Remembering John C. Calhoun (March 18, 1782–March 31, 1850)Spencer J. Quinn
Anyone familiar with 19th-century American history will recognize John C. Calhoun as the man who, more than anyone else, represented the antebellum South. He, along with John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, provided much of the intellectual heft behind the character and institutions of the South and defined its position as a distinct economic and cultural region within the greater Union.
Calhoun’s ideas, which he expressed forcefully during his many years in the Senate as well in his two great contributions to political thought, A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, effectively redefined the role of government so that regional interests and identities can never be crushed by numerical majorities beyond that region.
The Nullification Crisis of 1832 demonstrated such a need for many in the South. Southerners believed that what came to be known as the Tariff of Abominations of 1829 victimized the agrarian South to the benefit of the North and other regions of the country. The South Carolina legislature, emboldened by Calhoun’s ideas, then voted to nullify the tariff. This caused tremendous controversy, and many found Calhoun’s siding with the South to be nigh-treasonous.
Calhoun was vice president under Andrew Jackson at the time, and his sympathy for Nullification effectively dashed his ambitions for the presidency. An infuriated Jackson famously threatened to march the US army down to South Carolina and personally hang Calhoun for his disloyalty. If not for some last-minute compromising from Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, we might have had the Civil War twenty-eight years early.
Peeking through the closet door of all this history, of course, was the practice of slavery, which John Calhoun did everything in his power to preserve. He did this partially because slavery was essential for the success of the region in which he was born. He did it also because he was a race-realist and had the temerity to favor a society which reflected such realism. From this, he never wavered. As Russell Kirk describes it, “no man was more stately, more reserved, more regularly governed by an inflexible will.” It is for this that Calhoun is currently demonized by mainstream pundits who approve of the upward progress of blacks and other non-whites towards equality with whites. It is also for this that John Calhoun deserves admiration and respect from the Alt-Right.
Born in rural South Carolina in 1782 to a prominent (and exceedingly tough) Scots-Irish family, Calhoun knew quite well the perils of racial conflict. According to David Hackett Fischer in his cultural history of America, Albion’s Seed:
The Calhouns were pioneers in the Carolina backcountry, settling so near the frontier that in 1760 the Cherokees killed twenty-three of them, including the family matriarch Catherine Montgomery Calhoun, who was seventy-six years old.
As opposed to Randolph, who possessed an aristocratic pedigree and had a vast library at his disposal, Calhoun truly made his career out of nothing. Brilliant as he was, he didn’t even read all that much. He was, in many ways, an autodidact. He was also an American patriot, starting his career in 1810 in Congress as an impassioned federalist and War Hawk in the Republican Party. Calhoun was part of the group that entreated President James Madison to make war on the British in 1812. Ironic in light of his later career, the young Calhoun energetically pushed for a radical expansion of the federal government. As Secretary of War under President James Monroe, he revitalized the US Military Academy at West Point and greatly improved the army’s administrative structure in ways that survived into the 20th century.
After the Nullification Crisis, however, Calhoun spent the rest of his life fighting federal hegemony. More important than that, he placed himself against the inexorable progress of history. According to historian Jon Meacham, many Southerners realized this and feared the outcome. “The moral power of the world is against us,” stated South Carolina Congressman Francis Pickens in 1836. And he was right. Calhoun articulated it better when he said during the Nullification Crisis:
The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given her industry, has placed them . . . in opposite relation to the majority of the Union.
He was, of course, talking about slavery. This was the greatest sticking point of all regional strife leading up to the Civil War. This was also the reason why people in the North had remarkably little sympathy for the South when federal acts like the 1829 tariff attacked their interests. To them, it was unconscionable that Southerners would hold slaves to begin with. Therefore, Southern interests were not to be taken very seriously. Many of these people took the Jeffersonian ideal of equality to heart and believed that blacks belonged alongside whites as equals in the body politic. Calhoun knew this was nonsense and moved from defending slavery as a necessary evil to promoting it as a positive good. As historian Ethan Rafuse tells us:
Calhoun endorsed slavery as “a good—a great good,” based on his belief in the inequality inherent in the human race. Calhoun believed that people were motivated primarily by self-interest and that competition among them was a positive expression of human nature. The results of this competition were displayed for all to see in the social order: those with the greatest talent and ability rose to the top, and the rest fell into place beneath them.
In other words, Calhoun took the obvious aptitude differences between whites and blacks into account when describing a stratified natural order with the top rungs exclusively populated by whites and the bottom rungs in large part by blacks. Again, according to Rafuse:
If the revolutionary ideal of equality were taken too far, the authority of the elite would not be accepted. Without this authority, Calhoun argued, society would break down and the liberty of all men would be threatened.
