Jan 28 · 7 min read

The Growing Threat of Herrenvolk Democracy

Insurrection for White Supremacy — Then and Now. Image of Trump supporter with Confederate flag (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images, courtesy,, inserted by author into Chromolithograph titled “Assault on Fort Sanders” depicting “Union troops led by Gen. Burnside fighting Confederates led by Gen. Longstreet, Nov. 29, 1863. (Created by Chicago : Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers, 1891. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

I went to bed with a smile on my face and Georgia on my mind late on Tuesday night, January 5. News from the Peach State offered reassurance that the spirit of the civil rights icon John Lewis lived on. A state that once belonged to the vanquished Confederacy was about to send two progressives, Raphael Warnock, the African American son of a former cotton picker, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish entrepreneur, to represent it in the U.S. Senate. My partner and I, naturalized Americans born in Nigeria and India respectively, fielded a flood of congratulatory messages from friends and family around the globe on our adopted nation’s comeback as a beacon of light on the international stage.

But if the arc of democracy seemed poised to swing once again toward inclusion, it was going to have to reckon with the burden of history just a few hours later. The world watched in horror the next afternoon as gun-toting Trump supporters laid siege to Capitol Hill amid images of nooses, sweatshirts bearing the inscription “Auschwitz,” and angry white men hoisting Confederate flags. There is now widespread consensus that the mob was there to nullify the legitimate results of a free and fair Presidential election, and that the lawmakers who refused to certify the Biden-Harris victory were enabling their actions.

The events of January 6 constitute the most serious crisis of democracy since South Carolina seceded from the Union because it could not live with the outcome of the election of 1860 — an outcome that threatened the institution of African-American enslavement anchoring the economic and political power of elites in the antebellum South. Indeed, when President Abraham Lincoln, who won that race on a free labor Republican ticket, described the Civil War that followed secession as a “People’s Contest,” and later at Gettysburg, resolved that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” he was linking the fate of democracy irrevocably with the preservation of the Union.

Yet, the hard truth of history is that disagreements among Americans about the identity of “the people” at the heart of democracy have predated the birth of our republic. The story of American democracy is inextricably linked with ideas and experiences of race. It is worth recounting this early history in order to appreciate how far we have come (although we still have a distance to go), and how vigilantly we must defend our progress against those who seek to make white supremacy mainstream once again.

The pro-Trump insurrectionists were mounting a counterrevolution against an inclusive vision of democracy that became possible only with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution during the Civil War and Reconstruction. These Amendments abolished chattel slavery, established color-blind birthright citizenship and equal protection of the laws, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting rights. When the MAGA rioters simultaneously deployed symbols like the Confederate flag and Revolutionary garb, they were rejecting the changes these Amendments brought, invoking instead, slave state secessionists who maintained that it was they — the secessionists — who by resisting the “tyranny” of overweening federal power were safeguarding the legacy of the American Revolution.

So just how divided was that Revolutionary heritage?

Any story of the racial meaning of American democracy must begin with the paradox of slavery and freedom that emerged in the British colonies of North America. African slavery helped shape white identity as a relation of both difference and privilege from Blackness. The historian Thelma Foote showed that after the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, authorities in the colony renamed it New York and institutionalized Black bondage and anti-Black racism. These actions served as “disciplinary” instruments to weld together an unstable European-descended settler population, which was fractured along lines of religion, nationality, language and class, but shared a sense of entitlement to the “English rights” of freedom.

