The Ideology of Creole Revolution in Jefferson’s Summary View
Though he chose Alexander Hamilton to represent the former British Colonies in his comparative study of Independence movements in American and Latin American political thought, in his Ideology of Creole Revolution (2017) Simon lays out a framework into which the early political theorizing of Thomas Jefferson, as epitomized by his Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), fits perfectly. Viewing Jefferson’s early political theorizing through Simon’s lens of Creole Revolutionary Ideology, we get an innovative and insightful structuralist interpretation of the origins of Jefferson’s political thought, in line with, and informing, the existing literature.
To begin with, the settler colonial societies of the Americas produced a class of individuals called “Creoles.” These were the direct descendants of Europeans who had come from the various metropoles of Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and France, to colonize their imperial possessions. Understood in its broadest sense, then, the Ideology of Creole Revolution is the product of an imagined community consisting of all the American born descendants of European colonists, particularly those of high socio-economic standing, whose contradictory class position in the Americas as a local elite but a subordinate colonial led them to arrive at similar solutions to similar problems, independent of any other political-philosophical consideration besides those produced by their contradictory class position.[i]
Building around a combination of the universalist Lockean theories of political and property rights and the particularist claims on their countries of familial origin, that is, rights they inherited or brought with them from Europe as descendants of Englishmen, Spaniards, Frenchmen, et cetera, the ideology justified both their revolution and subsequent rule in the strictly limited presidential republics they established. This ideology resolved the apparent “dilemma of liberalism,” as Ince has noted; justifying the violation of the foundational liberal principles of freedom of contract and juridical equality, the Ideology of Creole Revolution was a hegemonic idea concerned with justifying Creole revolution against an unjust social order at the same time justifying the existing inequality regime in all its fundamental parts. Combined with other factors, such as consideration of the sheer distance between themselves and their pretended European masters, as well as changes brought about in the local political opportunity structure by geopolitical events, the period of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century revolution in the Americas was driven in virtually every case by some formulation of the Ideology of Creole Revolution.[ii]
In his own work, Simon looks at how the writings Alexander Hamilton, Simon Bolivar, and Lucas Alamán reveal a specific concern with displacing the European born, metropole elites atop the existing inequality regime, but otherwise preserving it, producing a fundamentally contradictory discourse of “anti-imperial imperialism,” as he calls it. Concerned with protecting and reproducing their place atop the existing inequality regime, and expanding their territorial holdings via military conquest, they created institutions to insulate themselves from democracy, as well as variously racialized property regimes that allowed them to enslave, exploit, or oppress the Indigenous or Black populations.[iii]
Let us then, in locating these ideas in Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), list several instances as they appear, contextualize and analyze what they mean within the broader framework of the Ideology of Creole Revolution, and see what insights into American Revolutionary political thought they might generate.
Written as a list of grievances against the British government, principally the British Parliament but also the king, their shared foundation is an insistence on Creole political and economic equality with their metropole counterparts. In the case of the British Parliament, Jefferson contended that they had no right to make laws or regulations pertaining to the colonies. That, Jefferson argued, was the natural and lawful right of the colonial elites via their established assemblies. On that note, Jefferson equates “every” American with a British elector, further universalizing the complaints he outlines, as well as revealing the first inklings of the Jeffersonian ideology that defined the early Republican period of expansion west of the Alleghanies prior to the War of 1812. Relatedly, the hated proclamation line receives a veiled reference and condemnation. The line, proclaimed by King George III in 1763, was preventing the spreading of the white propertied order, and most clearly illustrates the anti-imperialist imperialism Simon notes as fundamental to Creole Revolutionary Ideology. Jefferson’s later yeoman republic, really an exercise in settler colonialism, was a gradual process of military conquest, sometimes regular sometimes irregular, sometimes declared sometimes not. But in either case, by “conquering” those lands settlers obtained “allodial” right—that is, the right of possession—by so doing, in Jefferson’s view, perpetually safeguarding the existing property order by expanding its ranks among the white male population. In this way, Jefferson’s thought may be seen as a link between the Ideology of Creole Revolution, that which propelled the creation of a minimally representative republic, and Jacksonian democracy, a racialized democracy whose expanding frontier insulated the inequality regime sufficiently to safely allow for broader citizen participation.[iv]
