In August, 2019, The New York Times introduced an essay symposium on the legacy of slavery:
In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully
Titled “The 1619 Project,” the symposium will be an ambitious attempt by The New York Times to “retcon” American history according to the seemingly bottomless pit that is black self-pity and white self-hatred:
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
“In the days and weeks to come,” announced New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay, “we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”
Americans should learn about the real history of race in their country: The enslavement of Africans, the extermination of Indians, and the exclusion of Asians – and that such brutality is entirely unexceptional in world history, as grim as that may be.
Slavery? Prof. David Brion Davis (a historian of slavery from Yale University and the founder of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition) began Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World with “The Ancient Origins of Modern Slavery,” a chapter which showed that slavery has been a part of human civilization for thousands of years – not since 1787 in the U.S. Constitution, but since the 2nd millennium B.C. in the Code of Hammurabi.
Genocide? In War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Prof. Lawrence H. Keeley (an archaeologist from the University of Illinois) showed just how savage – yes, literally “savage” – the aboriginal and indigenous peoples of the Americas were toward each other before European colonization.
Xenophobia? In The Unguarded Gates, Prof. Otis L. Graham (a historian from the California State University and University of California systems) showed that as soon as immigration became a worldwide phenomenon, the “Neo-Europes” (new countries colonized by Europeans, like the U.S.A. and Canada in North America, Argentina and Brazil in South America, and Australia and New Zealand in Oceania) all adopted protective, restrictive, selective policies during the “Great Wave” of human migration from the 1890s to the 1920s in order to determine their own demographics.
The 1619 Project, however, is not real history. It is, quite uselessly, replacing a self-serving history which appeased “white guilt” (call it “Sunday School” history) with another self-serving history which appeases black grudges (call it “Spray Paint” history). The New York Times is further mainstreaming the anti-white identity politics which are already polarizing and radicalizing the country.
If other events are any indication (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Juneteenth” Congressional testimony and the 2020 Democrat presidential primary), the ultimate objective of The 1619 Project is reparations – not merely a racialized redistribution of wealth, but a comprehensive racialized reconstruction of culture, economics, politics, and society.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ groundbreaking cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” illustrated in disturbing detail how systems of white supremacy have harmed black people in the past and continue to harm them in the present. (Not the way that “pumpkin spice lattes” are “white supremacist,” but the way that slavery and segregation were “white supremacist.”) The sort of “conservatives” who read The Federalist love to lie to themselves (by religiously quoting “The Gettysburg Address,” for instance) about just how large the question of race has loomed in American history and just how long of a shadow it casts to this day. While the revolutions of “Reconstruction” and “Civil Rights” were significant victories for establishing equal rights for black people – as well as significant defeats for the rights of the states – when one party has injured another, it is not enough for the offending party to just stop and say sorry. “Reparations” (or “compensation” or “restitution”) for whatever damage was done is a well-established principle of justice.
Because of the damage that racism – institutional as well as individual – has done to black people, some form of reparations is not necessarily an unreasonable idea. Reparations would have to be limited to actual descendants to American slaves, of course, and not open to any aggrieved African alien like Barack Obama, Ilhan Omar, and Colin Kaepernick’s girlfriend. What happened to affirmative action – a policy put in place to help African-Americans which other non-white minorities with no history of discrimination in this country ended up mooching – could not be allowed to happen to reparations. Imagine how the many diverse tribal groups which have contributed to “The Browning of America” (their non-colorblind term, not mine) over the last 50 years would scramble to get a bigger piece of the pie for themselves!
“Reparations” in the interest of righting past wrongs once and for all could be a cathartic and constructive experience. Yet The 1619 Project is not about righting past wrongs. It is meant to be destructive rather than constructive, traumatic rather than cathartic, malicious rather than empathetic, and divisive rather than unifying. It is a “great leap forward” in the anti-white identity politics which are pulling many further left while pushing others further right.
If, as The New York Times has pronounced, everything that defines American civilization is the result of evil, then American civilization itself – our communities, institutions, and traditions – is evil. There is no other way to interpret such a statement.
Indeed, in a leaked transcript of a New York Times staff meeting, an anonymous activist – excuse me, “journalist” – made such a complaint:
I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, “Okay, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this, but are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?”
New York Times editor Dean Baquet did not respond by reminding that journalist that none of them should be so ideological in their reporting, but by assuring that journalist that the newspaper would indeed be so ideological:
You know, it’s interesting, the argument you just made, to go back to the use of the word “racist.” I didn’t agree with all of this from Keith Woods, who I know from New Orleans and who’s the ombudsman for NPR. He wrote a piece about why he wouldn’t have used the word “racist,” and his argument, which is pretty provocative, boils down to this: Pretty much everything is racist. His view is that a huge percentage of American conversation is racist, so why isolate this one comment from Donald Trump? His argument is that he could cite things that people say in their everyday lives that we don’t characterize that way, which is always interesting. You know, I don’t know how to answer that, other than I do think that race has always played a huge part in the American history.
