Friday, May 18, 2007

Jefferson and Saxonism

Still flourishing in some philological and art-historical circles, Anglo-Saxon studies took a hit in the 1960s with its insistence on “relevance.” The requirement that English majors study the language, once common in our universities, has disappeared. Even graduate students get little exposure to this once vital field, whose origins go back to a directive of Thomas Jefferson that it be taught at the University of Virginia. To be sure, there are several popular translations of Beowulf (and a 1977 rock opera with that name!), but these encounters sidestep any encounter with the language. Allen J. Frantzen explains this paradox--dismissal and partial survival (in special enclaves)--in his book Desire for Origins: New Languages, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition.

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.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Highly dubious scientific assertions you are offering but this is a brilliant essay nonetheless.

I do believe that language forms so much of identity and perspective and that formation can be so unique that it is important to study the development of modern (English) and its cultural contexts.

Back to the science- I think this new and highly dubious attempt at revising Anglo-Saxon settlement theory has been not scientifically driven but politically driven. In post-imperial Britain no one wants to be seen as the inheritors of aggressive, proto-racists colonizers. Scots have conveniently retreated from their heritage, reforming themselves into Celtic, language minority, Third World oppressed people instead of what they are- largely Anglo Saxon, English (dialect) speaking, former imperialists in an empire so recently vanished as to still leave bloody hands. (I'm in America now where the blood is being freshly applied.) Nothing wrong with that. It is more important to see what we are going to be today while examining how our legacy affects us. Dishonesty is the best way not to do that.

Or perhaps we're just ashamed of being descended from the Dutch!

Here's a link:

And an article:

Guardian 2003

"The group found that English Y chromosome are almost identical to those from Friesland, an area of the Netherlands from which the Anglo-Saxons originated 1,500 years ago. Those of the Welsh were markedly different, however – from which Thomas concludes that Anglo-Saxons invaded the area now covered by England, overcoming between 50 and 100 per cent of the indigenous population, but failed to move into Wales.

This interpretation – based on blood taken from living humans – give solidity to dusty historical analysis. It also contradicts arguments by many post-war historians who have claimed Anglo Saxon influence on England was limited to political and commercial elites. Our work shows the traditional idea of an invasion of Germanic tribes is the more likely one says Thomas.

Or take the discovery of the startlingly high incidence of the A blood group among residents around Pembroke, Wales. Scientists believe this has a simple cause. Around 1108 AD Henry I brought over many craftsmen from Flanders – which has a high incidence of the A blood group – and settled them in Pembroke. In short, in the blood of Pembrokeshire people today the tell-tale signs of their Norman past lingers on says the geneticists Sir Walter Bodmer.

And then there is the work of scientists who have discovered the genetic fingerprint of Viking invaders in the blood or Orkney and Shetland islanders and the people of Cumbria. Peering further into the past, geneticist Prof Bryan Sykes – founder of Oxford Ancestors – recently discovered the headmaster of a school in Cheddar had the same mitochondrial DNA type as the 9,000 year old Cheddar Mans’ skeleton found many decades earlier in the region’s caves.

However, it is crucial to note that DNA showed the headmaster was not directly descended from the Cheddar Man. It is merely that there is a link through one of Cheddar Mans’ female ancestors, perhaps thousands of years earlier and far from Cheddar, says Sykes. Again we should be careful about simplifying our ancestry.

It is fascinating stuff, though activists warm of dangers. By uncovering these webs of connectivity, we may end up confusing the concept of ethnicity – which defines people through their culture and language – with the idea of racial make up."

12:36 AM  
Anonymous The Spirit of '76 said...

While the political spin machine took delight in announcing, two-hundred years post facto, Thomas Jefferson's alleged affair with his slave girl, the truth is somewhat less devastating to Jefferson than to Bill Clinton.

As plainly stated in the DNA analysis itself, the present day Hemmings' mitochondrial (i.e., maternal) DNA is partially related to the mitochondrial (i.e., maternal) DNA of present day Jefferson descendants.

How one goes from that to condemning a man for sex with his slave girl is a very large leap in logic. As I recall, the closest the scientists themselves dared go was to say, "A male in the Jefferson line procreated with a female of the Hemmings line."

So please, stop the libel of Thomas Jefferson. It discredits yourself and the cause you advocate.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't proven that Thomas Jefferson has Welsh ancestry? The Welsh are Celts, in fact either descendants or very close relatives of the Celts that were in England before the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Zero said...

Very interesting essay...I learn something new every day.
I think it is wrong to negatively judge Jefferson on issues of race- in most ways, people are prisoners of their times, and belief in white, male, and Anglo-Saxon supremacy... would be natural for him and his associates. This was the common sense, internalized view of the world of almost all Whites descended from north west and central Europe, up to about 1945 or even later. Only they didn't call it 'racism.'

