and of course a vast majority of the blacks were slaves who were completely outside of the body politic. So you might say that the line of exclusion for men had shifted. At the time of the Revolution it was property: people without property could not vote. Now it became race: people with property could vote as long as they were white, but race became the line of division of exclusion and inclusion in American politics.

Democrats vs. Whigs

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Interviewer: How did the Democrats and the Whigs differ in the conceptions of freedom that they advocated?

Eric Foner: To oversimplify it a little bit, but I believe it is largely true, the Democrats represented in the Jacksonian era the concept of what we might call "negative liberty." They believed liberty meant freeing the individual from outside restraint. That meant limited government, weak government, little regulation of economic life; the key to freedom was individual self-determination and individual action. The Whigs had a much more positive view of freedom, they thought freedom could be enhanced and promoted by governmental action. John Quincy Adams, who became a leading Whig, said in one of his presidential speeches that "Liberty is power." Liberty and power were not hostile to each other; they went together. A powerful national government could promote liberty, not simply trample on liberty. So the Whigs thought that you would actually expand freedom by having the government promote economic development, by having a tariff on industry, by promoting internal improvements. They also believed the government should regulate personal behavior, moral behavior. Many Whigs believed in banning liquor or in other ways regulating moral behavior, whereas the Democrats said no, no, no, it's up to each individual if you want to drink or not, that's your problem. The government should not tell you what moral behavior is. So negative freedom/positive freedom—that tension has always existed in American history and exists all the way up to the present day.

Jackson's presidential powers

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Interviewer: How, then, was Jackson able to enlarge the powers of the presidency?

Eric Foner: Jackson was an interesting and in some ways contradictory figure, in that he was a Democrat who believed in a weak national government and many of his actions were to dismantle the federal government: breaking down the Bank of the United States, vetoing internal improvement measures. He wanted power to devolve to the states and localities. On the other hand, Jackson was a strong nationalist in the nullification crisis: he stood up for the integrity of the union. He threatened to send troops to South Carolina if they didn't abide by the law, and as a political leader Jackson developed this idea that the president was the sole representative of the people—not congress. He was the first one to tap the latent power of the presidential office and make the president the symbolic spokesman for the entire American population. So he was enhancing the power of the presidential office even while he was reducing the power of the government as a kind of administrative structure.