Jefferson and Saxonism
In England the matter has retained more interest, in part because of the popular enthusiasm for archaeology. An old dispute has reached a surprising conclusion. For a long time historical demographers had debated whether the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes had simply ethnically cleansed the indigenous Celtic population, or had absorbed them into their own stock. It turns out that neither is true. DNA and other genetic analyses have shown that the bulk of the population of England (and presumably the other parts of the British Isles) descends from an original peopling as the ice sheets retreated some 10,000 years ago. These folk came from northern Spain. In all likelihood, the closest ethnic affinities of the modern English are with the Basques.
These discoveries are very recent. During the early modern period a powerful set of myths took root in England concerning the Anglo-Saxons. In the 17th century these views became entangled with the dispute between the parliamentary faction and and the monarchy. According to the defenders of the privileges of parliament, the English possess a natural sense of liberty which came, with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, from the forests of northern Germany. By tradition this settlement began with the arrival of the Jutish chieftains Hengist and Horsa, who reputedly landed in southern England in 449 CE. The brutal Norman conquest of 1066 occluded these virtues, but failed to suppress them completely. In fact, the cause of freedom and the “natural rights of Englishmen” made a comeback with the granting of Magna Carta in 1215.
Language still offers some attestation to this legend of origins, as the part of Germany from which the proto-English came is still termed Lower Saxony. In part for this reason, the overall theory of special English virtue owing to the settlement of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, is commonly termed Saxonism.
The notion also bonded with the fascination with the Goths, a continental Germanic group who ostensibly created Gothic architecture. The Gothic heritage blended synergistically with other trends to form the “Gothic balance.” This expression, favored by James Herrington, serves as a kind of shorthand for the principle of mixed government in which no branch will have supremacy. Others preferred the presumed original purity of the Saxon foundations, without any “Gothic” admixture.
The original narrative proved very congenial to Thomas Jefferson. At several points during his life he took up a project for an Anglo-Saxon grammar which remained unfinished. Yet Jefferson’s interest in the Saxon heritage went far beyond matters of philology. He held that the forward movement of British settlement in North America was a continuation of the original migration of Hengist and Horsa. It was all part of the vigorous expansion of a superior group of people. Jefferson even went so far as to suggest that the form of government being adopted in the emerging United States represented a restoration of the sublime Anglo-Saxon principles. It was now North America that represented these verities, not a corrupt England under the rule of foreign monarchs.
Thomas Jefferson held that the basis of the common law was shaped in the immediate aftermath of the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in the mid-fifth century. Since England was not converted to Christianity until two centuries later, the common law is by definition pagan.
Jefferson sought to give these ideas visual form in his proposal for the design of the Great Seal of the United States. One side was to bear the images of Hengist and Horsa. The other was to depict a pillar of fire leading the Chosen People into the Promised Land. The racial character of this combination is unmistakable. Those of English heritage must predominate on the new continent because of the primordial excellence of the Anglo-Saxons, personified by Hengist and Horsa. The pillar of fire designates the collective side. It belongs to what is termed the theory of manifest destiny, the idea that the original settlers of British North America were entitled to exercise supremacy over the whole continent--and beyond.
Jefferson’s enthusiasm for his presumed Germano-English ancestors foreshadows the contemporary preoccupation with “roots,” the idea that ethnicity plays a special role in one’s identity. In contemporary parlance, it is the tribal myth of the WASPS. In their exclusiveness, though, Jefferson’s Saxonist beliefs were the immediate ancestor of Nativism, with its suspicion of all immigrants of non-English stock. As such, the ideology is poorly suited to an increasingly multiethnic America. Perhaps that is why this strand of Jeferson’s thought does not figure, as far as I can tell, in any of the current accounts of the ideas of he Founders of the American Republic..
In recent years the iconic status of Thomas Jefferson has sustained a number of shocks, including the revelation of his affair with Sally Hennings, the awareness of his convictions regarding the supposed inferiority of blacks, his faltering support of civil liberties, and his proposal that homosexuals be castrated. Yet his adoption of the Saxonist myth may be the worst of these faults, enlisted as it is in his ideas of American triumphalism and Anglo-Saxon supremacy.
A reader suggests that Jefferson's well-known univeralism remains paramount. Perhaps so, but I am not sure the Founder's Enlightenment universalism overrides his seemingly episodic preoccupation with his roots. After all, there is a similar problem in the contrast between his stubborn insistence on black inferiority vs. the ringing language of the Declaration of Independence. Can we really say that Jefferson's Negrophobia, which was almost pathological, was episodic?
It may be that he adumbrated an answer to the first question in his "A Summary View of the Rights of British North America." There he says that the ancestors of the British Americans had twice exercised a "right which nature has given to all men," that is, to change their place of residence. Thus rights are potentialy universal, but most peoples have become servile and neglect the exercise of these rights. The Saxons, broadly defined, owe their superiority to this exercise.
Over the years Saxonism has become deeply unfashionable, indeed forgotten. Not so the universalism of the Declaration of Independence. As I noted, though, that universalism is problematic.
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