The Continuing Relevance of Calhoun’s Wisdom

I am always glad to talk about my favourite subject–-John C. Calhoun. I think it will become apparent that what he has to say has some relevance to our topic “Building Communities of Resistance”—and perhaps in surprising ways that have little to do with the familiar lessons of State rights and nullification.

By the way, despite what you may hear this week, Calhoun was not a Charlestonian and not particularly fond of the place. He was an upcountry man who chose to live as high up and as far west as you could get and still be in South Carolina. He usually paused in Charleston as briefly as possible on his way to and from Washington. He was not one of those who delighted in the fragrance of the low country plough mud. He referred to going to Charleston as “going to Town”—with a capital T, the same way that English country gentlemen in Samuel Johnson’s time referred to visiting London.

Calhoun did study law here briefly as a young man and he did find a bride in St. James Santee parish north of here. That’s where McClellanville is now. McClellanville has become quite a writers’ center, with associations with Archibald Rutledge, who was world famous in his time, and more recently with Tom Fleming, Don Livingston, George Garrett, and the incomparable Theodore Rosengarten. Perhaps one day Jack Trotter will write a literary history of McClellanville.

A few blocks from here is a place called the Calhoun Mansion. This has no association with John C. Calhoun except that one of his grandsons once lived there for a time. Ah, you say, but the great man is buried in Charleston at St Phillips. Yes, there is a story there. When Calhoun’s mortal remains were on their way home from Washington, his sons were persuaded to let them rest temporarily in Charleston until the State built an appropriate memorial to its greatest man at the capitol in Columbia. Calhoun, I am sure, would much have preferred to be buried in his own ground— like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and John Randolph.

Then The War came. When it was thought that General Sherman and his noble paladins might be headed toward Charleston, Calhoun’s remains were quietly dug up and hidden to avoid desecration. As it turned out, Sherman went to Columbia instead, and the liberators had to be satisfied with damaging the statue of George Washington at the Capitol, burning most of the city, raping black women, and stealing watches, communion silver, and other valuables.

The War destroyed 60 per cent of the property and 25 per cent of the male citizens of South Carolina. Reconstruction looted much of what remained and left us with a debt for crooked carpetbagger bonds that was not paid off until 1955. An impoverished State never built the monument and Calhoun has remained in Charleston.

Calhoun was the last great American statesman. I have had the privilege of spending a good deal of my life in his company, and I am more convinced of that every day. A statesman must be something of a prophet— one who has an historical perspective and says what he believes to be true and in the best long-range interest of the people–whether it is popular or not. A politician, which is all we have now, says and does whatever he thinks will get or keep him in power, and his historical perspective is limited to the next opinion poll or brown bag full of unmarked bills.

Calhoun’s mind and his devotion to the American experiment were equal to that of the great men of the Founding generation. He had an advantage over the Founders in that he had forty years’ of experience near the top of the federal government, and thus a view of how things had worked under the Constitution. Perhaps on some other occasion I can relate how Calhoun early discerned, predicted, and warned against the tendency of the United States towards a regime of bankers and imperial over-reach that has since come to pass.

But for now, I will look at his core understanding of society and government as displayed in his A DISQUISITION ON GOVERNMENT, a treatise which he worked on in the last months of his life and regarded as his bequest to posterity.

In the DISQUISITION Calhoun begins, as anyone should, with human nature. Rousseau had said the men are born free and equal and are everywhere in chains. Calhoun’s first task is to free us from such nonsense about freedom and equality. This is not because he wants to establish racial inequality or to defend slavery, but because he wants to start from sound premises. We are not born free and equal. We are, every one of us, born as helpless, puling infants who cannot survive more than a few hours without society. However, it does not necessarily follow that we must always be in chains.

Here is what he says about the fundamental nature of governments:

I assume, as an incontestable fact, that man is so constituted as to be a social being. His inclinations and wants, physical and moral, irresistibly impel him to asssociate with his kind; and he has, accordingly, never been found, in any age or country, in any state other than the social. In no other, indeed, could he exist; and in no other—were it possible for him to exist—could he attain to a full development of his moral and intellectual faculties, or raise himself, in the scale of being, much above the level of brute creation.

I next assume, also, as a fact not less incontestable, that, while man is so constituted as to make the social state necessary to his existence and the full development of his faculties, this state itself cannot exist without government. This assumption rests on universal experience. In no age or country has any society or community ever been found, whether enlightened or savage, without government of some description.

But government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify . . . . The powers which it is necessary for government to possess, in order to repress violence and disorder, must be administered by men in whom, like others, the individual are stronger than the social feelings. And hence, the powers vested in them to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community. That, by which this is prevented, by whatever name called, is what is meant by CONSTITUTION, in its most comprehensive sense, when applied to GOVERNMENT . . . . Constitution stands to government, as government stands to society, and, as the end for which society is ordained would be defeated without government, so that for which government is ordained would, in a great measure, be defeated without Constitution.

