The Oracle of the South
The contemporary academic interpretation of John Caldwell Calhoun is like the contemporary academic response to anything and anyone thoroughly and unmistakably Southern: a politically correct caricature, both as to motives and with regard to the meaning of Calhoun’s many achievements. It is a reaction which begins in splenetics and concludes in hackneyed vituperation against Calhoun’s views on two subjects: the status of Negro slavery under the original Constitution and the rights of the states to protect themselves against usurpations not authorized by the fundamental law. It is against this previous and unseemly focus on one part of Calhoun’s doctrine (a focus which results in distortion and latter-day animosity) that Professor Clyde Wilson works in assembling this excellent collection The implicit proposition behind his selection from such an extensive variety of documents touching on so many subjects is that in such variety we should recognize the richness, complexity, and sophistication of Calhoun’s thought. Assumed also is that we will then not attempt to judge such teaching by emphasizing its most familiar components in Calhoun’s prophecies of a war between the sections, a struggle certain to occur if the North continued in its policy of threat and gasconade, and by his commitment to the rights of members of the federal compact to restrain anything short of an overwhelming national majority when their prospects for future existence required such a protection.
Calhoun on these presently inflammatory questions we know well enough. It is the fashion with his most recent interpreters to see in what he says on such issues only self-interest and opportunism. But a contrary reading is more persuasive for those who know his politics “in the round”—with respect to banking and currency, foreign policy and trade, taxation, frugality, nationalism, public virtue, the role of government and the common good. For on all of these subjects what Calhoun maintains goes back to his original Jeffersonianism, his commitment to the republican tradition which first triumphed in 1800. Professor Wilson, who is the authoritative interpreter of Calhoun in our time (the current editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun and the author of a forthcoming commentary on the politics of the “cast iron man”), insists that the theory of the two Calhouns—nationalist and then sectionalist—is a partisan construct, the invention of his enemies, who ignore the fact that the great South Carolinian was devoted to Union throughout his life, even when he warned of an increasing prospect of its dissolution. Wilson summarizes: “In the short view, Calhoun changed his policies, as did all the great men of the period. Taking a longer view, he remained the same.” The honest inquirer who is willing to read through a representative sample of Calhoun is obliged to agree. And what Calhoun maintained with consistency was a policy to preserve the Union—on those terms which would keep it intact.
Indeed, John Calhoun gave most of his adult life to the service of the United States, both in Congress and in the Executive Branch as Secretary of War, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Between the time of his first election to the House of Representatives (in 1811) and the hour of his death (in 1850), he was rarely a private man. In all of the Republic’s business he was thoroughly involved. And, although his status as a Southern spokesman was unquestioned after 1831 and his affirmation of the 1798 Virginia and Kentucky doctrine of interposition, his political following in portions of the North was surprisingly large and gave him a serious national influence. Calhoun’s contributions to the unity of the Republic, in fact, continued unabated even when he spoke particularly for the South. For his purpose in the last years of his career was to unify his native region so thoroughly that it could protect itself without leaving the Union or risking war. His political probity in honoring all of his sometimes conflicting obligations was obvious to all who knew him—and exceptional.
But a major part of Calhoun’s statesmanship lies, of course, not simply in the positions which he assumed but finally in the articulation of his positions which he assumed but finally in the articulation of his reasons for or against a particular policy. Calhoun is, to be sure, the most impressive political theorist to be found among our American statesmen. He is intellectually more interesting than John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Madison, or even Lincoln—a superior to Jefferson, John Taylor of Caroline and the theoretical politicians of our own era. And for the refinement of his doctrine we turn first of all to his Disquisition on Government, a treatise left in manuscript at the time of Calhoun’s final illness, on which he continued to labor almost to the end of his life. Much of this work is reproduced in The Essential Calhoun, where other Calhoun texts come behind it.
In the Disquisition we discover a teaching which is not only persuasive but also curative, given the thread of egalitarian delusion peculiar to the history of American politics. For Calhoun confronts the question of equality as a primary political principle and of its place in a well-designed regime, a commonwealth organized by a satisfactory and sovereign fundamental law. A true constitution, he insists, is not easily made subject to constructive manipulation by extrinsic general propositions but, regardless of how such principles are invoked to redistribute wealth and power, restrains the influence of government on the lives of communities and citizens brought together by its agency.
And what Calhoun says about equality apart from the sameness before the law of all citizens in those matters properly covered by action in the courts or legislature, as apart from the equality “essential to liberty in a popular government,” is that its a priori affirmation “rests upon assumption of a fact which is contrary to universal observation.” From this premise he goes further to attack the illogical presumption that equality and liberty are compatible imperatives, and the notion that “all people are equally entitled to liberty.” Calhoun then concludes his excursus on the great modern god-term by examining critically the notion that all of this primordial equality has its validation in the theory of a presocial state of nature out of which each person’s rights derive: a notion “than which nothing can be more unfounded and false.” As Calhoun insists, the necessity for the long nurturing of human children to the perpetuation of the race makes the presumption of an anterior freedom from protection and nurture a “false and dangerous” supposition. Men are not born free but “in a social and political state,” in unequal conditions. If they are fortunate, their condition may foster liberty. Though in the name of freedom we should not ask its proprietary spirits to preside over its destruction. Progressive and radical scholars have refused to recognize this bedrock presumption undergirding all that Calhoun thought, said and wrote. Clyde Wilson, for the future, has denied them any excuse for persisting in such confusion, whether they admire Calhoun or not.
In surveying Calhoun on liberty and equality we are rightfully impressed but also, thanks to the successful popular distortions of his teaching, forced to recall that there is another American tradition in interpreting these great questions of abstract principles and their limited influence under the Constitution. This alternative tradition has existed at least since 1820 and had some currency among radical thinkers even before that troublesome date. Furthermore, this tradition lurks behind most modern comment on the Oracle of South Carolina and also behind such truncated contemporary definitions of the American conservative position as were recently summarized for us by William Buckley when he wrote (National Review, August 17, 1992) that, “since all men are brothers,” it is a postulate of sound conservatism to affirm “human equality” and “to sever any malformed ties between it and slavery and slavery’s residue” surviving among us. Which, among other errors, is to reject or misunderstand the Framers of the Constitution, most of whom held slaves and learned a great deal from that experience. It is also to condemn the most central, the truly indigenous teaching about our form of government to come down to us from those best of authorities on that subject, the state ratifying conventions which gave to that Constitution the force of law. It is finally to ignore what it means to define equality “narrowly” (as Buckley also advises) in a nation greatly troubled by social and political divisions over race: by the way in which ostensible solutions to that problem, drawn up in a spirit too exclusive and fastidious, foster the growth of government in all directions, at every level and under all auspices.
Those of us who, by accident of birth or historical circumstance, have been lastingly burdened by “slavery’s residue” should, however, recognize an ironic advantage in our conflicted and troublesome heritage—at least as regards our thorough introduction into the dangers of ideological simplification and the difference between equality and brotherhood. Though, in retrospect, we are forced to recognize as few Americans do the great mistake made by our forefathers in introducing black slavery into the North American colonies of Great Britain, much of the advantage in political realism and invulnerability to ideological pretense which belongs to Southerners comes out of the same source, and from John C. Calhoun, who discovered wisdom in reflecting on that “malformed tie” which slavery created among us. The Essential Calhoun provides another generation of Americans, both Southern and not, with an opportunity to do the same.
Dr. M. E. Bradford (1934–1993) was professor of English at the University of Dallas.
Posted: July 24, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.