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Why Conservatives Still Share a Tent With Calhoun

Sam Tanenhaus has an important article [1] in the New Republic on movement conservatism’s entanglement with the ideological underpinnings of slavery. This is hardly a secret. Liberals have read coded racism into “states’ rights” rhetoric for decades. But Tanenhaus is making a subtler point. Conservatives are not closet racists; rather, as evidenced by their talk of nullification and their flirtation with electoral college rigging, they have internalized the sectionalist dogma of Sen. John Calhoun in such a way that seals their demographic fate. Conservative Republicans risk becoming a “lost cause” party that’s designed to “resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority,” Tanenhaus writes.

Like I said, I think it’s an important article. Conservatives should read, and grapple with, it. Still, it seems to me that Tanhenhaus’s characterization of Calhoun as a “crank” (if a brilliant one) is reductive. Postwar conservative popularizers like Russell Kirk included him in their pantheon with appropriate reflection. Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, was well aware of the difficulty of reconciling the institutional defense of slavery with an ethical conservatism:

[B]y 1824, John Randolph demonstrated that the problem of slavery was linked inescapably with loose or strict construction of the Constitution, state powers, and internal improvements. From the latter year onward, therefore, the slavery controversy confuses and blurs any analysis of political principle in the South: the historian can hardly discern where, for instance, real love for state sovereignty leaves off and interested pleading for slave-property commences.

In the end, Kirk conceded, Southern conservatism failed. “No political philosophy has had a briefer span of triumph,” he wrote. Moreover, its adherents “never apprehended much more” of Calhoun and Randolph’s doctrines “than their apology for slavery.” After the Civil War, agrarian conservatism survived in the South—but as an unlovely echo of the real thing. As “instinct unlit by principle.”

To the extent that Tanenhaus hears this echo, this instinctual rage, from today’s party of “old white guys,” he’s right to recoil from it. Yet as Kirk insisted, there’s more to Calhoun than that. The poet-historian Peter Viereck, whom Tanenhaus approvingly cites as a pre-movement dispositional conservative, also refused to completely disavow Calhoun. He located in Calhoun the same well-founded fear of unchecked majoritarianism found in the Adamses (with due allowance for the fact that John Q. was a bitter opponent of Calhoun’s), Madison, Coleridge, Santayana, Irving Babbitt, and Niebuhr.

Viereck wrote [2] in 1956:

Contrast Napoleon’s dictatorship, based on universal suffrage, with the traditional Bourbon monarchy, which ruled not by popular referendum but by historical prescriptive right. Neither side of that contrast was even remotely desirable from freedom’s viewpoint; but the monarchical alternative was at least the less absolute and less statist of the two, since concrete traditions do more to check a bad Bourbon king than abstract Rights of Man and universal suffrage do to check a bad Bonapartist dictator.


Democracy is housebroken, is tolerant, humane, civil-libertarian, only after being filtered, traditionalized, constitutionalized through indirect representation.

In the end, it took more than protest and agitation to completely overturn the institution that Calhoun defended. It required elite antidemocratic force—in the form of the Supreme Court and the 101st Airborne Division. The complicated truth is that the “minority-interest” theory that Tanenhaus rejects can be employed to safeguard the institutions of racism as well as the individual liberties of racial minorities.

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#1 Comment By Bruce Ross On February 14, 2013 @ 11:26 am

Nothing “coded” about massive resistance and all that.

#2 Comment By cka2nd On February 14, 2013 @ 11:34 am

I suspect that Calhoun’s place in the history of Conservatism is not completely unlike Stalin’s place in that of Marxism. Some of the political theory of the former may be redeemable from the cause he stood for, which is not the case with the thin gruel of Stalin’s theoretical contributions, but Stalin was leading a country and system of property relations that could still be defended from imperialism by some of the ideological descendents of Leninism and Trotskyism.

For folks interested in a fictional take on slavery’s place in the young American republic, the dispossession of the Indian tribes of the South that led to the Trail of Tears, Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, J.Q. Adams, and, off stage, John Calhoun, I recommend two alternate history novels by Eric Flint, “1812: The Rivers of War” and “1824: The Arkansas War.”

#3 Comment By Samuel Goldman On February 14, 2013 @ 11:55 am

The difference between Adams’ and Calhoun’s brands of countermajoritarianism is that Adams was a nationalist. In other words, he thought enlightened minorities had the authority to pursue the common good, even when this meant opposing a transient majority. Ultimately, however, he expected the many to recognize the wisdom of the few.

That wasn’t Calhoun’s view. He denied any single national interest, and defended countermajoritarianism as means to harmonize fundamentally opposed sectional interests. For Calhoun, in other words, countermajoritarianism was a constitutive feature of republican government rather than an occasional necessity.