I want us to think of the order of precedence Calhoun established. Society, which is ordained by God for our benefit, comes first. It is pre-existent. Government, created only by men, is something distinct that rightly exists solely for the protection of society. Further, a Constitution in its true sense is that by which society limits and restrains those who are entrusted with government. It is not an open-ended charter of their powers. When a government is unrestrained, there is no Constitution, by whatever name called. Today we have no Constitution.

I submit that a great primary stumbling block to the building and preservation of genuine civilised communities in America is a widespread habit of thought that assumes without question that the U.S. government and the American people in their communities are all the same thing. We have to learn once again to distinguish between the government and our human society—society being a necessity and boon to our nature and government being only a functional arrangement. An arrangement which, according to our Declaration of Independence, may be altered or abolished when it fails to serve its purpose. For the truth of our situation today is that we are not citizens served by our government. We are taxpayers, consumers, cannon fodder. The government is not the servant of society—rather our society is the raw material of the rulers’ will to power. The U.S. government fits the Founders’ understanding of tyranny—a regime which tampers with, exploits, and reconstructs our communities.

When Calhoun wrote of society preceding government, he was not theorising, unlike Rousseau and other pundits. He was recapitulating the experience of his own family and the reality of the founding of America. We need to recover some lost American history. The times are changed vastly since the founding, but perhaps a recovery of forgotten truth about American origins will inspire us to the possibilities of self-government.

Before the war of consolidation in the 1860s, Americans prided themselves that their settlements had been built by free men. The thirteen colonies were not created by people who were the wards, or clients, or employees of government. Americans were people who conquered a wilderness with their own labour and capital and at the risk of their own life and limb. There was a distant Crown that theoretically was the fount of land ownership. Otherwise, the colonists were men who had ventured to the wilderness by their own wills and created fresh societies while abdicating none of the rights of Englishmen. From the first they insisted on representation and making their own laws for the societies they had built.

Calhoun’s own family were part of a kith of Ulstermen who came into the up-country of South Carolina before the Revolution when it was empty of all but hostile Indians. They were tied together not by the state but by blood, religion, necessity, and the desire to make a new life. The settlers were in fact virtually self-governing and self-reliant communities in economic, political, and military affairs. There is a very real sense in which they participated in the creation of their own government by communal acts of consent. Calhoun believed that this situation, common to Americans, had been decreed by Providence and was the source of America’s prosperity and freedom. British America, he said, was settled ‘by hardy and enterprising immigrants.” To such forebears, from the beginning thrown mostly on their own resources, Americans owed their “enterprise, energy, love of liberty, and capacity for self-government.”

In the1720s, in colonial South Carolina, there was discontent with the Lords Proprietors, especially with the intention of the Proprietors to monopolise lands that the colonists themselves had won by desperate sacrifices in war with the Indians. South Carolina had its own leaders, its own body politic, its own public opinion, its own legislature, and its own militia. Their society exercised its will, threw out the officials sent by the Proprietors, and announced that South Carolina was now a regular royal colony.

For the Founding Fathers, consent of the governed did not mean political participation of the abstract individual so dear to modern democratic theory. Rather, liberty was defined by the self-determination of communities of men, pre-existing historically in all their complexity and differentiation of social roles. Individual Liberty meant citizenship in a free community. A community is by nature non-egalitarian and ceases to be free or even to exist when an outside power enforces an artificial equality. Liberty is not bestowed by government but is an aspect of a free society itself.

The people of South Carolina were sovereign and independent before the Declaration of Independence. Through their own governor, legislature, courts, and armed forces they were exercising every sovereign power—taxation, treaty-making, war, the execution of felons. A month before the Declaration, Colonel Moultrie and his South Carolina forces, from their palmetto log fort on Sullivan’s Island just north of here, repulsed a British fleet that threatened to suppress their sovereign self-government.

This precisely describes the American War of Independence. It was not a revolution in society, but the action of existing societies of the 13 colonies to preserve themselves against the interference of a distant government. This was the real war of American Independence, the preservation of living societies from the schemes of rulers. This is what the Declaration of Independence meant by “consent of the governed.” The Constitution for the United States was established by free, specific acts of each sovereign people. As Madison said, the Constitution drew its only authority from the ratifications of the States. This ratification was a precisely known historical event, and it could be revoked when its purpose was perverted. Unless you want to argue that the consent of the governed is something that can only be used once, like a bus ticket. This was essentially the position of Lincoln and all who follow after him.

From the beginning, a dishonest nationalist and revolutionary history sought to conflate together American society and the machinery of the U.S. government. In the 19th century state centraslisation by blood and iron seemed the right and inevitable thing. Lincoln’s war and Lincoln’s rhetoric consummated the revolution of nationalism.

It is just possible that the 21st century will see civilised communities once more willing to challenge offensive governments.

Let me give you a quotable phrase to describe the present condition of most American communities. It may catch on and numerous “conservative” celebrities will be claiming they originated it. The U.S. is a regime of Bankers, Bombers, and Busybodies. All three are deadly enemies to the preservation or building of any civilised community in North America. The desire for governmental activism always reflects a lust for power and some combination of economic profiteering and vague but strong emotions. None of these are things that nurture the higher aspirations of our human nature.

