John C. Calhoun was the seventh Vice President of the United States under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He was the Secretary of War in the administration of James Monroe, and Secretary of State under John Tyler. He represented the State of South Carolina in the United States Senate from 1845 until his death in 1850.
A lawyer and a graduate of Yale University, Calhoun was known as an able political theorist in his day. Some of his ideas would shock the ears of Americans today.
Calhoun was an adamant defender of slavery, and he did it in a sophisticated and academic fashion.
To begin with, he took issue with the Declaration of Independence’s famous assertion that all men are created equal. He insisted that only two human beings were created: Adam and Eve. All the rest were born. And they weren’t born as men; they were infants.
To Calhoun, liberty was not a right. Nor was it a gift. Liberty, to Calhoun, was a prize, a reward, if you will, conferred only on human beings who earned it by their conduct and their character. Enlightened, civilized, law abiding, virtuous men and women were capable of enjoying freedom. For them, very little government is needed. Ignorant, greedy, violent, selfish people require more and more government as their conduct intrudes on the freedom of others.
Calhoun believed that the worst kind of despotic dictatorship is better than anarchy. Like James Madison, he agreed that if men were angels, no government would be necessary.
Calhoun was a slave owner who defended the institution of slavery in the southern states. He was a candid and unapologetic racist, who believed that people of African descent were genetically inferior to those of Caucasian ancestry.
Assuming Calhoun was true to his own words, however, it is hard to believe that he would not have agreed with and applauded Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dramatic “I have a Dream” speech. Especially King’s hope that someday his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Presumably both Calhoun and Madison would concede that black angels wouldn’t need government either.
I thought of Calhoun as I read about Cliven Bundy’s stupid and stumbling attempt to explain his inexplicable racial comments. His Hollywood inspired vision of slavery as a life of family oriented, gospel singing, home-and- hearth security and happiness is not only disgusting and wrongheaded, it is an insult to the vast majority of Americans, black and white, who embrace the words of the Declaration of Independence in their true and transcendent meaning.
I am sure that my law professor friend who took me to task for defending “that wing-nutty cowboy” in Nevada has been gleefully chuckling over Bundy’s downfall.
I am left with the difficult task of reminding him that even guilty people are entitled to have a lawyer for their defense, that the ACLU has frequently defended the right of Nazi-type organizations to protest and demonstrate, and that even the most despicable villain is entitled to the protection of the constitution.
It’s an uphill battle, people being what they are.
Alexander Hamilton launched the Federalist Papers with the observation that political discourse is often characterized by an intolerant spirit, which unleashes a torrent of angry and malignant passions. Judging by their conduct, you would think, he says, that many partisans hope to make converts by the “loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invective.”
That said, I firmly believe that a sense of humor is critically essential to useful political discourse. I don’t mind a good natured barb or two being thrown my way, and I treasure long standing friends who can take a little kidding in their stride.
On the whole, I believe that politics is too serious to be taken too seriously.