John Calhoun (1782-1850) was the political and intellectual godfather of secession and the Civil War, one of the true villains of American history. And I'm talking Dick Cheney levels of villainy. He has the reputation of being a significant political theorist, largely on the dubious virtues of his snooze-inducing books, A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States.
|John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850), by some reports later reincarnated as Dick Cheney|
Gerald Capers in his article on Calhoun in the Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite (2012) calls him, not without ambiguity, "a genius unto himself." (The Britannica is my baseline for stolid respectable opinion.) "Calhoun's two books on government, published posthumously, and his many cogent speeches in Congress have gained him a reputation as one of the country's foremost original political theorists. He has been credited with preceding Karl Marx in advancing an economic interpretation of history." Richard Hofstadter famously portrayed Calhoun as "the Marx of the Master Class."
And Calhoun certainly was influential. But however sophisticated or creative his political ideas were in some kind of larger picture, their focus was preserving the institution of slavery in the American South. Sale explains his theory and how it broadly relates to current events - oddly without the word "slavery" appearing in his post, though race does - as follows:
It was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who in 1833, invented the idea of the "concurrent majority," the strategy being used by the Tea Party today. As a person, Calhoun was a dour, humorless intractable man. He was entirely addicted to complex abstractions. His thought had a white-hot and relentless intensity. He would wander about and mutter, "This indeed is a real crisis." As he was dying, a friend asked him to sum up his life, and he replied, "I see nothing to repeat and little to correct," practically the same words President George W. Bush used in describing his presidency. But make no mistake and don’t be distracted. Intellectually, Bush wasn't within shouting distance of Calhoun.Capers describes the Calhounian theory in its original historical context this way:
As a thinker, Calhoun was concerned about the power of section versus section, obsessed by the waning power of the South which he felt was being increasingly overwhelmed by the growth of the North. As a result, Calhoun pronounced the South "a fixed and hopeless minority." In other words, the white people of the South were being denied the means to make their power nationally felt, thanks to the majorities of the North. If you think of the shrinking numbers of white people that will live in America in ten years, the growing number of Asians, Hispanics, gays, etc. the "white" Right Wing Republicans and Tea Party people would probably say the same thing about America today that whites in America "are a fixed and hopeless minority." Think of the eve of last year’s election when Bill O'Reilly cried out in anguish that America wasn't "white" any more. That observation encapsulates the major Tea Party fear.
The concept of the concurrent majority was a device to boost certain interests at the expense of others. We have all read items that have highlighted the role of Right Wing billionaires who are funding and supporting certain candidates who are working to restrict weaken and hamper the rights of minorities to prevent them from becoming majority voices. To the Tea Party, any minority that enjoys any degree of majority support is an enemy. We usually think of minorities as a group laboring to become part of the majority. A Virginia politician, William H. Roane, in the 1850s said that he thought that chief right of minorities was that of "freely, peaceably and legally converting themselves into a majority whenever they can." To prevent certain rising minorities becoming part of the national majority is the aim of the Tea Party program.
The brilliant American historian, Richard Hofstadter, said that the concurrent majority was designed specifically "to protect a vested interest of considerable power.["] [my emphasis]
In the summer of 1831 he openly avowed his belief in nullification, a position that he had anonymously advanced three years earlier in the essay South Carolina Exposition and Protest. Each state was sovereign, Calhoun contended, and the Constitution was a compact among the sovereign states. Therefore, any one state (but not the United States Supreme Court) could declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. The proponents of the nullified measure, according to the theory, would then have to obtain an amendment to the Constitution — which required a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states — confirming the power of Congress to take such action.Hofstadter in From Calhoun to the Dixiecrats Social Research 16/2 (June 1949) noted an important and revealing feature of Calhoun's eventual conception:
Although the tariff was the specific issue in the nullification crisis of 1832–33, what Calhoun was actually fighting for was protection of the South's "peculiar institution," slavery, which he feared someday might be abolished by a Northern majority in Congress. The tariff, Calhoun put forth in one of his public letters, is "of vastly inferior importance to the great question to which it has given rise…the right of a state to interpose, in the last resort, in order to arrest an unconstitutional act of the General Government."