Recent history shows beyond doubt that the interest of financiers takes precedent over the welfare of the people. Military bases in over 100 countries and a prolonged war in which billions of dollars of sophisticated equipment is expended in a needless attempt to control mountain tribesmen who hate outsiders and infidels tells us about the Bombers. They reflect the triumph of nationalism over patriotism. A patriot loves his land and people, his society, because they are his. A nationalist glories in the power of his government over others. Nationalism is a defect of the spirit. It characterises people who have no identity other than their identification with the power in the government of the nation-state. The United States is full of such people. Try starting an academic discussion of the possible benefits of secession, as I have. Your computer will be blitzed by hateful, threatening, and obscene messages from people who take any questioning of the government as sacrilege and a personal threat to themselves.

We are less aware of the depredations of the Busybodies, which often seem benevolent. Recollect George Bush I and Bob Dole chortling with self-satisfaction over the Americans with Disabilities Act. Who can be against helping the disabled, you ask? And I say that a government in this vast land that issues regulations covering every parking lot and building entrance, every place of refreshment and entertainment, and even every toilet, has too much power. Under such a government you cannot say that you live in a free community. If the regime has the power to do whatever it likes, it has the power to do to you anything it wants. This is not a government that does what is necessary to preserve the human society that nurtures us. This is a government that assumes the power to alter us in accordance with its own notions

There are millions of George Bushes and Bob Doles among our fellow countrymen. It is a major American type, perhaps the predominant American type. Such people cannot distinguish human society from the U.S. government, nor can they distinguish the U.S. government from their own will. They assume it is their right to force other people to obey their notions of doing good, and for such people of doing good there ain’t no end. Where does George Bush get the moral authority, much less the constitutional authority, to use up American blood and treasure in the pursuit of a New World Order just because he and others think that is a good thing? His thinking is as flawed, juvenile, self-centered, and delusional as that of any infatuated dictator in history. For him our land and people are not values in themselves, just a means to carry out his delusions. Bush can get away with it because he is serving the profit of powerful interests, but also because millions of Americans buy into his delusions of national grandeur and their special mission to do good.

I suggest to you that it is this kind of thinking that is the nemesis of civilisation in North America. We must not heed it in rulers and we must expunge it from ourselves. My position is at odds with European conservatism, which has made great inroads into American thought. For a European conservative society, government, and church are or should be a whole. I submit that is not the American tradition nor the American necessity. The tradition and necessity, for a country that has always been made up of diverse communities, is to break down and limit power—ultimately the deconstruction of the present regime. So I come back to Calhoun. Society is given by God through human nature for our nurture. Government is needed to keep the peace but it is also a great danger to society. We much revive the wisdom that Leviathan must be chained and disciplined to protect rather than devour us. And we must recognise that the government is never “us.”

The South has kept this wisdom longer than other parts of America, though it is beleaugured even here. The South, in contrast to what we know as “America,” was, in the words of M.E. Bradford, a thing that was “grown, not made.” The political philosophy long defended by Southern spokesmen rested on an implicit assumption that government should be the servant and not the master of society, society being the “grown” product of Providence and government being the “made” construction of man.

Robert Lewis Dabney, theologian and late aide to Stonewall Jackson, expressed the Southern insight in a speech to college students the year after Appomattox. The students were doubtless mostly impoverished Confederate veterans making great sacrifice to continue their education—which was typical of Southerners for the next half century. He advises the students that they should build and secure the family and thus save the living South even under defeat and evil occupation. He continues thus:

Government is not the creator but the creature of human society. The Government has no mission from God to make the community. On the contrary the community is determined by Providence, where it is happily determined for us by far other causes than the meddling of governments—by historical causes in the distant past, by vital ideas, propagated by great individual minds—especially by the church and its doctrines. The only communities which have had their characters manufactured for them by governments have had a villainously bad character, like the Chinese and the Yankees. Noble races make their governments. Ignoble ones are made by them.

In this talk Dabney was summarizing what Calhoun had said a few years earlier in his last testament to the world. And Calhoun was only putting into intellectual form what had been the doctrine of the South from the beginning. Society is natural, essential, and self-justifying, proceeding from man’s God-give nature. The legitimate purpose of government is the preservation of society. Thus, the Constitution properly should be the instrument of society’s control of government, not vice-versa. This attitude can be found as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia and underlies the political thought and policy of Jefferson. A republican government was defined as a government that rested on the consent of, and preserved the safety of society. It was not created from any theoretical proposition about the Rights of Man nor any mystical emotion about the sacred nation. And, as Bradford amply showed, the American Revolution was carried out and understood as a preservation of the natural “grown” American society from the threatened dominance of a distant government that had no interest in its welfare.

Wendell Berry gives us the poet’s view of the Southern tradition of society before government, saying it much better than I ever can:

“I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as carefully as they hold to it.
I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
Or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut….”

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson