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Why Conservatives Still Share a Tent With Calhoun

Sam Tanenhaus has an important article 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 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.

about the author

Scott Galupo is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va. In addition to contributing to The American Conservative, he writes for TheWeek.com and reviews live music for The Washington Post. He was formerly a staff writer for The Washington Times and worked on Capitol Hill. He lives with his wife and two children and writes about politics to support his guitar habit.

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