In Mr. Baquet’s opening statement to his reporters, the editor announced that The New York Times would be switching from “Russia” to “race” to explain how and why Donald Trump was elected:
If we’re going to be a transparent newsroom that debates these issues among ourselves and not on Twitter, I figured I should talk to the whole newsroom, and hear from the whole newsroom. We had a couple of significant missteps, and I know you’re concerned about them, and I am, too. But there’s something larger at play here. This is a really hard story, newsrooms haven’t confronted one like this since the 1960s. It got trickier after [inaudible] went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstructed justice to being a more head-on story about the President’s character. We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story. I’d love your help with that. As Audra Burch said when I talked to her this weekend, this one is a story about what it means to be an American in 2019. It is a story that requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred, but it is also a story that requires imaginative use of all our muscles to write about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years. In the coming weeks, we’ll be assigning some new people to politics who can offer different ways of looking at the world. We’ll also ask reporters to write more deeply about the country, race, and other divisions. I really want your help in navigating this story.
“The forces that led to the election of Donald Trump” are obvious to everyone except the sort of journalists and pundits who work for The New York Times. They would rather be fed conspiracy theories by rogue soldiers and spies with militarist agendas (aka “RussiaGate”) than appreciate why the American people voted for an “isolationist,” “nativist,” and “protectionist” campaigning like a demagogue over a “cosmopolitan,” “globalist” and “internationalist” campaigning on the status quo. If they were not still in denial about what happened in the 2016 election, they could be covering how Pres. Trump has betrayed or at least failed his base on every one of the issues that got him elected, but instead they will be covering how “racist” (and thus ultimately a manifestation of “the legacy of slavery”) it is for the American people to vote for their own interests. Ironically, the media class, with its insufferable elitist ideology, is so biased and prejudiced that it still does not seem to realize how its own bias and prejudice helped get Pres. Trump elected.
The 1619 Project is not merely a surrender of professional journalistic standards, then, but a declaration of war against the American people. Anti-American propaganda like The 1619 Project represents a more explicit and overt phase of the ongoing iconoclasm and ressentiment against symbols of American heritage and identity, the ulterior motive and ultimate objective of which has always been the delegitimization of the American nation-state. However buffoonish he may be, never has Pres. Trump’s label for the media class – “Enemy of the People” – been truer.
Matthew Yglesias of Vox describes the sharp leftward shifts on racial questions which have occurred among white liberals over the past five years as “The Great Awokening.” Amusingly, white liberals are actually to the left of African-Americans on affirmative action and discrimination, as well as to the left of Latino-Americans on immigration and diversity – and unlike African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and every other American ethnic group, actually report a pro-outgroup (as opposed to pro-ingroup) bias. In an article on the Jewish website Tablet, “America’s White Saviors,” Georgia State Ph.D student Zachary Goldberg documents how “The Great Awokening” has been driven by the sharp leftward shift in the media class’ coverage of racial issues (specifically The New York Times, the racial content of which has spiked) as well as by social media’s exposure of people to more of such news (specifically white liberals, who use it far more than other whites). Dr. David Rozado, using his website “Media Analytics,” has tracked the increasing frequency of “woke” jargon from The New York Times. Given the influence of elite media like The New York Times on white liberals, then, The 1619 Project will probably make rational discussion of race impossible and anything – any idea, individual, and institution – even tangentially associated with racism utterly anathema.
In the face of this evil, what do the staunch “conservatives” at The Federalist do? Refute the crackpot history that slavery built the American economy and reject the money grab exploiting that crackpot history? No, practicing Republican pundit Dinesh D’Souza’s “P.C. Judo” (a debating martial art which tries to turn identity politics against the Left), they claim that “the Democrats are the real racists.”
In “The Ghost of John C. Calhoun Haunts Today’s American Left,” John Daniel Davidson argues, “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.” To get more of an idea of who the Political Editor of The Federalist is and what he believes, consider his praise of Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History (the ludicrous neo-conservative lie that “Western Civilization” is a Judeo-Christian ideology that begins and ends with “The Enlightenment,” even though the latter was in many ways a rejection of the former) for the Jaffite Claremont Review of Books.
Mr. Davidson describes Calhoun as “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” and claims that Calhoun “had to construct an entirely new political philosophy, based on junk science and metaphysical determinism, of American government.” Mr. Davidson links to another article of his no less execrable and risible, “The Confederacy Still Lingers Within the Progressivism That Birthed It.”
