As we celebrate American Independence, it is appropriate to reflect upon the foundations of our liberty that the American Founding — especially the Founders’ Declaration of Independence and Constitution — have encouraged. Neither the Declaration nor the American Constitution were accidents; both were rooted in an inherited worldview and an understanding of human nature that is of continuing importance to Americans today.
For the Founders, human nature was defined by its social character, grounded in community, and devoted to encouraging the unfolding of the moral life, so as to enlighten and develop civilization. With the insights of the classical world, Judaism and Christianity under their proverbial belts, the Founders understood human life as essentially social. Moral and spiritual development required interaction and restraint that were most acutely experienced in one’s community and in society. In other words, the ethical life could not be sustained outside of a social framework. While not rejecting a role for self-interest within the community, the Founders recognized a tension between need for some degree of societal unity and the needs of the individual. They suggested that the properly constituted society could assist in lessening selfishness associated with our “brute creation,” and encouraged attachment to the common good as an alternative. Authentic social life required self-denial in some form, regardless of the level of enmity between individuals and the groups that made up society, as humans were naturally drawn to each other.
The Founders also realized that humans were not perfect, so an element of restraint was necessary within society and politics. They rejected the radical individualism often associated with social contract thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. To envision humankind as naturally good was unacceptable. The Founders’ defense of an authentic, moral community was based upon acknowledging that the only natural state was the political and social one to which an actual person was born. Instead of being born free, humans were born subject to parental authority and the laws of the country of their birth.
If the country were to survive, the Founders believed a stable mode of popular rule — or citizen involvement — had to be established, and the community must be protected against efforts to incorporate its stake in society and politics into a political structure that would diminish the various communities’ and states’ most important qualities. The preserving and protecting of an organic, “republican” system of popular rule required accepting the natural diversity of the communities and states that formed the larger society and government, while enjoying the increased liberties that resulted from this dividing of political authority. Today, we call this division federalism.
Having a political system based on the relative autonomy of local communities and the division of political authority was a great accomplishment, but it needed an anchor. The Founders provided such a guide with the American Constitution. The Constitution is more than a written document, it is a collection of customs, charters, traditions and habits of the American people. The aim of the Constitution was to provide for a high degree of political harmony, so that liberty might be maintained through the centuries.
We have been able to preserve social and political liberty because our Constitution provides explicit constraints upon the centralization of political power. As citizens, we are assured that the laws will not change from year to year. The Constitution allows Americans to find some comfort in the fact that if they accept certain restraints, they will experience a great deal of political liberty. Our Constitution divides political power between the national and state governments, as well as between the branches of the national government. This protects citizens, communities, and states from the arbitrary and unjust actions by individuals who have assumed temporary control of the government. The American Constitution also makes those who govern accountable to those who elected them.
On one hand, proposals to extend presidential powers are regularly presented, while on the other, congressional proposals to increase the size and scope of the federal government, like the return of a New (“Green”) Deal abound. Unfortunately, such ideas neglect the great accomplishment of American politics — the diffusion of political power and the limits upon the authority of government. Our continued success is dependent upon a recovery of our appreciation of liberty, the original division of power, and the renewal of personal responsibility for perpetuating the regime. Efforts at revolutionizing our understanding of liberty and political authority only undermine our political order. Our great country can survive, and prosper, if we can refrain from being distracted by our current privileges and circumstances, and remember our duties as American citizens.
This piece was previously published in SavannahNow on June 28, 2019.
The effort to rename Calhoun Honors College at Clemson is misguided. Of course, any city, college, or any other entity has the option to name or rename structures, but the current student petition constitutes nothing less than the tendency of contemporary Americans to demonstrate how we "forget who we are" and engage in what has become known as political correctness.
The advocates of political correctness want to corrupt history for temporary political gains more than they desire to keep or restore it, and their efforts are, sadly, a disease on the body politic. In fact, if fully and honestly considered, no name change is needed.
Clemson University could join the many operatives of political correctness who have met with great success of late. With Orwellian irony, they succeeded in renaming a dorm named after Calhoun at Yale University, renaming a U.S. Navy ship named for a person who hated the Navy (Cesar Chavez), and have imposed "speech codes" (with the actual purpose of restricting speech) on many college campuses--as well as more destructive examples of assaulting First Amendment rights and redefining history. Even former President Obama was not above the fray as demonstrated by his renaming of Mt. Kinley.
The greatest threat to political correctness is an environment in which free and uninhibited discussion and disagreement can take place. In fact, diversity of thought is the opposite of political correctness, and is at the heart of a free society. The proponents of political correctness--and those who desire to rename Clemson’s honor college--stand on the side of censorship against free and open discussion.
Calhoun’s “legacy” is indeed complex and subject to debate. However, in denying Calhoun’s vital role in American political life, they have committed a great injustice to the rising generation. The untold story, now diminished even more by recent decisions, is Calhoun’s importance to American political thought and history.
While spending most of his public life in the United States Senate, he was also vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson--and he served as secretary of state to John Tyler. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest senators ever, part of the "Great Triumvirate" with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster--and each supported the Fugitive Slave Act.
What the advocates of name change do not want you to know is that Calhoun was not only one of America's greatest statesmen, but also one of its greatest thinkers. His two treatises on American politics, the Disquisition and Discourse (published after his death), demonstrate his hope that America could avoid the pending conflict of the Civil War.
In Calhoun's interpretation, America's greatest hope lay in the interposing and amending power of the states, which was implicit in the Constitution. This alone could save the country by allowing for a greater diffusion of authority and undermining the cause of sectional conflict. Calhoun's purpose was the preservation of the original balance of authority and the fortification of the American political system against the obstacles it faced.
The students may have good intentions, but as Shakespeare warned, "men are men; the best sometimes forget." John Calhoun was imperfect, but he remains one of the greatest statesmen in American history. In the world of some activists, neither the past nor the future deserve our attention, and we are only left with the option of muddling through the present.
Note: This piece was co-authored by Sean Busick, Professor of History at Athens State University in Alabama.