Meanwhile in 17th century Virginia, slaveholders were tapping into the century-old Atlantic slave trade in order to meet the labor demands of a rising tobacco plantation economy. Decades ago, the historian Edmund Morgan argued that this transition to a self-reproducing labor force was happening even as shrinking land supplies were making it harder for the colony to meet the economic aspirations of volatile freed white indentured servants following the expiration of their labor contracts. But if not all white men could own land, they could be compensated with political rights. Even as settler-colonialist lawmakers were devising an increasingly stringent slave code to buttress the new order of racial slavery, they were conferring on free white males many of the “rights of Englishmen,” including the right to vote. In other words, Black slavery and white freedom went hand in hand. The grant of political concessions to non-slaveholding whites won their allegiance to a society that was having trouble realizing their material ambitions. Scholars revised various aspects of Morgan’s argument in the years since he wrote. Nevertheless, it remains plausible that racial slavery, by codifying pre-existing prejudices shaped by perceptions of difference, had the potential to divide workers along the color line, while establishing the idea of an aristocracy based on color rather than wealth.

The paradox of Black slavery and white freedom laid the basis for the creation of a predominantly “white republic” in the wake of the American Revolution. It is true that states north of the Mason Dixon line enacted emancipation during this era through court or legislative actions, thanks to a combination of factors: Enlightenment principles, religious- humanitarian impulses, economic expediency and above all, interracial abolitionist campaigns including a range of activism by the enslaved themselves.

Nevertheless, large parts of the new independent nation embraced a notion of “republican citizenship” that linked the capacity for self-government with economic self-sufficiency, which supposedly assured immunity from the political will of others. “Republican citizenship” not only excluded enslaved African Americans, but also infused American nationality with the idea of race. Scholars of white identity formation, like Matthew Frye Jacobson, have pointed out that a 1790 law reserved naturalization for “free white persons” who had resided in the country for the term of at least one year.

Historians have described the system of representative government that emerged in much of antebellum America as founded on herrenvolk democracy, meaning democracy for the dominant white “race.” I have written elsewhere that as states adopted universal manhood suffrage in the first quarter of the 19th century, “the idealization of democracy as an American norm unfolded in tandem with the construct of the color white as normative.” Slaveholders fashioned a democratic rationale for chattel bondage known as “proslavery republicanism” — the notion that the status and freedoms of white people depended on the survival of Black slavery.

Thus, during the bloody battle to decide whether the territory of Kansas would be slave or free in the 1850s, slavery’s defenders in Missouri’s Platte County argued that African slavery was not evil because “it makes color, not money the mark which distinguishes classes. To white, the color of the freeman, it attaches all the privileges of a higher class…from which the poor white laborer is excluded in those states where his color gives no privilege, but money marks his class.”

In most states of the Union, the privilege of whiteness translated for free white men, not only into the right to vote, sit on juries and bear arms, but also to gain access to a variety of crafts and professions, and to the purchase of western lands. Proslavery republicanism gave non-slaveholders a stake in the vision of white supremacy set forth in Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens’ notorious “Cornerstone Address,” delivered on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia: “…the new Constitution [of the Confederate States of America] has put to rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the negro [sic] in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution… [the cornerstone of our new government] rests, upon the great truth that the negro [sic] is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” It was this cramped vision of democracy — founded on the idea that the status of white men depends on the subordination of African Americans — that the Confederate-flag wielding race rioters on Capitol Hill were seeking to restore with violence.

The central theme of U.S. Civil War history was its transformation from a war for Union into a struggle for Black emancipation and eventually, the civil and political rights that make a multiracial democracy. That transformation was heavily contested. It took over a century and the expenditure of much blood and toil of brave activists — African Americans and their multiracial allies — for the promise of that transformation to begin to be realized. That is a story for another day. For now, suffice it to remember that one hundred and sixty years after Alexander Stephens delivered his racist Cornerstone Address, Stacey Abrams, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff from the CSA insurrectionist’s native state demonstrated the great truth that it takes enormous effort to overcome the burden of history and create a multiracial democracy. The terror unleashed on Capitol Hill makes it clear that it takes unceasing vigilance to sustain such a democracy.

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Written by

Professor of History, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center-CUNY; author of books on US Civil War era, slavery, abolition; poverty, race, and welfare in New York

The Thought Project

In this space, Graduate Center, CUNY faculty, students and administrators share the big thinking and big ideas generating ground breaking research and scholarship — informing New Yorkers and the world.

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