According to Mr. Davidson, Calhoun was determined “to undermine the philosophical basis for American constitutionalism and replace it with a theory based on the faddish ‘science’ of Darwinism and race theory.” Given that Charles Darwin did even begin to write about the theory of evolution until eight years after Calhoun’s death, it is unclear just what Mr. Davidson what means here. As far as “race theory” is concerned, while Calhoun’s views on slavery were peculiar to the American South, he held the same “white supremacist” beliefs as most other white people in the 18th and 19th centuries, whether “pro-slavery” like Stephen Douglas or “anti-slavery” like Abraham Lincoln. In fact, Calhoun’s “junk science” about race was not much different from Thomas Jefferson’s own “junk science” about race in Notes on the State of Virginia. What makes the “P.C. Judo” that Mr. Davidson is attempting here so self-destructive is that it concedes “presentist” moral premises to the Left and strengthens the name-calling tactics (“ist” this, “phobe” that, and so on) which the Left uses to intimidate the Right.
Like most “conservatives,” Mr. Davidson still clings to the aforementioned “Sunday School” history, derived from Republican Party’s civic religion and made to seem scholarly by the sophistry of Prof. Harry V. Jaffa of Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Institute:
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.
Mr. Davidson is correct that Calhoun has nothing in common with the GOP – “the Stupid Party” – but wrong to assume that Calhoun would want anything to do with corrupt and cowardly careerists like Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh, and Bill Weld, not to mention crude demagogues like Donald Trump.
In support of his Sunday-School history, Mr. Davidson borrows yet another argument from Abraham Lincoln: The Northwest Ordinance put into practice what had been promised in the Declaration of Independence, proving that the Founding Fathers always intended to abolish slavery gradually. Lincoln accused Democrats like Sen. Stephen Douglas and his Kansas-Nebraska Act – which departed from the Northwest Ordinance – of betraying the anti-slavery legacy of the Founders. It is true that in 1781 the slaveholding state of Virginia ceded her territorial claims north of the Ohio River to the Confederation, and that in 1787 the Congress established an ordinance governing that northwestern territory (the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) which included the exclusion of slavery. Yet it is also true that Virginia retained her territorial claims south of the Ohio River, from which the slaveholding state of Kentucky was formed in 1792. Other slaveholding states followed suit. In 1789, slaveholding North Carolina ceded territory to the Union which became slaveholding Tennessee in 1796. In 1787 and 1802, respectively, slaveholding South Carolina and slaveholding Georgia ceded territory to the Union which became slaveholding Alabama in 1819 and slaveholding Mississippi in 1817. In other words, four of the old slaveholding states which had agreed to keep slavery out of the territory ceded by Virginia also kept slavery in the other territories which they ceded. Furthermore, two more slaveholding states – Louisiana in 1812 and Arkansas in 1836 – were formed from the territory which Pres. Thomas Jefferson (the author of the so-called “promissory note” to abolish slavery) purchased from France, not to mention Missouri in 1821. If Mr. Davidson tried reading something besides Harry Jaffa’s long-winded commentaries on Lincoln’s speeches – D.L. Robinson’s Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, 1765-1820? Glover Moore’s The Missouri Controversy, 1819-1821? Michael Holt’s The Political Crisis of the 1850s? – then perhaps he would understand why Virginia ceded so much of her territory and why she and other slaveholding states agreed to exclude slavery from that territory: Not to sow the seeds of their own destruction, but as a beneficent gesture to their non-slaveholding confederates. Virginia’s sacrifice may have earned her slaveholding confederates some goodwill for a generation, but Lincoln’s generation seized upon that act of good faith in bad faith.
What is it that Calhoun believed about equality which Mr. Davidson finds so offensive? Well, in Calhoun’s opinion, the phrase “all men are created equal,” even in its proper historical context, was a sentimentalist statement that neither could nor should be taken literally without undermining the progress of civilization.
Calhoun’s most comprehensive thoughts on this controversial question come from a speech on the admission of Oregon to the Union in 1848:
If he should possess a philosophical turn of mind, and be disposed to look to more remote and recondite causes, he will trace it to a proposition which originated in a hypothetical truism, but which, as now expressed and now understood, is the most false and dangerous of all political errors. The proposition to which I allude, has become an axiom in the minds of a vast majority on both sides of the Atlantic, and is repeated daily from tongue to tongue, as an established and incontrovertible truth; it is, that “all men are born free and equal.” I am not afraid to attack error, however deeply it may be entrenched, or however widely extended, whenever it becomes my duty to do so, as I believe it to be on this subject and occasion.
How, exactly does Calhoun’s criticism of equalitarianism deny man’s nature as a free and reasonable being, as Harry Jaffa so outrageously put it? The contradiction between liberty and equality – and that either in extreme will end in tyranny – has been a recurring problem in Western philosophy since Plato. American “conservatives” should be aware of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations on liberty and equality in the classic Democracy in America, at the very least. Of course, if Mr. Davidson’s definition of Western Civilization is Ben Shapiro’s “reason and moral purpose,” then it is no surprise that he finds Calhoun’s argument so offensive.