#4 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On February 14, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

What I would like to learn more about is the Federalist Party in what many people would consider its degenerate stage, circa 1800-1815. As I understand it, during this time, the Federalist Party had degenerated from a national party to a sectional, i.e., New England one. It had degenerated from a conservative party to a reactionary one. It had degenerated from a party skeptical about unchecked majority rule to one that questioned liberty altogether.

And, as I understand it, it had become a Calhoun-like champion of states rights, at least partly for the same reasons — fear of dangerous ideas coming in from the outside and subverting the domestic social order.

It’s not a subject I know much about, but it seems like an interesting test case — a reactionary, states-rights party not in defense of slavery or racism. It might offer some insight on the extent to which states rights is unfairly tarred by its association with slavery and racism and the extent to which it is an inherently reactionary ideology.

#5 Comment By Red Phillips On February 14, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

What is wrong with “instinctual rage” against an elite and a power structure that despises you, thinks you are the source of all that is wrong with the country, and wants to see you politically disempowered and demographically deluted into oblivion? If anything, modern Southerners should be faulted for buying in too much to a nationalist narrative.

Hopefully Clyde Wilson will see this and chime in.

#6 Comment By The Wet One On February 14, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

I’m so very glad that my civil liberties are not at the mercy of Republican Conservatives (or more properly Southern Conservatives). As has been shown time and time again, what they seek to conserve is something wholly inamical to my personal well being (physically, economically, legally, socially, politically and I could go on).

Conservatism in the United States is tainted. I don’t know how it comes clean from that taint, but that taint is now coming to bear politically. A new conservative with new roots needs to arise, if such a thing is not too much of a paradox for reality to bear. Either that, or the old conservatism needs to unequivocally cut itself off from its tainted past. To date, it has not successfully done so, and it does not appear that it is capable or desirous of doing so in the United States.

Again, thank God my well being is not subject to this brand of “Conservatives.” For all they are worth, they might as be called “The Enemy.” The conservatives in my own country, well, not so bad at all.

#7 Comment By TomB On February 14, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

God how I hate this Tanenhaus sort of faux-historical/academic/intellectual exercise with its stupid formula: (A) Find some reviled/loser historical figure and then (B) purport that those you don’t like today got their ideas therefrom and are therefore revileable, degenerate, retrograde and etc.

How bloody worthless and tiresome. Especially from those who know history as Tanenhaus does from his bio of Mencken. Even moreso than he disliked slavery Mencken hated the South of course, but as he and so many others recognized before our Age of Politically Correct Blindness, the arguments of the South about States Rights and even perhaps secession were fundamentally far more in tune with the ideas of the Framers than were Lincoln’s. Lincoln’s new ideas just simply were the new winners.

So how come Tanenhaus isn’t comparing today’s Republicans to … Jefferson and Madison and Monroe?

Oh gee, I know…. Your continued entree into polite Manhattan and Boston and Washington society ain’t gonna last long saying things like *that.*

What pure crap. What pure stupid obviously shallow partisanship.

Why not, for instance, compare modern Democrats and their hatred of the idea of States’ rights—even to the point of not letting States legalize personal marijuana use, or set their own gun laws, and on and on—to, say … Stalin?

Yeah, that’s right! I hereby see modern liberalism’s “entanglement with the ideological underpinnings” of Soviet imperialism. The Democrats are really Stalinists, that is: Pretend you have all these different nationalities/states like the Ukraine and Georgia and on and on, and declare yourself a mere “Union” of Soviets after all, but crush them like bugs with any and every little hint of independence any of them shows.

Stalinists is what the Dems therefore are! Stalinists!

So there, I’d argue: Just as valid as Tanenhaus’ perceived correlation I think, if not more And just as equally stupid.

#8 Comment By Scott Galupo On February 14, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

That’s an important distinction, Sam. Thanks for pointing it out.

#9 Comment By Dain On February 14, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

For youthful libertarian types I’ve known, states rights is a way for localities to be as radically pro-drug as they wannabe, ducking the preferences of some moribund federal leviathan. Either that or it’s some clever, new school way of allowing experimentation to thrive – “let a thousand nations bloom” – the right-wing hippies say.

The fact that states rights just means racism, slavery and all that to progressives hits them like a ton of bricks: “Wha??”

#10 Comment By cka2nd On February 14, 2013 @ 3:53 pm


First of all, let’s keep in mind that, at least outside the realm of ideas, the South was deeply divided on the issue of secession. Arguably, the majority of white Southerners actually opposed secession when push came to shove and the pro-secession camp had to rely on every trick in the political and legislative book to get it done, even in South Carolina.