Im inclined to believe that Jefferson did have a long term affair with Sally Hemmings, but I think the affair was mutual, it was a romance. Jefferson could not legally free his slaves until he got out of debt, which he never did, but he did allow a few to 'escape.'
He didn't suffer from
"Negrophobia" as you say, that is just modern PC-think meant to smear a complex genius. He just called things the way he saw them.

One comment seems to hold to this unending bending over backwards to seemingly atone for the alleged or real crimes of the Imperial colonial white powers. If you cannot be proud of your own ethnic group, then how can you show genuine respect for other ethnic groups and races, hmm?

This shameful grovelling must end.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thomas Jefferson was of Welsh descent. But DNA tests show that he carried a rare chromosome that could of been linked to the Ancient Phoenicians.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Hi "Dyneslines" (what can I call you?), can you see my comment? I ask this because I reckon it makes no sense for me to write something you won't read, and this post is almost 8 years old.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Yes, Mark, I can read your comment. What is it?

4:10 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

By the way, Jefferson was not of Welsh descent.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Thank you, that was a quick reply.

You said:

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?

Your observation is valid and no, I don't think it was episodic. I have read a very pertinent review recently and the dualism between the Founders' professed universalism and their staunch Saxonism (as you put it) was very real and it persisted until the half of the last century. The Immigraction Act of 1965 which opened the gates of the country to the whole world and the counter-culture of the 60s greatly weakened the sentiment, but did not do away with it. I might add the quiet "white anger" in some political movements in the US today (notably the Tea Party) is partly influenced by the direction where the US is heading. It is hard to deny the anxiety by a segment of the white population about their inevitable collapse into a racial minority. It's coming: in 2011, for the first time since the independence of the United States, white babies were a minority among newborns.

You can read a review of Eric P. Kaufmann's The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America here:

A passage from the review:

Nineteenth-century American intellectuals tended to have what Ralph Waldo Emerson called a “double consciousness” — a tendency to think of America as committed to a non-racial liberal cosmopolitanism as well as a tendency to identify strongly with their Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. This fits with individualism because the ideal is to assimilate others rather than to erect strong ethnic boundaries.

During this period expressions of double consciousness can be found among the intellectual elite in which assertions of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity coexisted with statements of universalism.

Emerson himself was an example of double consciousness. He wrote that America was “the asylum of all nations. … [T]he energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles and Cossacks, and all the European tribes, of the Africans and Polynesians, will construct a new race … as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting pot of the Dark Ages.” This very clear statement of universalism co-existed with the following statement from around the same time: “It cannot be maintained by any candid person that the African race have ever occupied or do promise ever to occupy any very high place in the human family. … The Irish cannot; the American Indian cannot; the Chinese cannot. Before the energy of the Caucasian race all other races have quailed and done obeisance” (pp. 44–45).

4:39 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Thank you. I reflect on these comments. As you say, the piece is old, and I have not given Jefferson much thought these days. I am not an Americanist, alas.

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The truth is that Thomas Jefferson simply did not mean what modern people think he meant when he said "all men are created equal," and this was understood in his time. Its meaning was revised by later people who believe the modern interpretation of that phrase.

What he really meant was that all white men (probably even only all northern European white men) deserve a certain level of respect, and equal treatment under the law. As in nobles and royalty are not actually special and magical people who deserve to rule over other free white men, and they shouldn't have special privileges.

That's basically it.

He also didn't mean to imply all individuals are equal. Some are clearly smarter, stronger, better looking, etc. He also didn't mean to imply women were equal, because women have a different character than men, and at the time they certainly didn't think them suitable to many situations because of these differences.

Everybody at the time would have simply understood this to be the meaning. He believed in the superiority of white northern European men, and specifically those that had shown themselves through merit to actually be exceptional people. The idea that a black woman was "equal" to a white man would have been completely alien to him, and thought to be utterly incorrect.

The modern meaning that most people accept for that line is purely manufactured after the fact. Although he thought slavery was wrong, and should be ended, he still concluded blacks were not intellectually comparable to whites, and they could surely not live side by side as free men with whites.

I see no reason we should not openly accept what he actually meant. You can see how people stretched his simple phrase into the modern meaning, but he never intended it to mean that. He was not being conflicted or hypocritical in the least. The "obvious" meaning at the time was simply different than our reading. We should be okay with admitting that.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"The truth is that Thomas Jefferson simply did not mean what modern people think he meant when he said "all men are created equal," and this was understood in his time. Its meaning was revised by later people who believe the modern interpretation of that phrase."

How modern of an interpretation? Lincoln seemed to have no issue with using it as a means of argument for freeing slaves and some may argue that was not so modern.

12:41 PM  

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