What was the original meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal”? Was the Declaration of Independence really a “promissory note” to abolish slavery? During the “Missouri Crisis” of 1819-1821, when Northerners and Southerners clashed over slavery for the first time since their unification under the Constitution, the latter answered with common sense. “The meaning of this sentence is defined in its application,” argued Sen. Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky. “That all communities stand upon an equality; that Americans are equal with Englishmen, and have the right to organize such government for themselves as they shall choose, whenever it is their pleasure to dissolve the bonds which unite them to another people.” According to Sen. Nicholas Van Dyke of Delaware, “the recital of abstract theoretical principles, in a national manifesto” was “correct, and intelligible in the political sense in which they were used by the men who signed that manifesto,” which was to justify the right of the colonies to govern themselves as free and independent states. “The distinguished statesmen who pledged to each other ‘their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor,’ in support of that declaration, were not visionary theorists,” explained Sen. Van Dyke. “They were men of sound, practical, common sense, and, from the premises assumed, arrived at sound practical conclusions.” Sen. William Pinkney of Maryland was brutally honest: “The self-evident truths announced in the Declaration of Independence are not truths at all, if taken literally; and the practical conclusions contained in the same passage of that declaration prove that they were never to be so received.”
Why did the Founding Fathers not abolish slavery if that was what they really wanted? Once again, Southerners spoke plainly during Missouri Crisis. “Is it not wonderful that, if the Declaration of Independence gave authority to emancipate, that the patriots who made it never proposed any plan to carry it into execution?” Sen. Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina wondered sarcastically. “And is it not equally wonderful, that, if the Constitution gives the authority, this is the first attempt ever made, under either, by the federal government, to exercise it?” (Sen. Macon was using the word “wonderful” in its most literal and neutral sense, of course.) “Who were the parties – the slaves? No,” Sen. James Barbour of Virginia asked rhetorically about the Declaration. “Did slavery not exist in every State of the Union at the moment of its promulgation? Did it enter into any human mind that it had the least reference to this species of population? Is there not at the present moment slaves in the very States from which we hear these novel doctrines?” Sen. Macon and Sen. Barbour were correct: No one at the time (not even anti-slavery Founders) comprehended that the phrase “all men are created equal” was anything like a promissory note to abolish slavery. On the contrary, as the Continental Congress was debating the adoption of the Declaration, slave-owning Southerners and slave-trading New Englanders objected so vehemently to language critical of the slave trade that it was removed from the final draft. “The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving of the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it,” Thomas Jefferson recalled in his memoirs. “Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” As Nikole Hannah-Jones argues in her contribution to The 1619 Project, “they struck the passage” because “in the end…neither Jefferson nor most of the Founders intended to abolish slavery.” Ms. Hannah-Jones may be oversimplifying the past and overstating her case at times (e.g. British efforts to incite slave revolts in the colonies ignited revolutionary action, but the American Revolution itself was not about protecting slavery from the British), but she is telling Sunday-School history a hard truth that it needs to hear: There was never a “promissory note.” Indeed, one of the fatal flaws in the Sunday-School history that Mr. Davidson has learned from Harry Jaffa is that it is so indefensible that it is actually susceptible to the criticisms of otherwise illiterate Spray-Paint history.
What was the position of living authors/signers of the Declaration, like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, during the Missouri Crisis? Did they announce to the public, “Rufus King is right: We have defaulted on our obligations under the ‘promissory note.’”? No, Jefferson abhorred King and other anti-slavery Federalists for what he perceived as political ambition and ideological fanaticism. “King is ready to risk the Union for any chance of restoring his party to power and wriggling himself to the head of it, nor is Clinton without his hopes nor scrupulous as to the means of fulfilling them,” Jefferson told Pres. James Monroe. “I hope I shall be spared the pain of witnessing it either by the good sense of the people, or by the more certain reliance, the hand of death.” Adams simply deferred to Southerners like Jefferson. “I have been so terrified with this phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern gentlemen, I must leave it to you,” Adams told Jefferson. “I will vote for no measure against your judgements.”
When Benjamin Banneker (a freedman and self-educated scientist from Maryland) confronted Thomas Jefferson with the apparent hypocrisy of owning slaves while writing the words “all men are created equal,” did Jefferson respond, “You’re right: I have defaulted on my obligations under the ‘promissory note.’”? No, he politely implied that he did not believe that black people were equal – yet – to white people:
Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America. I can add with truth that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit.
What about the “universal ideals” contained in that “promissory note,” Mr. Davidson?
It is not that the “universal ideals” in the Declaration of Independence do not apply to black people because Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers did not believe that they were equal to white people. Obviously not! It is that, contrary to Harry Jaffa, Jefferson and other Founders did not believe that the “universal ideals” of the Declaration constituted a “promissory note” at all. In context, the Declaration meant no more was what its immediate antecedent, the Lee Resolution – adopted July 2nd – stated much more succinctly: “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, and that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” The Declaration was not meant to proclaim the reconstruction of the Thirteen Colonies, but to protect the Thirteen Colonies from destruction (and the same goes for the Constitution, mutatis mutandis).
