Issues & Insights

(Re)Considering Calhoun

John C. Calhoun. Source: Billy Hathorn, National Portrait Gallery. Licensed under under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en).

 

In modern America, people once admired or viewed as inspirational in some ways are now torn down (sometimes literally) as too flawed to deserve our consideration. But to demand “purity” in every dimension and in the eye of each beholder before being willing to contemplate any wisdom someone might offer is a terrible waste.

Rejecting an insight because of words or acts unrelated to it or that do not disprove it is a logical error — treating an ad hominem attack that someone is a bad person as sufficient criteria for judging the quality of logic represented by an argument they advance — with potentially serious consequences.

For instance, that approach can put much of the wisdom of America’s founders “off-limits,” even though their shortcomings (including when in office afterward) do not reject their insights into the importance of liberty and the corollary need to curb government.

Considering the insights of those viewed as ideologically “pure” enough can offer important endorsement to the power of a valid insight. Those who have earned reputations for correctly recognizing and acting on principles provide a degree of insurance against potential mistakes. Yet a true statement is true even when the source is “impure,” while falsehoods do not become true just because they are stated by someone who can pass someone else’s purity test.

To illustrate, someone can have a valid objection to something as wrong without having an adequate conception of what is right or of what would best correct the wrong. If so, your disagreement with their “solution” does not justify ignoring the truths they recognized.

This is frequent in considerations of justice — people can often recognize when an injustice is imposed on them, but their preferred “solutions” often impose injustices on others. As Eric Hoffer described the source of that problem in “The True Believer,” “It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power — power to oppress others.”

A good current example is John C. Calhoun, subject of a new Robert Elder biography, “Calhoun: American Heretic”. Calhoun is often reviled today because, as Professor John O. McGinnis put it in his Law and Liberty review, “his defense of slavery is abhorrent,” with one consequence being the renaming of Yale’s Calhoun College as Grace Hopper College to avoid any taint.

However, McGinnis also recognized the problem that “essential perspectives on American history disappear when a cordon sanitaire is erected around important figures with ideas that make us uncomfortable.” In Calhoun’s case, that loss is “his innovative thoughts on the nature of democracy,” which “remain as interesting and vital as the day he wrote them.”

John C. Calhoun served not only as a state legislator, but as Congressman, Senator, Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and Vice President to two different Presidents with whom he strongly disagreed (and sometimes fought as President of the Senate). And while tarred by his defense of slavery, Calhoun, described by John F. Kennedy as “a masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority,” still provides one of the best explanations of Americans’ current extreme political disunity ever offered.

His 1850 “Disquisition on Government” lays out why the battle for political dominance and its spoils that prevails today shares much with Calhoun’s era, generating bitter divisiveness rather than the better unity perennially promised to Americans if they would just elect the “right” candidates.

Government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify.

Suffrage … only changes the seat of authority, without counteracting, in the least, the tendency of the government to oppression and abuse of its powers.

[Suffrage aims] to obtain the majority — and, thereby, the control of the government and the advantages it confers … aggrandizing and building up one portion of the community at the expense of the other.

In such case, it would be indispensable to success to avoid division and keep united…This, in process of time, must lead … to the conversion of the honors and emoluments of the government into means of rewarding partisan services, in order to secure the fidelity and increase the zeal of the members of the party.

As the struggle became more intense … principles and policy … would lose all influence in the elections; and cunning, falsehood, deception, slander, fraud, and gross appeals to the appetites of the lowest … would take the place of sound reason and wise debate.

[This] will divide the community…into two great parties, which will be engaged in perpetual struggles to obtain the control of the government …The great importance of the object at stake must necessarily form … attachments on the part of the members of each to their respective parties … and antipathies to the opposite party, as presenting the only obstacle to success.

Their mutual antipathies [are] carried to such an excess as to destroy, almost entirely, all sympathy between them, and to substitute in its place the strongest aversion … devotion to party becomes stronger than devotion to country — the promotion of the interests of party more important than the promotion of the common good of the whole, and its triumph and ascendancy objects of far greater solicitude than the safety and prosperity of the community.

[This will] overpower all regard for truth, justice, sincerity, and moral obligations … falsehood, injustice, fraud, artifice, slander, and breach of faith, are freely resorted to, as legitimate weapons — followed by all their corrupting and debasing influences.

The struggle to obtain the control of the government, elevates to power the designing, the artful, and unscrupulous, who, in their devotion to party — instead of aiming at the good of the whole — aim exclusively at securing the ascendancy of party … to promote the interest of parties at the expense of the good of the whole.

The possession of [government’s] control, as the means of directing its action and dispensing its honors and emoluments, will be an object of desire … Party conflicts … in such governments, can hardly ever terminate in compromise — The object of the opposing minority is to expel the majority from power; and of the majority to maintain their hold upon it. It is, on both sides, a struggle … that must determine which shall be the governing, and which the subject party.

Calhoun was wrong in supporting slavery. But he correctly pointed out how much of politics, then and now, involves tooth-and-nail fights to impose partial slavery on electoral losers to benefit electoral winners, a process that tramples liberty.

It is perhaps most famously illustrated by Calhoun’s counter to Andrew Jackson’s proposed toast at the 1830 Jefferson Day dinner. To Jackson’s toast of “To Union,” Calhoun proposed an important amendment: “To Union — after our Liberty, most dear.” Consequently, I endorse McGinnis’ conclusion that “it is a great mistake to overlook his political theory because of his political mistakes,” because it would be unwise to let Calhoun’s failings keep us from insights Americans sorely need now. 

Gary M. Galles is professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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1 comment

  • The people at Yale have NO spine. They removed the wonderful John C Calhoun from South Carolina because he was low hanging fruit. He was from South Carolina. Yet they keep the name of founder, Elihu Yale, who was a slave trader who made a fortune routing slaves around the world. Also, he was a corrupt business man. Yale went the way of least resistance.

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