The Flawed Case Tying Conservatism to Racism

By Peter Berkowitz - March 5, 2013

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Along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun was one of the towering American statesmen of the first half of the 19th century. He served as a congressman from South Carolina (1811-1817), secretary of war (1817-1825), vice president of the United States (1825-1832), senator from South Carolina (1832-1843 and 1845-1850), and secretary of state (1844-1845). He was also the author of two important works of political theory: “A Disquisition on Government” and “A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States.”

Conservatives bent on reclaiming the conservative tradition in America in the 1950s discovered much of interest in Calhoun’s thinking, including the affirmation of the agrarian way of life and the rugged individualism with which it was associated; the defense of the wisdom embodied in traditional beliefs, practices and institutions; the analysis of threats to tradition posed by secularization, industrialization, and democratic leveling; and, not least, the theory of the “concurrent majority,” according to which legitimate federal legislation must reflect not an “absolute” or “numerical” majority but the consent of each major interest or community in the nation.

Despite conservative intellectuals’ interest in the range of Calhoun’s thinking, the only aspect that interests Tanenhaus is a corollary of the theory of the concurrent majority, namely, he writes, “the politics of nullification, the doctrine, nearly as old as the republic itself, which holds that the states, singly or in concert, can defy federal actions by declaring them invalid or simply ignoring them.” Tanenhaus purports to hear “echoes” of the politics of nullification most everywhere he encounters a contemporary conservative public policy position.

In 2008, in a searching article in The Claremont Review of Books, conservative William Voegli pulled no punches in exploring “conservatives’ complicity with segregation.” Indeed, on the question of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, American conservatism was generally on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of justice, combining an unbending suspicion of aggressive federal government expansion with solicitude for white Southern custom and community and detachment from black citizens’ great struggle to achieve freedom and equality under law. But Tanenhaus’s evidence for equating movement conservatism with Calhounism, then and now, is weak and tendentious.

Small but telling flaws in Tanenhaus’s analysis reveal sloppiness with ideas. For example, he asserts that Calhoun’s doctrine advanced the lawless position that “each state was free to override the federal government, because local and sectional imperatives outweighed national ones.” Yet there is more to the South Carolinian’s doctrine than the clash of competing imperatives. Calhoun argued in the very lines from the 1831 Fort Hill Address quoted by Tanenhaus that states’ right to nullify federal law is grounded in their judgment that the law in question violates the Constitution.

And Brown v. Board of Education was not, as Tanenhaus writes, a decision that “outlawed legalized segregation”; rather, and much more restrictedly, it held that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” This may seem now to be a distinction without a difference, but the struggle over civil rights cannot be understood without appreciating it.

The most devastating flaw concerns the poverty of the evidence that Tanenhaus marshals in support of his sensational thesis. Tanenhaus adduces three conservatives from the 1950s to prove that the politics of nullification is constitutive of movement conservatism. He quotes lines from Russell Kirk’s seminal work, “The Conservative Mind” (1953), asserting that Calhoun was a master student of the threat posed by the federal government and democratic majorities to the rights of individuals and their communities. But restored to their context, it is clear that the lines Tanenhaus quotes are part of Kirk’s summary of Calhoun’s view – “The Conservative Mind” is a history of ideas that presents the thought of dozens of figures -- and do not state or imply an endorsement of the politics of nullification.

Tanenhaus also mentions “Calhoun apostle” James J. Kilpatrick -- editor of the Richmond News Leader; author of “The Sovereign States: Notes of a Citizen of Virginia” (1957),which defends segregation; and a contributor to National Review -- who did vigorously defend segregation in Calhounian terms.

And finally Tanenhaus discusses William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review. Tanenhaus acknowledges that Buckley supported the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s and “student-led boycotts and sit-ins of 1960” because he viewed them as admirable instances of citizens’ exercise of the right to protest laws they wished to change.

And Tanenhaus notes that in the 1950s National Review was preoccupied with “rolling back both communism abroad and the New Deal at home” in the name of liberty. Yet despite the importance to Buckley of individual freedom and limited government, Tanenhaus, with scant textual justification, attaches paramount importance to Calhounism to explain Buckley’s opposition to the federal government’s role in integrating the South.

To support the charge of Calhounism, Tanenhaus, without citation, extracts fragments from a 1956 editorial, “Return to States’ Rights,” to make it appear that Buckley hoped that Calhoun’s “championing of the Tenth Amendment ‘may have the effect of shaking inchoate states-righters out of their opportunistic stupor’ and give rise to a new politics.”

But Tanenhaus changes Buckley’s argument. It wasn’t Calhoun’s writings that Buckley hoped would inspire proponents of states rights. What Buckley actually wrote was that “The Supreme Court decision of May 1954 (classifying segregated schooling as unconstitutional), because it struck hard at traditions deeply rooted and very deeply cherished, may have the effect of shaking inchoate states-righters out of their opportunistic stupor.” And while he refers in the editorial to Calhoun as a brilliant defender of states’ rights and welcomes “the return of serious discussion of states’ rights,” Buckley does not advocate nullification.

Tanenhaus also quotes from Buckley’s “most notorious editorial, ‘Why the South Must Prevail,’ ” which appeared in 1957. There one does encounter the language of Calhoun to justify defiance by whites of election results in order to preserve their way of life. But in that editorial Buckley also departs dramatically from Calhoun. Tanenhaus does his best to obscure this, writing that for Buckley “as long as the South did ‘not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class,’ segregation was acceptable.”

That’s not what the editorial argues. Rather, Buckley stressed that defiance of majority will could only be justified “for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races.” However wrong Buckley was about civil rights in 1957 -- and Buckley was mistaken about the constitutional soundness of Brown and complacent concerning the obligation to end segregation -- he does not, as Tanenhaus would have readers believe, accept segregation so long as whites didn’t exploit it. Instead, Buckley justified a temporary segregation in the interests of achieving long-term equality “by humane and charitable means” and in a manner consistent with constitutional principles.

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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