Actually, the South had little recourse except to the threat of leaving the Union in order to gain a formal constitutional guarantee of the concurrent majority. Calhoun's final version of this device was a dual executive; each section was to elect one member, each member was to have veto power. This concession could be won, he reminded southerners, only if they abandoned internal party division and manifested complete solidarity and militancy.This would presumably guarantee the ultimate in the bipartisanship that our star political commentators in the US today cherish so much.
Richard Current in his wonderful 1963 biography, John C. Calhoun, reported that the defender of slavery had a high opinion of his own significance: "Obviously Calhoun ... thought of himself as the Newton, the Galileo, of political science." (p. 110)
But he also writes of Calhoun's political theory:
Probably he was the most systematic thinker among the active American politicians of his time. His argument was, and remains, persuasive. Once his assumptions are granted, his reasoning proceeds pretty well from one step to another, and his conclusions follow almost, but not quite irresistibly. Thus his basic postulates regarding sovereignty lad to his conception of the constitutional compact, and this in turn to his position on nullification, secession, and slavery in the territories.This lack of coherence and cynical flexibility in argument is something his spiritual heirs share.
Even if his assumption be accepted, however, his argument reveals gaps, inconsistencies, contradictions, and downright errors once it is closely examined. If his assumptions are challenged, the whole structure begins to shake. And if they are rejected, it falls in a heap. (P. 112)
Calhoun's theory revolved around the defense of slavery. Period. As Current puts it, "He was taking a concept that had been invented to defend the divine right of kings and he was using it to defend the divine right of slaveowners." (p. 113) And his theory that ostensibly was meant to protect the rights of minorities, the only minority he was focused on protecting was that composed of white slaveowners. The minority of black Americans, slaves and free, was not one Calhoun had the least interest in protecting. Just the opposite. As Capers puts it, "Although Calhoun is remembered as the defender of minorities, he had no use for any minority — certainly not labourers or abolitionists — except the Southern one. His solution to the problem of the preservation of the Union was to give the South everything it demanded." Hofstadter in 1949 observed:
... although Calhoun has been frequently hailed as a pluralist, his political analysis was essentially dualistic~ So long as he could talk in terms of the protection of "the minority," against the tyranny of "the majority," his ex parte pleading for the southern cause could masquerade plausibly as a universal concern for political restraint, balance, and the general good.
It's pretty obvious how that kind of thinking would be attractive to today's Fort Sumter Republican Party. The whole point of his political theory was to give the white slaveholding minority of the South a veto power over anything and everything the national government might want to do. Which is what today's Republican Party is trying to do in the current government shutdown/debt ceiling fight. Hofstadter wrote of the Dixiecrats in 1949:
Their essential strategy hinges upon the effective marshaling of a minority [pro-segregation Southern whites] in a solid bloc, but they must condemn the same strategy when it is adopted by enfranchised and politically self-conscious Negroes. Thus Governor [Fielding] Wright [of Mississippi], in his speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination of the Dixiecratic party declared: "Government by bloc, by vociferous minorities, is a cowardly thing. It is a disgrace to America. It paves the way for ultimate dictatorship or socialism."
|1947 campaign poster for Fielding Wright (1895-1956)|
As Current explained in 1963, Calhoun's race-based strategies of resistance found their true heirs in segregation and its strategy of massive resistance to integration, i.e., to adopting the American form of government:
Wherever a White Citizen's Council meets in Mississippi, or a similar group in another of the Southern states, there is to be sought, nowadays, the true spirit of Calhoun. It is to be sought in the activities of conservative - or reactionary - Southern whites. The way they use the lobby, the bloc, the party constitution, and other political devices can be considered as essentially Calhounian.Hofstadter in 1949 emphasized the reactionary nature of Calhoun's basic political theory: "Although Calhoun was notable for his realism as a social thinker, there was little place in his philosophy for social change."
These white Southerners now face problem quite similar to the one that Calhoun faced more than a hundred years ago. They talk of maintaining white supremacy and he talked of protecting slavery. The problem remains that of defending, against external attack, institution based upon a belief in human inequality. (p. 148; italics in original)
Tags: john calhoun, republican party, tea party, segregation, white racism