Second, yes, you are probably right that “…the arguments of the South about States Rights and even perhaps secession were fundamentally far more in tune with the ideas of the Framers than were Lincoln’s.” My position is that states rights and the right to secession were trumped by the greater right to not be held in chattel slavery. I imagine this was also the position of many (most?) abolitionists. The fact is that the South seceded to protect their right to practice chattel slavery and in the balance of competing rights, that right holds not even a candle to the right not to be owned.

To separate out the ideas of states rights and secession from the cause(s) for which they were most famously asserted, without trying to whitewash that past, could be a useful project.

#11 Comment By cka2nd On February 14, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

Red Phillips says: “What is wrong with ‘instinctual rage’ against an elite and a power structure that despises you, thinks you are the source of all that is wrong with the country, and wants to see you politically disempowered and demographically deluted into oblivion? If anything, modern Southerners should be faulted for buying in too much to a nationalist narrative.”

One could easily subsitute “blacks,” “American Indians” or “the white working class” for “Southeners” (or “white Southeners,” which I think is what you actually meant) in the above, but the question is, do the facts support the rage?

The elite and the power structure positively loves the white South’s opposition to labor unions, for instance. Those members of the elite and power structure who are supporters of the post-68 Republican Party certainly do not want to see white Southerners politically disempowered or demographically diluted if it means losing the South electorally (or economically). There are conflicting interests at play when it comes to demographics in the South, which is not surprising given the region’s addiction to low wages and pathetic job protections, but it’s not exactly unusual for anyone, let alone the elites, to seek short-term profit at the expense of long-term interests.

#12 Comment By James On February 14, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

The Tanenhaus piece is stupid and evidences no real knowledge of history. He uses “nullification” as some catch-all for general conservative antipathy for centralized government and then links that to Calhoun. In other words, its the exact same thing liberals have been saying about conservatives since the 1960’s; “You conservatives say you are in favor of limited government but this only because you are really racists who oppose Civil Rights and wish we still had slavery.” That’s it. There is nothing at all new or different in what Tanenhaus is writing. The same article could have been published 10, 20 or 30 years ago. There is no appreciation of Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification as the product of early 19th Century constitutional thought. Tanenhaus totally divorces Calhoun and nullification from the appropriate historic context. There is no mention of the Jefferson and Madison’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 which gave inspiration to Calhoun’s theory of nullification. His argument is that American Conservatism begins with Calhoun. What about the Antifederalists? What about the Jeffersonian-Republicans? Were they too infected by “Calhounism” as soon as he emerged from the womb in 1782?

#13 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On February 14, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

Bravo Tom B. Just because Buckley in his dotage reached out to Tannenhouse doesn’t mean we have to do the same.

#14 Comment By Red Phillips On February 14, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

The more I think about this post the more it irks me. Calhoun is without question one of America’s most brilliant indigenous political theorist. Any American conservatism that doesn’t borrow heavily from Calhoun isn’t worth the name. This post reads to me like a classic example of PC bona fides polishing.

#15 Comment By Samuel Goldman On February 14, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

Essayist-Lawyer: Try Henry Adams’ “History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison”. If that’s too long, the introduction and conclusion have been republished by The New York Review of Books as “The Jeffersonian Transformation”.

#16 Comment By Thomas Sm On February 14, 2013 @ 10:56 pm

I think the problem with this kind of thinking is not that it is coded racism but rather that it is cowardly and ineffective. Radical states’ rights rhetoric that occurs when your region votes for the losing side in national elections is similar to the infectious problem on the Right of imagining that you can just join a subculture and withdraw from the wider society, as Cal Thomas roughly suggested (I think after Clinton’s impeachment failed). Though he was referring to religious conservatives, I think competing ideologies are also guilty of such wishful thinking (e.g., the libertarian “Free State” initiative and some off-the-gridder crunchy cons).

It does not matter if you are talking about your state, town, ideological group, religious group, special interest, lifestyle subculture or whatever else, if you feel somehow threatened or persecuted in the wider society it is neither noble nor effective to retreat from it. It is hardly the example of Jesus to shield your family entirely from interaction with people unlike you (the opposite of ‘spreading the Gospel’). Equally, if you are dealing with people who seem truly intolerant of your beliefs, they are actually liable to seek you out to persecute you further if you cower and retreat rather than stand and fight, and this is true both of withdrawn subcultures and secessionists, the latter evidenced by the Civil War.

As to whether Calhoun is a conservative, though, I don’t think he is a good example, but it is fine to associate him via the web of Conservatism > American Conservatism > Southern Conservatism > Southern Agrarianism. Radical states’ rights theory is not conservative, whether or not it be seen as self-serving, since it is inherently disorderly and anti-authority, appearing as ‘conservative’ in limited contexts in some countries’ histories (not only the US) due to local political alignments.

