"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
The Go-Between (1953) - L.P. Hartley
It is difficult to analyze the past sometimes. The people lived in a different environment and had different priorities. It is difficult (though by no means impossible) for me to condemn a person for refusing to impose hardships, ranging from marginalization to death, upon themselves for a principle. If the ramifications of sticking to that principle are so dire, many of us never really develop the principle to the extent that we would be faced with such a stark choice as integrity or death.
John C. Calhoun, like so many politician
s was a study in contradictions and disconnects. He was a great champion of liberty, recognizing that democracy
, in the the most literal sense, would inexorably lead to tyranny, as the majority would have essentially absolute power, whereas the minority would have essentially non-existent power. He also was a racist
with no regard for liberty for black people, saying for example:
I hold that in the present state of
civilization, where two races of different
origin, and distinguished by color, and
other physical differences, as well as
intellectual, are brought together, the
relation now existing in the slave-holding
States between the two, is, instead
of an evil, a good--a positive good....There
has never yet existed a wealthy and civilized
society in which one portion of the community
did not, in the point of fact, live on the labor
of the other....I fearlessly assert that the
existing relation between the two races in the
South, against which these blind fanatics
are waging war, forms the most solid and durable
foundation on which to rear free and stable
It appears that he really felt that freedom was not something for blacks, rather for whites only, and, further, a recollection of a chat with him by John Quincy Adams appears to support the notion that he felt that white equality could only be preserved via oppression of blacks.2 He seems to have a view of freedom for whites which parallels the view that Marxists and Leninists have of capitalism: each must be founded upon oppression. This is a ridiculous supposition, but, while it is easy to ponder the evils in others, it is much more difficult to ponder our own evils. I know this from my own everyday experiences. It is an odd feeling to acknowledge that I have done evil. It wasn't a mistake or simply "an incident" (I hate when people deflect personal responsibility in this way). I believe the core evil in Calhoun was his enjoyment of having godlike power over another. He somehow recognized that this desire could not be profitably put to use on his peers, and assuming this desire to be universal, set to make the African the object of this craving.
I urge all who really desire liberty to read Calhoun. His insight into government is truly wonderful, and his dedication to liberty (of white people) was a tremendous credit to him. I only wish he had possessed the moral courage to make the next logical step in his pursuit of liberty: the extension of that liberty to all people, irrespective of the conditions of their births.
1. Speech given on the Senate floor, February 6, 1837.
2. Quote found at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/CALHOUN/2Ahed.html