In making his case for Creole equality with the metropole elites, Jefferson draws on a combination of natural and particularist rights, as well as loose readings of colonial charters and outright legal fictions. Drawing on a popular English mythology that traced the possible origins of British Common Law to migrating Saxon forbearers, Jefferson wrote of the rights of the Creole as rights acquired by conquest: “Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.” Explaining why, in light of this apparent right, the initial colonists had continued to act as though under the metropole’s authority, and the British Parliament’s specifically, Jefferson suggests simply that: “Settlements having been thus effected in the wilds of America, the emigrants thought proper to adopt that system of laws under which they had hitherto lived in the mother country, and to continue their union with her by submitting themselves to the same common sovereign, who was thereby made the central link connecting the several parts of the empire thus newly multiplied.” Again, this view comes from a purposefully wide reading of several of the colonial charters that had been issued by the crown, and ignores, as Kammen pointed out, that the colonists had hitherto made no pretensions to any other relationship to the parliament in London other than that of subordinate. [v]
We should pause to take note of the observations of Hedges, who writes of Jefferson’s Summary that it was, in this way, a “fantasy.” Quoting Lewis, Jefferson, and those like him, expounded: “What [they thought] the [imperial] connection [between the crown, parliament, and colonies] ought to be by pretending to describe what it was.” In claiming for the colonial assemblies, constituted of the Creole elite, equal standing with the British parliament, Jefferson flagrantly disregarded the most fundamental of British legal texts, Blackstone chief among them, someone whose writings he was intimately familiar with, and who clearly stated this was not the case. This purposeful disregard was in pursuit of the creation of a new reality, a justificatory discourse that blended the rights of British subjects with those of Natural Law. It was a reinterpretation motivated by the contradictory class position that fostered such seeds of Creole Revolutionary Ideology. As Jefferson wrote, his complaints were made in the name of safeguarding: “Those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all,” noting several instances in the centuries prior where the British Parliament had issued acts that seemed to confirm on colonial elites such a wider sphere of independent action. [vi]
We can see in Jefferson’s list of grievances against the British Parliament, as well as those leveled against the king in his supposed role as mediator between imperial legislatures, that they are concerned primarily with harms done to elite colonial interests: harming their trade and profiteering off its back, restricting access to speculation in western lands, ignoring elite colonial representative bodies, and preventing the taking of more Indigenous land chief among them. Though nothing had changed in the legal relationship between the colonies and metropole, or indeed in the colonial material base, what prompted the emergence of the Ideology of Creole Revolution as a discursive formation was that elite interests on both sides of the Atlantic were diverging, giving heightened relevance to the uncertain class position occupied by Creoles throughout the Americas. We may say, then, that revolution became likely at the moment a cycle of contention was precipitated which made too precarious or uncertain the class position occupied by the local Creole elite in North and Latin America. In the case of the British colonists it was the Seven Years War; in Latin America, Napoleon’s Iberian invasion; but in both cases it was precisely at the point that elite interests on both sides of the Atlantic diverged that revolution in the name of the Ideology of Creole Revolution became immediately likely.
Given the structural insights afforded by Simon’s critical lens, and his broader effort to relocate scholarship about the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century bourgeoisie revolutions in the Americas within a Americas-only-paradigm, effort should be undertaken to reanalyze the writings of the early American founders and framers in order to gain a broader understanding of their motivations as an explicit function of their class position independent of any other explicit ideological inputs, and it is the hope of this author that this humble effort encourages precisely such further archaeologies by those interested in early American revolutionary thought.
[i] Joshua Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution: Imperialism and Independence in American and Latin American Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 24. [ii] Bernard Bailyn, The Origins of American Politics (New York: Random House, 1970). Joshua Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution: Imperialism and Independence in American and Latin American Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 33. Onur Ulas Ince, Colonial Capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 24. [iii] Joshua Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution: Imperialism and Independence in American and Latin American Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 18, 37. [iv] Thomas Jefferson. “Avalon Project - Summary View of the Rights of British America,” 2008, pages 1, 3, & 5. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffsumm.asp. For discussion of the construction of the U.S. electorate during the period see Keyssar’s The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000), Bateman’s Disenfranchising Democracy: Constructing the Electorate in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France (2018), or Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (2019). [v] Thomas Jefferson. “Avalon Project - Summary View of the Rights of British America,” 2008, pages 1 & 2. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th century/jeffsumm.asp. Michael Kammen, “The Meaning of Colonization in American Revolutionary Thought.” Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 339. [vi] William L. Hedges. "Telling off the King: Jefferson's "Summary View" as American Fantasy." Early American Literature 22, no. 2 (1987): 166. Thomas Jefferson. “Avalon Project - Summary View of the Rights of British America,” 2008, pages 1-3. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th century/jeffsumm.asp.