Calhoun’s Definition of Conservative

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, Yankees could praise Calhoun and everyone cheered. This was normal.

In 1910, the Massachusetts born and bred Henry Cabot Lodge gave a gallant speech on the Senate floor praising John C. Calhoun as one of the truly great Americans in its history. This was to honor the placement of Calhoun’s statue in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol.

He said, “But Calhoun was much more even than this. He was one of the most remarkable men, one of the greatest minds that American public life can show. It matters not that before the last tribunal the verdict went against him, that the extreme doctrines to which his imperious logic carried him have been banned and barred, the man remains greatly placed in our history. The unyielding courage, the splendid intellect, the long devotion to the public service, the pure, unspotted private life are all there, are all here with us now, untouched and unimpaired for after ages to admire.”

Imagine a Yankee saying this today. Better yet, imagine just about anyone in Congress saying this today.

The only way you can mention Calhoun in public today is with a firm denunciation followed by genuflecting to Abraham Lincoln. And sometimes that isn’t even enough.

We live in a time of pure stupidity.

I had the honor of working with the greatest Calhoun scholar in the world in graduate school, Clyde Wilson.

If you were to ask him to point to an important Calhoun speech, he would often reference Calhoun’s remarks on the admission of Michigan as a States in 1837.

Why? Because Calhoun defines the meaning of American conservatism in this speech. He also outlines the proper understanding of American sovereignty.

Calhoun said, “because I am a conservative I am a State’s rights man. I believe that in the rights of the States are to be found the only effectual means of checking the overaction of this Government; to resist its tendency to concentrate all power here, and to prevent a departure from the constitution; or, in case of one, to restore the Government to its original simplicity and purity. State interposition, or, to express it more fully, the right of a State to interpose her sovereign voice as one of the parties to our constitutional compact, against the encroachments of this Government, is the only means of sufficient potency to effect all this….As a conservative and a State’s rights man, or if you will have it, a nullifier, I have, and shall resist all encroachments on the constitution, whether it be the encroachment of this Government on the States, or the opposite; the Executive on Congress, or Congress on the Executive. My creed is to hold both Governments, and the departments of each to their proper sphere, and to maintain the authority of the laws and the constitution against all revolutionary movements.”

This is one of his most substantial public statements. First, it’s not tied in any way to “defending slavery.” Calhoun was insisting that Michigan be admitted to the Union by the will of her people and not by some demand from Congress. Second, Calhoun understood that the federal republic could only be maintained if the people of the States could check unconstitutional edicts from the general government. And third, Calhoun expanded nullification to include checks and balances in every level of government. This was not simply a State vs. Federal issue.

There is so much more in these two speeches, I had to discuss them on Calhoun’s birthday, today, March 18, in Episode 418 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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