The 1619 Project, in contrast to Calhoun, affirms that “all men are created equal” (denying even the most undeniable differences in human population groups is another project of The New York Times’ intersectional-science reporter Amy Harmon), but argues that all men have not been treated as if they were created equal, or rather that white people have not treated black people as equals. In other words, while Calhoun argued that “all men are created equal” was a lie because it is literally untrue, The 1619 Project argues that “all men are created equal” is literally true but that white people were lying about believing it.
Here is the passage from The 1619 Project – Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” to be specific – which Mr. Davidson believes is something of a séance with Calhoun himself:
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves – black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
According to Ms. Hannah-Jones, regardless of whatever the Founding Fathers intended – in fact, in spite of what she herself admits they intended – the Declaration of Independence nevertheless “proclaimed” an equalitarian “creed” which black people, as well as feminists, homosexuals, immigrants, and other alienist blocs have forced the U.S.A. “to live up to” throughout its history, by leveling whatever communities, institutions, and traditions interfered with their “rights.”
Far from embracing Calhoun’s legacy, then, The 1619 Project is yet another example of the sort of radicalism that Calhoun saw coming if “all men are created equal” continued to be taken literally:
Such being the case, it follows that any, the worst form of government, is better than anarchy; and that individual liberty, or freedom, must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy within or destruction from without; for the safety and well-being of society is as paramount to individual liberty, as the safety and wellbeing of the race is to that of individuals; and in the same proportion, the power necessary for the safety of society is paramount to individual liberty. On the contrary, government has no right to control individual liberty beyond what is necessary to the safety and wellbeing of society. Such is the boundary which separates the power of government and the liberty of the citizen or subject in the political state, which, as I have shown, is the natural state of man – the only one in which his race can exist, and the one in which he is born, lives, and dies.
Indeed, for better or for worse, every radical intellectual and activist movement in American history – including the emotionally and intellectually infantile “Great Awokening” – has, just as Calhoun predicted over 150 years ago, turned America’s so-called “universal ideals” against America herself. (Even worse, these falsified “Founding ideals” have radicalized American foreign policy into a Manichean, Messianic, Millenarian militarism which the Founding Fathers themselves would have abhorred but never could have anticipated.) Yet in the face of the angry, ugly anti-American revolution that is The 1619 Project, Mr. Davidson’s feckless response is to shoot the messenger.
Just as bad as Mr. Davidson’s conflation of Calhoun’s “all men are not created equal” with The 1619 Project’s “all men are created equal but have not been treated equal” (at least Harry Jaffa, however much of a sophist he was, would have been intelligent enough to tell the difference) is his misrepresentation of Calhoun’s constitutionalism.
Calhoun, from his “South Carolina Exposition” and “Fort Hill Address” to his Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, (all of which can be read here, in this Liberty Fund collection of his greatest works) desired to preserve the American federal republic. Calhoun avowed this purpose again and again, up to the very last speech of his life. In fact, Calhoun’s conservative legalism frustrated the “Fire-Eaters,” such as the Bluffton Boys in 1844, whom had already made up their minds that secession was the only way to preserve Southern rights.
The number of reforms which Calhoun proposed (especially his theory of “interposition” and “nullification”) were drawn directly from Jeffersonian-Madisonian constitutionalism and were intended to strengthen, not weaken, the Constitution and the Union. Unlike Harry Jaffa, who taught “conservatives” like Mr. Davidson to interpret the legacy of the Founding Fathers in the same terms as Abraham Lincoln – as if his partisan speeches are authoritative sources on anything other than Yankee nationalism – Calhoun studied the actual records of the framing and ratifying of the Constitution.
Responding to an inquiry from the English Whig John Cartwright, Thomas Jefferson explained the process for resolving disputed powers between the state and federal governments:
With respect to our State and Federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter, but this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple, and integral whole. To the State governments are reserved all legislation and administration in affairs which concern their own citizens only, and to the Federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners, or the citizens of other states; these functions alone being made Federal. The one is the domestic the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having controul over the other, but within its own department. There are one or two exceptions only to this partition of power. But, you may ask, if the two departments should claim each the same subject of power, where is the common umpire to decide ultimately between them? In cases of little importance or urgency, the prudence of both parties will keep them aloof from the questionable ground. But if it can neither be avoided nor compromised, a convention of the States must be called to ascribe the doubtful power to that department which they may think best.
In a nutshell, this was Calhoun’s theory of interposition/nullification – hardly the obstructionist and even seditious conspiracy described by Mr. Davidson. What Harry Jaffa told Mr. Davidson was so subversive of the Constitution and the Union was, to Thomas Jefferson, the fairest and safest way to resolve the conflicts over constitutional authority which would inevitably occur within a federal union formed by sovereign states.
Calhoun, quoting the above passage from Thomas Jefferson, elaborated on how such a process would operate and why it was so important:
It is thus that our Constitution, by authorizing amendments, and by prescribing the authority and mode of making them, has, by a simple contrivance, with its characteristic wisdom, provided a power which, in the last resort, supersedes effectually the necessity, and even the pretext for force. A power to which none can fairly object; with which the interests of all are safe; which can definitively close all controversies in the only effectual mode, by freeing the compact of every defect and uncertainty, by an amendment of the instrument itself. It is impossible for human wisdom, in a system like ours, to devise another mode which shall be safe and effectual, and, at the same time, consistent with what are the relations and acknowledged powers of the two great departments of our government. It gives a beauty and security peculiar to our system, which, if duly appreciated, will transmit its blessings to the remotest generations; but, if not, our splendid anticipations of the future will prove but an empty dream. Stripped of all its covering, the naked question is, whether ours is a federal or a consolidated government; a constitutional or absolute one; a government resting ultimately on the solid basis of the sovereignty of the States, or on the unrestrained will of a majority; a form of government, as in all other unlimited ones, in which injustice, and violence, and force must finally prevail. Let it never be forgotten that, where the majority rules, the minority is the subject; and that, if we should absurdly attribute to the former, the exclusive right of construing the Constitution, there would be, in fact, between the sovereign and subject, under such a government, no Constitution; or, at least, nothing deserving the name, or serving the legitimate interest of so sacred an instrument.
Calhoun described the process outlined by Thomas Jefferson – the states convening and amending the Constitution in order to affirm or deny an act of interposition/nullification – as “the vis medicatrix of the system” and its “great conservative principle.”
Calhoun’s theory of “the concurrent majority” was not an undemocratic conspiracy to undermine the Constitution and the Union, either, but was intended to make the government even more democratic by requiring that it be based on a broader consensus rather than narrow majoritarianism:
I am not ignorant, that those opposed to the doctrine have always, now and formerly, regarded it in a very different light, as anarchical and revolutionary. Could I believe such, in fact, to be its tendency, to me it would be no recommendation. I yield to none, I trust, in a deep and sincere attachment to our political institutions and the union of these States. I never breathed an opposite sentiment; but, on the contrary, I have ever considered them the great institutions of preserving our liberty, and promoting the happiness of ourselves and our posterity; and next to these I have ever held them most dear. Nearly half my life has been passed in the service of the Union, and whatever public reputation I have acquired is indissolubly identified with it. To be too national has, indeed, been considered by many, even of my friends, to be my greatest political fault. With these strong feelings of attachment, I have examined, with the utmost care, the bearing of the doctrine in question; and, so far from anarchical or revolutionary, I solemnly believe it to be the only solid foundation of our system, and of the Union itself; and that the opposite doctrine, which denies to the States the right of protecting their reserved powers, and which would vest in the general government (it matters not through what department) the right of determining, exclusively and finally, the powers delegated to it, is incompatible with the sovereignty of the States, and of the Constitution itself, considered as the basis of a Federal Union. As strong as this language is, it is not stronger than that used by the illustrious Jefferson, who said to give to the general government the final and exclusive right to judge of its powers, is to make “its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers,” and that, “in all cases of compact between parties having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of the infraction as of the mode and measure of redress.” Language cannot be more explicit; nor can higher authority be adduced…
Calhoun’s intentions were to make the Constitution and the Union more durable by making them both more flexible – a willow as opposed to an oak.
Calhoun, who had been a national-unionist with presidential ambitions before the sectional conflict challenged his priorities, was more interested in finding a practical method of preserving the Union than in idly praising the Union:
As the disease will not, then, heal itself, we are brought to the question, Can a remedy be applied? And if so, what ought it to be?
According to Calhoun, “Unionists” who hailed “the Union! the Union! the glorious Union!” while voting for sectionalist policies which divided that supposedly “indissoluble Union” against itself were hypocrites. It is not unlike an unfaithful husband lecturing his faithful wife that they cannot get divorced – or even go to marital counseling – because of “the sanctity of marriage.”
What Mr. Davidson misses about Calhoun – because Harry Jaffa loathed him as a sort of evil genius – is that however convoluted his “concurrent majority” seems at times, it was intended to be a constitutional method of preventing the consolidation or dissolution of the Union, both of which the Founding Fathers had dreaded as equally catastrophic events. Interposition/nullification was not even used by Southern states to prevent Northern interference with slavery, but rather by Northern states – many of which quoted Jefferson, Madison, and Calhoun’s words – to prevent Southern interference with anti-slavery. In the end, Calhoun’s concurrent majority presented a much more civilized and democratic resolution of the sectional conflict than the mystical “more perfect unionism” of Abraham Lincoln, which amounted to nothing more than brute force in the end.
When Pres. Andrew Jackson threatened to invade South Carolina during the “Nullification Crisis” of 1828-1833, Calhoun (who had resigned the Vice Presidency to serve South Carolina in the Senate) furiously denounced the threat of force:
It has been said…to be a measure of peace! Yes, such peace as the wolf gives to the lamb – the kite to the dove! Such peace as Russia gives to Poland, or death to its victim! A peace, by extinguishing the political existence of the State, by awing her into an abandonment of every exercise of power which constitutes her a sovereign community. It is to South Carolina a question of self-preservation; and I proclaim it, that, should this bill pass, and an attempt be made to enforce it, it will be resisted, at every hazard – even that of death itself. Death is not the greatest calamity; there are others still more terrible to the free and the brave, and among them may be placed the loss of liberty and honor. There are thousands of her brave sons who, if need be, are prepared cheerfully to lay down their lives in defence of the State, and the great principles of constitutional liberty for which she is contending. God forbid, that this should become necessary! It never can be, unless this government is resolved to bring the question to extremity, when her gallant sons will stand prepared to perform the last duty – to die nobly…
According to Calhoun, it was preserving the Union by force, not defending the rights reserved by the states in the compact which the states ratified, which was the true treachery. “Caesarist,” “Cromwellian,” and “Bonapartist” were words which the Founding Fathers might have used to describe a President who resorted to force to settle personal scores.
How can someone identify as a conservative –a “federalist,” even! – yet be so ignorant of and bigoted toward one of America’s greatest philosophical statesmen? Indeed, Mr. Davidson’s article is one of the worst “conservative” – that is, “Straussian” – butcheries of Calhoun’s thought that I have ever read. Even Harry Jaffa, one of the Dr. Strangeloves of the American Right, was never so malicious, mendacious, and misinformed. Mr. Davidson mocks Jamelle Bouie’s pitiable contribution to The 1619 Project, “What the Reactionary Politics of 2019 Owe to the Politics of Slavery,” yet his own understanding of American history is just as stupid for different reasons.
Mr. Davidson summarizes “the central tenets of Calhounian thought” as “the American Founding was a monstrous lie,” “natural law is pure folly,” and “the promissory note is worthless.” Obviously, Mr. Davidson is using as poisonous of language as possible, but his own words can be turned against him.
First of all, Mr. Davidson’s conception of “the American Founding” is indeed a “monstrous lie.” The Founders were not so ideological as Mr. Davidson that they based their government on “universal principles” – like the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks – but were Whiggish conservatives who based their government on historical experience: An idealized/mythical Teutonic constitution which the Saxon conquerors brought to England and codified in the “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England” (1215), as well as the Charter of the Forest (1217), the Provisions of Oxford (1258) the Petition of Right (1628), the Declaration of Rights (1688), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Act of Settlement (1701), and more. “Has not every restitution of the ancient Saxon laws had happy effects?” Thomas Jefferson asked Edmund Pendleton. “Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the eighth century?” Indeed, when Jefferson was tasked with commissioning an official seal for the newfound government, he recommended “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” During the framing and ratifying of the Constitution, the Founders did not base their government on abstract “universal principles,” but on actual examples from the past (e.g. the Graeco-Roman historian Polybius) and the present (e.g. the Dutch Republic). Nor were the Founders so naïve as Mr. Davidson that they believed that signing a piece of paper was all that it took to limit government: Written constitutions stated what the people’s rights were and what the government’s powers were, but it was still up to the people to enforce those limitations on power and protect their rights. “Will it be sufficient to mark, with precision, the boundaries of these departments, in the constitution of the government, and to trust to these parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power?” asked James Madison at the beginning of The Federalist #48. “The conclusion which I am warranted in drawing from these observations,” Madison answered, “is, that a mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.” Calhoun took what Madison suggested seriously and formulated a strategy for enforcing those “parchment barriers,” yet ever since has been denounced by Jaffite “conservatives” like Mr. Davidson whose results speak for themselves – so much so that Prof. Angelo M. Codevilla (a political scientist from Boston University as well as a senior fellow at the Jaffite Claremont Institute) has actually recommended “federalism” as a forgotten form of “statesmanship” which would neutralize “the cold civil war.”