Calhoun was right, and the breakdown of society which we are witnessing today is the direct result of this ideal of equality being taken too far. We all know this, and Southerners in the mid-19th century knew it as well. They were the ones with the most experience with blacks, so of course they knew it, and John Calhoun spent the last eighteen years of his life trying to make the rest of the country know it as well. He also knew that if he failed, the consequence would be a fractured Union. In Calhoun’s words:
I trust we shall persist in our resistance until restoration of all our rights, or disunion, one or the other, is the consequence.
By the time of his death, Calhoun feared that his efforts had been unsuccessful and that disunion would ultimately prevail. “The South! The poor South!” were his dying words. It was almost as if he could predict a future which in a mere fifteen years would destroy everything he had fought for and loved.
Of course, this is a sad story. But what can an Alt-Rightist today take from the life of John C. Calhoun? Quite a lot, actually.
First, our current struggles directly parallel Calhoun’s. He was a Southern nationalist who lived in a society which saw Southerners as immoral and did not respect Southern interests. By the same token, we are white nationalists who live in a society which sees whites as immoral and does not respect white interests. The resistance we face from our mainstream society clearly echoes the resistance Calhoun faced from his over 150 years ago. Further, much of the antagonism between Calhoun and his Northern colleagues resulted from differing attitudes about race. It amounted to racially ignorant and egalitarian elites enforcing an unnatural equality upon a race-realist minority which clearly knew better. Any of this sound familiar? If so, we can take Calhoun’s example as a great inspiration. Men like us did exist in the past, and they did make a great impact upon the world, even if they didn’t emerge as victors in their time.
Second, we need to learn from Calhoun’s mistakes, which were to promote slavery and black-white cohabitation no matter how stratified he envisioned it being. Current white nationalists should have absolutely no interest in slavery or any kind of enforced domination over non-whites. In fact, we should promote good relations with all non-whites as long as we realize our ethno-nationalist goals first. This is of the highest importance because if current trends continue for another century or two, whites will become at the very least oppressed minorities in their own nations. John Calhoun’s failure proved that racial cohabitation of any form will ultimately lead to the usurpation of whites and the removal of their ability to determine their own destiny.
We should realize that this is the case regardless of how we feel about it. After reading much of Thomas Nelson Page, I truly believe that one of the main reasons why many Southerners were reluctant to give up slavery is because they liked their slaves. Many of these rich planters had black slaves in their households whom they treated as family. While such paternalistic sentiments are perfectly human and therefore understandable, they cannot cloud our minds to the threat that non-whites pose as citizens in our societies. Ultimately, they will overrun us, regardless of whatever affection we have for them. John Calhoun couldn’t possibly have experienced the final ramifications of racial cohabitation, and so could afford to promote the multiracial order of things as he saw it. We, on the other hand, have experienced these ramifications. We know better than Calhoun about the dangers of cohabitation and thus propose large-scale racial separation as the only solution. I believe that if he were alive today, Calhoun would agree.
The final lesson we can take from the life of John Calhoun is that the inexorable steamroller of progress which crushed his beloved South in 1865 is becoming quite exorable today. More and more whites are seeing and experiencing the thuggishness of blacks and their hostility towards white people and their way of life. Whites are watching their society descend into barbarism and wish it would stop. They also see how millions of Muslims from Africa and the Middle East are invading Western Europe as refugees and fundamentally changing it for the worse. Things are little better in the American West as Mexicans by the millions are squatting on land as part of their reconquest of territories lost to them during the Mexican War in the 1850s.
So thanks to all this pain and loss, whites are beginning to realize that what seemed like evil racism back in Calhoun’s day was in fact a correct assessment of human nature. The racial egalitarians no longer have justice on their side. They are contributing to nothing less than the downfall of Western Civilization. They may know it. They may not. Either way, it’s our job today to take up where John Calhoun left off and lend our shoulders to the job of stopping that steamroller of progress in its tracks.
After Calhoun died on March 31, 1850, one of his sternest opponents, Senator Thomas Benton from Missouri, was asked to give a eulogy for Calhoun before Congress. Benton declined, stating quite astutely that John Calhoun was not dead. “There may be no vitality in his body,” Benton said, “but there is in his doctrines.”
The struggle of the Alt-Right today proves that the doctrines of John C. Calhoun live on in the 21st century.
Ethan S. Rafuse, “He Started the Civil War”. Civil War Times. October 2002. Pp. 24-30.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 7th ed. Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2001. Section V, Chapters 3 & 4.
Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008. Chapter 32.
Berkin, Miller, Cherny, Gormly, Making America: A History of the United States Volume 1: To 1877, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Chapters 10 & 14.
David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed. Oxford University Press. 1989, p. 646.
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