Padraig Riley is Assistant Professor of History at Dalhousie University. This interview is based on his new book, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?
PR: I wrote Slavery and the Democratic Conscience to understand how white men in the early national North came to terms with American slavery. Specifically, I wanted to know why democratic partisans in the 1790s and early 1800s joined forces with slaveholders to create the Democratic-Republican coalition, which governed the United States from the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 to the collapse of the first party system in 1824. I suspected that the Jeffersonian coalition might explain some long-term patterns and problems in American political culture: the willingness of white non-slaveholders to tolerate the anti-democratic authority of American masters; the ties between white supremacy and American nationalism; and the difficulty of building an antislavery political movement in the United States, given the partisan and ideological compromises with slaveholding that sustained American democracy.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?
PR: Democracy in the United States was built through accommodation of slaveholder power. That accommodation had significant costs for later attempts to oppose slavery and establish political equality within the American nation-state.
JF: Why do we need to read Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?
PR: This book reframes Edmund Morgan’s idea of an “American paradox” between freedom and slavery by asking how and why early American democrats came to terms with mastery, rather than by asking how Virginian slaveholders built a quasi-egalitarian community of white men. In my story, democratic ideology has roots in northern and transnational struggles against arbitrary rule—against the Federalist party in the North, the British state in Ireland, and aristocratic regimes throughout Europe. These struggles embodied a real egalitarian and cosmopolitan potential, one that at times incorporated antislavery sentiment. But northern democrats foundered when it came to slavery in the United States. They made considerable allowance for the anti-democratic authority of southern masters and they turned to racial exclusion to justify their political acts and choices. The contradictory ties between freedom and slavery that shaped American democracy were not the result of an elite project of social control led by slaveholders, they were produced by the ethical and political and compromises made by democratic subjects. Examining the problem slavery from this perspective emphasizes the crucial role of non-slaveholders in both accommodating American masters as well as resisting their authority.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PR: I became a historian as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley because I was obsessed with old photographs. That led me into a project on the history of early photography which led me to the Bancroft Library, where I spent a semester studying family photograph albums from the early twentieth century. I didn’t know much American history at that point, but I knew I wanted to keep working with archival material as long as possible. Thanks to some great advisors I found my way into graduate school and eventually to the history of slavery and democracy in the early United States.
JF: What is your next project?
PR: I am writing a series of essays on slavery and American nationalism and I am developing a book project about slaveholder power and American democracy in the nineteenth century.
JF: Thanks, Padraig!