Second of all, Mr. Davidson’s perverted version of the Western philosophy of “natural law” is indeed “pure folly.” Natural law, whether by the ancient Aristotle, the medieval Saint Thomas Aquinas, or the modern Sir Isaac Newton, is a quintessentially human endeavor to understand our own nature, the nature of the rest of God’s creation, and even the nature of God himself through the rational faculties with which God has endowed us, thereby glorifying him in the process. John Locke, a seventeenth-century English liberal reacting against absolutist monarchists like Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, used deductive reasoning to understand the “nature” of governments – that is, what they should be if they could be designed according to pure reason. Of course, Locke’s conclusions are deduced from a premise which, as Calhoun argued, not only is altogether hypothetical, but also is altogether inimical to human nature. Mr. Davidson may ignore Calhoun’s argument because he was “racist” (which makes him little better than The 1619 Project), but he cannot as easily ignore the contemporaneous arguments of European philosophers uncorrupted by slavery, such as Jeremy Bentham, de Bonald, de Maistre, von Savigny, and von Ranke. In any event, in the eighteenth century, it was the “Commonwealthmen” or “Country Party” (e.g. the author of the republican play Cato, a Tragedy and the authors of the republican pamphlets Cato’s Letters), and not Lockean liberals, who were the most influential on their American brethren – and, in fact, even more influential in the colonies than in their own country. These Commonwealthmen advocated for their constitutional rights “as Englishmen,” which could be found in the British constitution, not for the “natural rights of man,” which could not be found anywhere. Not to imply that Locke had no influence on the American Revolution, of course (Thomas Jefferson told Benjamin Rush that Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton were “my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced”), but to the extent that he was influential, it was for his impressive apologia of the Glorious Revolution in Two Treatises of Government – a peaceful removal and replacement of a government which natural law did indeed rationalize after the fact but which positive law actually achieved in the moment. Mr. Davidson dismisses “the faddish ‘science’ of Darwinism,” yet Lockean natural law – with its grandiose pronouncements about the present based on unfalsifiable hypotheses about the past – is the Darwinism of political philosophy.
Last, but not least, Mr. Davidson’s faith in the Declaration of Independence as a “promissory note” is indeed “worthless.” Mr. Davidson is clearly captivated by this expression (which he accurately attributes to Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, at least), yet notably no Founding Father ever used such language. The language of the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, which appropriated the language of the Declaration for the appearance of political legitimacy, has been read back into the language of the American Revolution so thoroughly that Mr. Davidson now takes the Founders as something which they never were and never even could have been. Needless to say, such an anachronistic interpretation not only takes the phrase “all men are created equal” out of context, but also takes the rest of the document itself out of context. The Declaration should be read in its entirety (not overlooked in favor of a lone nebulous phrase) and should also be read as one of many primary sources (not as a summa of the American Revolution). When read in this way, it is clear that the Declaration is consistent with as well as complementary to the fundamentally conservative colonial argument for their established, inherited rights, and has nothing to do with “all men are created equal” as a universalist ideology. Thomas Jefferson’s other works, such as A Summary View of the Rights of British America and A Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, contain no “promissory notes” whatsoever. Even in Notes on the State of Virginia, which has always been selectively quoted for its foreboding denunciations of slavery, Jefferson concluded that however degrading slavery was to blacks and whites alike, differences between the races meant that they neither could nor should live together equally and freely.
Mr. Davidson is correct that The 1619 Project is “sweeping historical revisionism in the service of contemporary left-wing politics,” yet he himself has fallen for Harry Jaffa’s sweeping historical revisionism in the service of neoconservative politics. Unfortunately, Mr. Davidson’s response is fairly representative of conservative criticism of The 1619 Project, most of which has also been along Jaffite lines: The Founding Fathers were proto-abolitionists who added coded anti-slavery language into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for a Lincolnian figure to one day bring to fruition. The problem with this “conservative” defense is not just that it is historically untrue, but that if Americans believe it to be true, then neoconservatives will use that belief – that is, the belief that their country’s mission is to revolutionize the world – to justify “invading the world” to bring their native institutions to aliens and “inviting the world” to bring aliens to their native institutions.
At a conference for “Building the Zionist Dream” in Jerusalem, Israel, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA (one of the latest “Conservatism, Inc.” youth groups) unwittingly demonstrated the implications of having an entirely ideological identity:
I reject this idea of dual-loyalty. I have loyalty to ideas. And of course I love the Grand Canyon and I love the Rocky Mountains. And I love Boston, and I love Chicago. But if all that disappeared and all I had was ideas, and we were on an island, that’s America…America is just a placeholder for timeless ideas, and if you fall too in love with the specific place, that’s not what it is. Israel would be the exception because there is a holy connection to this land.
The neo-conservative belief that “America is more than a nation; it is an idea” reduces the actual parts of a nation – a particular people living in a particular place during a particular period – to meaninglessness. The truth is, as “Old Right” paleo-conservatives like M.E. Bradford and Paul E. Gottfried have always argued against neo-conservatives like Harry Jaffa, “America is more than an idea; it is a nation.” While The 1619 Project is an overt attempt to degrade both the American idea and the American nation (i.e. “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery”), the “conservative” response, exemplified by Mr. Davidson, represents a more insidious attempt to replace the solid rock of the American nation with the sinking sand of the American idea.
7/21/2020 06:33:01 pm
Excellent article, thank you. The first time I heard of Calhoun, displacying my lack of historical awareness, was a de Souza movie where the racist Calhoun beats a good white in the senate practically killing him.
12/5/2021 02:15:42 am
Well, Mr. Roesch, you've certainly said a mouthful.
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James Rutledge Roesch lives in Florida. He is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, as well as the author of From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States' Rights in the Old South.