John C. Calhoun: The Case for His Civic Damnation

A portrait of John C. Calhoun by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–1894) (Wikimedia Commons)

Another piece is published in defense of John C. Calhoun. This merits another response.

Iwrote a quick post yesterday lambasting an especially cringe-inducing article at The American Conservative that claimed “a great leader functions as a father to the nation.” Declan Leary has since responded to me on the site of that same publication. His points will be addressed extensively below, but I would start by drawing the reader’s attention to something Leary says in passing about halfway through the piece. He writes casually and without explanation that President Lincoln was “rather less woke than the humane General Lee.”

This is absurd. As the Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo showed in an excellent recent piece for National Review, the notion that General Lee was more “humane” or admirable than President Lincoln is for the birds. Guelzo chronicles one incident in particular that demonstrates this to a chilling and salient extent. It happened in the spring of 1859 when Lee had his late father-in-law’s freed slaves recaptured and tortured for presuming upon their own liberty:

His fabled self-control teetering unsteadily, Lee demanded to know why they ran away. Because, they replied, “frankly . . . we considered ourselves free.” That, to Robert Lee, was not merely a legal misapprehension; it was a threat to his own integrity as the Custis executor and to the future of his daughters. “He then told us he would teach us a lesson we would never forget,” ordered the three “stripped to the waist,” and directed the Arlington overseer, John McQuinn, to give the men “50 lashes each,” and 20 to the woman. McQuinn “had sufficient humanity to decline,” so Lee turned to Richard Williams, the Arlington constable who had brought the fugitives back, and had him “lay it on well.” By one account, Lee took the whip and flogged them himself.

In addition to the clear moral daylight that exists between the two men, it’s also true that only one of them thought the United States itself should be conserved in its present form. And it wasn’t the man whom Leary judges to have been the better of the two.

Leary’s piece is the third that The American Conservative has published in defense of John C. Calhoun over the past few weeks. They obviously care about his reputation a great deal and have gone to the mat repeatedly in an attempt to secure his canonicity as a revered thinker on the right.

This latest effort begins by dredging up the most appalling lines that William F. Buckley ever wrote. They express Buckley’s immature and ill-founded thoughts on the plight of African Americans in the South during the ‘50s. It’s probably best to quote Buckley directly on this score lest anyone accuse me of sugar-coating the seriousness of his shortcomings:

National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.

During the course of my attacks on Calhoun, I made the point that his counter-majoritarianism was purpose-built to defend the racist slaveholding interest in the South and therefore poisoned political fruit. Leary imagines that he has caught me out with an adroit tu quoque. After all, here is William F. Buckley — the founder of my own magazine and the man for whom my fellowship is named — making a counter-majoritarian argument in defense of an institutionally racist social order. As Leary points out, Buckley even wrote about “the median cultural superiority of White over Negro” in his early days. Doesn’t all of this mean that by the standards with which I’ve judged Calhoun, Buckley must also be written out of the conservative movement?


And not just because “by the end of the ’60s,” Buckley was “a vocal supporter of racial equality and laws that might hurry it along,” as Leary correctly notes. I’m afraid that his analogy between Calhoun and Buckley breaks down fairly quickly.

Leary chastises me for insisting “that Calhoun cannot be forgiven for holding the standard opinions of a 19th-century Southerner because he did not hold to the most enlightened possible subset of opinion available at the time.” But it’s important to stress that John C. Calhoun was not a run-of-the-mill racist even by the standards of his own time and place.

It is quite literally impossible to find documentary evidence of anyone else alive at the time who publicly expressed greater zeal for race-based slavery than Calhoun. He stated often and in writing that he thought the enslavement of blacks was indispensable to a free, white society. On one occasion in 1820 he even attempted to convince John Quincy Adams (to no avail) that slavery was the “best guarantee for equality among whites.” No responsible historian would ever read Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government or any of his other writings without being cognizant of these things. Calhoun himself regarded any attempt to enact his program in a racially integrated way as not only inadvisable but insane. By way of contrast, there’s nothing in the fusionist consensus that Buckley forged that rests upon a racist intellectual premise.

