Our View: ‘Calhounism’?

Posted: March 7, 2013

If the progressive urge to smear perceived opponents broadly — often via gratuitous accusations of racism — has not been amply demonstrated by the Early-Milroy kerfuffle witnessed on this page of late, then we suggest you read Sam Tanenhaus’ latest jeremiad in The New Republic.

For all its verbosity and interminable albeit fruitless pursuit of legitimacy, this 5,500-word screed can be reduced to one supposition: The philosophical origins of modern conservatism can be traced to a single source, Southern statesman/apologist John C. Calhoun — who, Mr. Tanenhaus hastens to remind us, was also a defender of slavery. So there, the connection is made, though he did see fit to leaven it by stating, “This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race.”

So what is shared? Precisely this: In their quest to limit the reach and scope of the federal government, conservatives “have fully embraced” Calhounist thought on the right of the minority to, in Mr. Tanenhaus’ words, “resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.”

There is a cleverness — albeit “too clever by half,” as the saying goes — and a facile convenience to Mr. Tanenhaus’ hypothesis, however half-baked. It is true that during modern conservatism’s gestational period — i.e., the 1950s — the emerging right did express interest in the broad range of Mr. Calhoun’s philosophical legacy, even to the point of wrongly invoking the South Carolinian when questioning the federal government’s aggressive posture during the civil rights era. But Mr. Tanenhaus would have readers believe the conservative dispensation, now as then, begins and ends with an allegiance to “Calhounism.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. A quick scan of Peter Witonski’s seminal four-volume compilation, “The Wisdom of Conservatism” (Arlington House, 1971), reveals that modern conservatism draws inspiration from sources as far back as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and from intellectual vintage as relatively recent as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Henry Newman, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Milton Friedman.

Thus, to truncate conservative thought to one source — itself absurdly truncated by Johnny-One-Note revisionists — and then to suggest adherence to its tenets explains any and all opposition to the progressive agenda is not just intellectually lazy but deliberately mendacious and categorically wrong.