The Ghost Of John C. Calhoun Haunts Today’s American Left

The Ghost Of John C. Calhoun Haunts Today’s American Left

The irony of the New York Times’ 1619 Project is that it embraces the critique of the American Founding espoused by the leading defender of Southern slavery, Sen. John C. Calhoun.
John Daniel Davidson
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It’s impossible to understand The New York Times’ 1619 Project as anything but sweeping historical revisionism in the service of contemporary left-wing politics.

The gist of the project, named for the year the first Africans were brought to North America to be sold as slaves, is that everything about America, from our capitalist economy to our politics to the food we eat, can be explained by slavery and race. In other words, America was conceived in sin, born of evil intent, and all its lofty ideals about equality and liberty are nothing but a sham—the hypocritical stylings of slavers and white supremacists bent on the subjugation of their fellow man.

The Times is unambiguous: “In the days and weeks to come, we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” The arrival of those slaves in Virginia in 1619, we’re told, “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years and form the basis for almost every aspect of American life.”

Everything that made America exceptional, every aspect of American life, all of it the legacy of slavery. The Times’ entire purpose here, by its own admission, is to “reframe the country’s history” by placing slavery “at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” It should come as no surprise that, in this telling, we are an irredeemably wicked people, and always have been.

The 1619 Project Is Garbage History

There are sound historical reasons why 1619 isn’t a helpful jumping-off point to understand slavery in America, but we need not dig into that particular debate to see the manifestly political nature of the Times’ project, and how the Times plays fast and loose with the historical record.

For example, the essay that launches the project, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is premised on a series of false assertions about the American Founding, including that the Revolution was fought to protect slavery, that the British Empire was turning against slavery in the eighteenth century, and that the American Founders consciously disbelieved the ideals they espoused. Historically speaking, there’s no evidence for any of that.

She argues persuasively that African-Americans are the true believers in America’s Founding ideals, but also that they are dupes because the ideals are a lie—a view thoroughly refuted by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood the principles of the Founding as a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

Perhaps the most disingenuous essay of the bunch is by Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie, who argues that the debt ceiling crisis of 2011 and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s use of the filibuster can be traced directly back to the political philosophy of John C. Calhoun and the secessionists of the antebellum South.

No, really. The election of Barack Obama, writes Bouie, wrought a “fundamental change” in the Republican Party, which committed itself to “total opposition, not just blocking Obama but also casting him as fundamentally illegitimate and un-American. He may have been elected by a majority of the voting public, but that majority didn’t count.”

Who else didn’t think the majority counted? Why, the Confederates! After all, the south seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860, did it not? Also, Calhoun laid the groundwork for secession years before with his doctrine of the “concurrent majority,” did he not? Therefore, when McConnell blocked Obama’s judicial nominees, or when Republican state legislatures changed state campaign finance laws, or when Republicans (and only Republicans) engage in aggressive gerrymandering, they’re obviously acting as the inheritors and champions of Calhoun’s racist, secessionist political ideology.

That’s actually Bouie’s argument. Had it not appeared in The New York Times, it wouldn’t be worth a riposte outside of Twitter. Bouie himself doesn’t quite buy it, conceding in his closing paragraph that he hasn’t really made his case: “You could make the case that none of this has anything to do with slavery and slaveholder ideology. You could argue that it has nothing to do with race at all, that it’s simply an aggressive effort to secure conservative victories.”

But why ascribe ordinary political motives when you can contort history to support an accusation of racism and “slaveholder ideology”? Consider Bouie’s treatment of Calhoun, a figure the left desperately wants to associate with Republicans but whose legacy is alive today nowhere so much as in the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.

Bouie either ignores or is unaware of how Calhoun’s political thought sharply deviates from that of the American Founders. The political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa has explained in some detail how Calhoun’s doctrine of the concurrent majority—that certain minority groups, like slave states, had the right to veto or nullify decisions of the majority—was designed to undermine the philosophical basis for American constitutionalism and replace it with a theory based on the faddish “science” of Darwinism and race theory.

As early as the 1820s, Calhoun was trying to correct what he saw as a monumental error by the Founders. To Calhoun, it was folly to base the republic on universal ideals like “all men are created equal,” or to suppose that something like the Bill of Rights could protect the rights of a minority from the “tyranny” of the majority.

He believed instead that politics was the exercise of pure will, and that the scope and exercise of political power should be based on “scientific” principles, not natural law or inherent human rights. In that sense, he has far more in common with the modern-day left and the champions of leftist governance than he does with the GOP. As Jaffa has written, “Calhoun’s denial of natural equality is pro tanto and ipso facto a denial of man’s nature as a free and reasonable being. In this, of course, he anticipates the metaphysical determinism of contemporary behavioral science.”

In 1838, Calhoun openly broke with the Founders on slavery, contending that, “Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil. That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

The Founding generation had never believed that, and on the contrary took great strides towards emancipation during the Revolutionary period. Manumission increased dramatically during that time, culminating in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

A year before that, in calling for the criminalization of the international slave trade, President Thomas Jefferson denounced slavery for its “violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.” Of course, Jefferson, like other slave-owning Founding Fathers, applied these principles inconsistently and sometimes hypocritically, but it was acknowledged from the beginning that there was a disconnect between the ideals and reality, and that at some point they must be reconciled—the promissory note cashed in.

Calhoun Thought The Constitution Was Based On a Lie

Bouie’s ignorance of Calhoun’s philosophical project helps explain his confusion over the Founding. He makes passing reference to how the “growth of the free Northwest threatened Southern dominance in Congress,” but makes no mention of how the Northwest came to be free. And no wonder—the relevant history here is a stumbling block to his argument.

Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in July 1787, while the U.S. Constitution was still being drafted. The Ordinance included a prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude in the new territory. The ordinance passed unanimously, which meant it enjoyed the support of southern, slave-owning members of Congress.

This vast, unorganized territory comprised something like two-thirds of the total land area of the Unites States at the time, encompassing the subsequent states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The ordinance became the template for admitting new states into the Union, and planted the seeds of slavery’s eventual abolition (the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery nationwide in 1865, quotes verbatim from the Northwest Ordinance).

Why would southerners at the time of the Founding support a prohibition on slavery on such a grand scale, and at such an early stage in the life of the new republic? The left will answer that it was all a cynical ploy to prevent future northern states from becoming competitors in the cotton industry.

A far better historical explanation is that, from its founding, Americans really did believe in their principles—and were acutely aware of the gulf between those principles and practice, above all the practice of slavery. That’s one reason more than one-third of the states between 1776 and 1800 abolished slavery, and even more of them, including southern states, restricted it.

That’s also why Calhoun, a generation later, had to construct an entirely new political philosophy, based on junk science and metaphysical determinism, of American government: he knew it would be impossible to preserve slavery under the Founders’ constitutional system, so he set out to scrap it altogether. He nearly succeeded.

In 1850, Calhoun famously predicted the coming war. But, to quote Jaffa, “he did not see that the Union had an interest in human freedom that was different from its interests in commerce, manufactures, or land. He did not see this because, although a patriot himself, there was no room in his theory of the human soul for love of country, any more than for love of justice.”

What a bitter irony, then, that Bouie and the Times have come around to embracing the central tenets of Calhounian thought: that the American Founding was a monstrous lie, that natural law is pure folly, and that the promissory note is worthless.

John is is the Political Editor at The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter.
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