A better 20th-century analogy to the life and thought of Calhoun would be George Wallace. It’s impossible to make sense of Wallace’s politics without taking his racism into account. This is something he shares with Calhoun.

The question here is not about which historical figure said incidentally awful things (few haven’t) but about who made the perpetuation of evil the centerpiece of their lives and their work. This is a distinction of monumental importance because it marks the dividing line between cynical “cancel culture” and refined moral judgement. Both Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Josef Goebbels said some very disappointing things about Jews. But we can’t give them an equal grade in ethical accomplishment and consign them both to historical ignominy as if they weren’t oil and water to each other in every other respect.

The same rule applies to Buckley and Calhoun. Racial slavery was the lens through which Calhoun viewed all of history and politics. He once made the sweeping historical statement “that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not…live on the labor of the other.” Leary thinks that the standard I’ve held Calhoun to is “an absurd standard, though surely a good bit easier than reckoning with the fact that history is not black and white.” I can’t resist pointing out that for John C. Calhoun, history was nothing except “black and white.” And therein lies the basis for his civic damnation.

One other thing about Calhoun needs to be straightened out. It’s clear that the folks at The American Conservative admire the man chiefly for his counter-majoritarianism and for his defense of minority rights. But it should be noted that Calhoun wasn’t just a hypocritical counter-majoritarian; he wasn’t a counter-majoritarian in the true sense at all.

I wrote extensively here about the ways in which his theory of the concurrent majority resembles Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will” a lot more than it resembles the authentically counter-majoritarian thought of Madison and Lincoln. I would only note, before moving on, how interesting it is in retrospect that Calhoun never bartered or negotiated with the anti-slavery minority in his home state of South Carolina. Wherever and whenever slavery enjoyed majority support, Calhoun’s enthusiasm for counter-majoritarianism mysteriously waned.

Leary then moves on to make the case that we really should in fact, look at the president as a national father figure (I’m not kidding). He cites as evidence the fact that the revolutionary generation’s grievances were directed at Parliament rather than at King George and the further fact that the Founders ratified an executive branch endowed with more power than the King of England. He writes:

Our founders, in fact, were quite eager for Papa George to step into the role of a fatherly leader. In fact, that’s exactly why they made the executive of their new system far more powerful than the king of England circa 1789.

This is very misleading. Leary completely omits to mention the heavy influence exerted upon the Founders by the writings of certain 18th-century British statesmen who had opposed the former prime minister, Robert Walpole. Their excoriating rebuke of executive power provided the colonists with a frame of political reference and with recyclable moral rhetoric when the time for revolution came. Contrary to what Leary would have his readers believe, the Founders identified “executive” power more with the informal position of prime minister than with the king when arguing over constitutional matters.

Alexander Hamilton is pretty much solely responsible for the power that the executive branch ended up wielding in the end because he rather admired Robert Walpole — one of the many things that set him at odds with the Virginians. Of course, Leary is right that the American Revolution was staged against Parliament and not the king (George Washington’s men were still drinking nightly toasts to His Majesty’s health six months into the war). But that’s entirely beside the point. The Founders’ thoughts on executive power were shaped far more by the dispute between Walpole and Bolingbroke than by Hanoverian kings. And how any of this relates to the notion that the president is America’s dad is anyone’s guess.

The rest of the piece is made up of hyperbole and ad hominem attacks. Leary closes by mocking me for bringing moral standards to bear upon some of the most immoral men to have ever lived:

All those recorded in the book, of course, will be consigned to the ash heap of history. Standing alone above us all, unblemished, will be the one true American Conservative™, free from association with fascists and racists like Calhoun and Buckley and those of us at TAC: a twenty-something Belfast Tory who once skimmed Federalist 47 while at Oxford.

There’s nothing here worth remarking upon. As Mrs. Thatcher once said, “if they attack you personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

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