#17 Comment By Thomas Sm On February 14, 2013 @ 11:09 pm


When you look at the political and economic élite, I would agree with you that it has an antipathy towards labour unions, but it is also based in the Northeast Corridor and the Beltway and is nearly uniformly socially liberal and anti-Southern. Just because a Southerner can represent the élite as President or Speaker of the House (although remember Gingrich was from PA and still talks like it), this does not mean they are well-represented among the overall élite or hold any significant regional or cultural influence within it. The élite can be politically classified into blocs that are pretty similar: limousine liberal (Obama), DLC/New Democrat (Clinton), old-school liberal RINO (big business Republicans), or neoconservative (think tank Republicans and foreign policy hacks). All these groups are strongest in the Northeast.

Some industry may have moved to the South, but most of that has moved abroad by now, too. I do not wish to defend the backwardness of the South in terms of workers’ rights, but I would explain it partly as its slower development of industrial capitalism. When the North went through its laissez-faire phase, the South still had an agrarian servant culture whereby you paid workers almost nothing but were liable to take care for them and had an interest in doing so. This is in opposition to a system whereby you use up people’s labour and don’t really care if they get sick or die from being overworked because you can just hire someone else (old laissez-faire capitalism) or labour eventually organises and wins some rights but there are constant conflicts framed in a competition of self-interests (1930s-70s advanced industrial capitalism).

But workers’ rights are being rolled back in the North, too, and the Federal government hardly enforces the law, so what is the point in picking on the South?

#18 Comment By JayR On February 15, 2013 @ 12:16 am

The fact that states rights just means racism, slavery and all that to progressives hits them like a ton of bricks: “Wha??”

That shows only that the young have no historical consciousness or perspective, because that’s all it ever meant from 1820 up to Reagan’s campaign kickoff speech in Mississippi.

Context and history. You really need to look at them when you evaluate something. I would think that conservatives, above all, would understand and agree with this, but I guess ignorance is sometimes convenient.

#19 Comment By TomB On February 15, 2013 @ 12:19 am

Thomas Sm wrote:

“It does not matter if you are talking about your state, town, ideological group, religious group, special interest, lifestyle subculture or whatever else, if you feel somehow threatened or persecuted in the wider society it is neither noble nor effective to retreat from it.”

Really? Then going right back to those coming over here and landing on Plymouth Rock and including especially the millions immigrating from mainland Europe later were acting ignobly, and ineffectively?

Seems to me it might even be said that whatever success this country has had is due to its fashioning itself as *the* place to move away *to.* For freedom to practice your religion originally, and then freedom from serfdom, grinding corruption and poverty and constant warfare.

In fact, what are many of the Rights in the Bill of same other *than* rights to segregate away? Such as … to speak what you believe is the truth no matter what others say. Or to associate with only those you want to. And on and on.

The entire concept of freedom, after all, somewhat implies it is a refuge. Simply because it is the precise opposite of non-freedom which is some sort of confinement.

So what’s the option to “retreat” or “segregation,” Thomas? The incessant, endless dynastic and holy wars that plagued Europe for so long, where, without anywhere to “retreat to,” people did do what you favor and did “stand and fight”?

And fought and fought and fought for hundreds upon hundreds of years.

#20 Comment By J.D. On February 15, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

If Calhoun were indeed “America’s most brilliant indigenous political theorist,” it would be a poor reflection on American political theory. Among his other distinctions, Calhoun was the first major American to publicly defend slavery as “a positive good.” The idea that criticizing his ideas amounts to mere “political correctness” is balderdash.

#21 Comment By Ed On February 16, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

Tanenhaus doesn’t see much in perspective. He takes the situation at one specific present moment and rummages around in history for past figures and movements to build a case around. It’s not a very ambitious or intellectually valuable approach, but maybe he recognizes his limitations. Maybe he can’t go any deeper than he has gone.

If federalism, the tyranny of the majority, the separation and division of powers are live topics of discussion, the name of Calhoun will surface from time to time. Those who feel themselves to be part of an embattled minority may make reference to his writings. That was true of conservatives in the 1960s — and possibly today. But it wasn’t true of all conservatives or of conservatives alone. Lani Guinier tried to bring Calhoun’s views to African-American thought (or so it’s said).

As the “odd man out” of American political thinking Calhoun also held a fascination for liberals like Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and Arthur Schlesinger, as well as ex-Marxists like Eugene Genovese. But one doesn’t see Calhoun’s heritage prevailing among Republicans in office, like Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes — or not for very long. If one does have power in the country, one’s thinking naturally takes a majoritarian turn.

#22 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On February 17, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

The fact that Calhoun’s critique of unbridled Democracy is offensive to contemporary “Conservatives” says it all. A Conservatism that depends on the passions of the populous is either fraudulent or doomed.

I’m surprised that Professor Gottfried hasn’t commented.

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