Calhoun the Marxist?

Neo-conservatives can’t seem to make up their mind about the Confederacy. They all agree that the Confederacy represented everything evil about early America (which places them squarely in league with their intellectual brothers on the Left) but why they hate it presents the real conundrum.

It borders on schizophrenia.

Neo-conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson, for example, often rails against the Confederacy when issues involving “state’s rights” and secession come up. He opposes “sanctuary cities” as a vestige of the “New Confederates”, and blasts California secession as a rekindling of the Old South on the West Coast.

On the other hand, neo-conservative journalist John Daniel Davidson thinks that the Old South, the Confederacy, and John C. Calhoun wrote the blueprints for the modern bureaucratic, centralized state.

So which one is it? Is the Confederacy behind unwanted decentralization or unwanted centralization?

To these “intellectuals” it is just unwanted.

But more than that, the South represents a convenient straw man to push over whenever their Lincolnian dream of a centralized proposition nation is threatened. To the Straussian, Jaffaite, neo-conservatives, everything bad originated in the South—except one line from the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.”

Hanson doesn’t like the South and doesn’t like secession. The Confederacy exemplifies the most visible threat to the New England and Lincolnian myth of American history, and thus it must be denounced whenever possible. Topple monuments and symbols, deride “neo-confederate” ideas, and champion the unitary state so long as “your guy” is in power. This grab-bag of tools to erase the Confederate “stain” on American history would find handymen at Mother Jones or the Daily Kos.

Davidson’s argument masquerades as a serious challenge to the “Lost Cause myth” but is nothing more than a regurgitation of several easily discredited neo-conservative fallacies and one characterization of Calhoun as the “Marx of the Master Class.”

Davidson insists that the “now so familiar” narrative of the South as a decentralized “rural backwater” is woefully wrong. To prove it, he cites a USA Today piece by Lincolnite scholar Allen Guelzo claiming that the Confederacy “centralized political authority in ways that made a hash of states’ rights, nationalized industries in ways historians have compared to ‘state socialism,’ and imposed the first compulsory national draft in American history.”

Part of this is true, but Guelzo leaves out important element of the story. Several Southern states openly resisted attempts by the Confederate government to trample civil liberties and centralize power, so much so that “states’ rights” were often blamed for the defeat of the Confederacy. The Confederate federal court system was never implemented, leaving the state courts in complete control of the legal mechanisms in the South. State courts routinely defied Confederate law, even going so far as to issue writs of habeas corpus after it was suspended by the central government. The Confederacy had at most three or four “major” industrial centers and thus had to maximize output to have any shot at keeping pace with the Northern industrial machine. This did involve government control of vital industries—in clear violation of the Confederate Constitution—but classifying this as “state socialism” is stretching the truth.

It’s also clear that Davidson has never read Calhoun and relies upon the Jaffaite interpretation of the man to buttress his arguments. Calhoun was called the “Marx of the Master Class” by Richard Hofstadter in 1948. This was not meant as a critique. Hofstadter thought Calhoun was a thoughtful person, indeed the last American statesman philosopher, who had a sharp mind and penetrating intellect. Harry Jaffa distorted this label by insisted that, like Marx, Calhoun favored “scientific” political thought. Davidson calls it “the junk pseudoscience of racial inequality and Darwinism.” Calhoun did not believe that all men were equal—he never mentioned race in the Disquisition on Government—but neither did any other conservative from time immemorial to the 1970s. Is that “junk pseudoscience” and “Darwinism?” If so, then Russell Kirk and other giants of American post World War II conservative thought should be held in contempt. They, too, reflected positively on Calhoun’s contributions to American constitutionalism and political philosophy.

Davidson claims that Calhoun’s concurrent majority was intended to “circumvent the forms and restrictions of the Constitution so the government can do things they think need to be done.” More insidiously to Davidson and Jaffa, Calhoun distorted “the Founders’ and Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of the Constitution.” This statement would be laughable if it wasn’t so sadly stupid.

Calhoun wrote in the Disquisition that written Constitutions, while laudable and better than any other restraint on government, could not keep numerical majorities from crushing minorities because they often lacked an enforcement mechanism to keep government power at bay. Whereas Jaffa and Davidson think Calhoun’s “negative” would lead to anarchy, Calhoun expressly rejected this in several passages by arguing that “anarchy” would be the result from unlimited government power. In other words, Calhoun thought the negative would prevent anarchy. Simply put, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution needed teeth. The “concurrent majority” provided those teeth and would allow “liberty” to flourish, even if that meant secession.

He also insisted that the concurrent majority would lead to greater political suffrage, not less, as homogenous communities would be more peaceful and open to larger numbers of people with ballot access. Calhoun was not anti-democratic. He was anti-irresponsible universal suffrage, as were all conservatives of his age, and he opposed alien peoples having control over foreign political communities. Massachusetts certainly did not want South Carolina dictating terms about suffrage or representation. Why should South Carolina accept the opposite?

To reach the conclusion that Calhoun would somehow recognize his views on government in the modern bureaucratic state is lunacy. Calhoun was concerned with political minorities and the dangers of mob rule, but again, until the 1970s so was every other conservative. As he pointed out in the Disquisition, the end result of a majoritarian system would be the constant scrambling for the spoils of power by two factions and the destruction of the written constitution. Each side would retreat to the shield of the constitution when it was out of power but would ignore it while wielding the reins. Has he not been proved correct?

Calhoun was a “progressive” in that he held a positive view of human society, but he was not a progressive in the modern political usage of the term. Davidson is so far out in left field with that argument he might as well join the CPUSA. They would at least be receptive to his interpretation of Calhoun and the South.

The neo-conservatives like Hanson and Davidson are as much a threat to traditional America as the Left. By continually disparaging the South and its traditions they are unknowingly destroying the very fabric of conservative American society they supposedly wish to defend. More important, they are undermining the bedrock of Western Civilization, and as several American intellectuals noted well into the twentieth century, the South produced the only truly unique and highly cultivated civilization in American history.

That said, decentralization and Calhoun’s argument for some type of negative on the general government are fast becoming popular positions in American society. They are the ideas of the twenty-first century. The Founding generation insisted on a limited federal republic to protect the separate interests of a heterogeneous people. That is the key to understanding American government. Calhoun knew it better than most.

About Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author or co-author of five books, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016), The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, (Regnery, 2009), The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History (Pelican, 2012), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes, (Regnery, 2012). He received a B.A. in History from Salisbury University in 1997 and an M.A. in History from the University of South Carolina in 1999. He finished his Ph.D. in History at the University of South Carolina in 2006, and had the privilege of being Clyde Wilson’s last doctoral student. He lives in Alabama with his wife and three daughters. More from Brion McClanahan

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