Calhoun and Constitutionalism


At their Online Library of Liberty site, the Liberty Fund has started a new Liberty Matters series. The series features essays on authors and works that appear in the Online Library of Liberty and includes a series of responses and exchanges about that essay and the underlying work. They have already gathered an interesting set of essays on topics ranging from A.V. Dicey to J.S. Mill to William Leggett to the Mayflower Compact, and they are worth checking out.

I recently posted a featured essay on John C. Calhoun and his political and constitutional thought. I was especially pleased to have responses by James H. Read, John G. Grove, and Jay Cost. As part of that project, I also did a video interview on Calhoun with Pat Lynch.

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  1. Ivy indoctrinated, lawyer scumbag. After the 1750’s, everyone educated knew slavery was wrong, but not this traitor scumbag.

  2. This lawyer dumbass also had trouble with the 8th grade English of the constitution. It gave all lawmaking power to the Congress. “All” is a first grade vocabulary word. Then, he forgot to read the Supremacy Clause. Result? A Civil War, an all lawyer catastrophe, thanks to the most toxic occupation in the nation.

  3. Interesting essay, thanks.

    Calhoun advocated nullification but I think he rejected secession because he knew it would result in a civil war that the South would lose.

    To us the issue of secession is bound up with the defense of slavery. As Whittington points out, that does not have to be so. Secession is still an unresolved question. It wasn’t discredited by the Civil War. To argue that is to erase black people from the equation. No democratically constituted state is legitimate if it excludes people of color. (You could say the same about women, but the issue that divided the Union was about the rights of blacks, not women.)

    Can a legitimate state secede? Again, it’s an open question. One the one hand, if any state could secede when it wanted to, no nation such as the United States could “long endure” (to quote Lincoln at Gettysburg). It would soon dissolve into tiny bits. On the other hand, slavery vs. anti-slavery was so wide a gulf that it’s hard to think of any other ground that would make a state really want to secede.

    1. Any sufficiently disgruntled minority can attempt to secede, and if it succeeds that’s the end of the matter. It was a successful revolutionary act, and, therefore, none dare call it treason. Onlookers, however, are free to make such moral evaluation of the successful insurrectionists and their cause as they chose.

      That is all obvious and uninteresting. The more interesting question is whether states can leave the United States, on their own motion and without the consent of someone else, like Congress or the other states or a national referendum, and insist that their unilateral action be accepted. A right not to revolution, and the risk of failure, but to lawful secession.

      I assume that a government’s founding charter could include a procedure for lawful secession, just as many long-term contracts include provisions for termination (often unilateral) of the contractual relationship. But the Constitution contains no provision for either unilateral or consensual secession. I assume that, if the rest of the country (however defined) had no objection to, say, Florida’s secession, a procedure could be worked out. There is, however, no procedure by which a disgruntled state can secede over objection, and rightfully complain if the central government acts to prevent it.

      1. “The more interesting question is whether states can leave the United States, on their own motion and without the consent of
        someone else.”

        That was the issue I was talking about.

        1. Yes, it was. Sorry if I was unclear.

    2. It is interesting to speculate about what would have happened had the Confederates not started a war by firing on Fort Sumter.

      1. I suspect things eventually come to a head one way or the other, because they would have tried to exercise some form of purported sovereignty that the Union wouldn’t have accepted, such as arresting federal officers, blocking the payment of taxes to the national government, or something else.

        It was, indeed, stupid to fire on Fort Sumter, but that’s because the entire enterprise of secession was stupid. It was a bunch of rapists throwing a temper tantrum at the thought that maybe their grandchildren would be prevented from raping slaves like they got to do.

      2. resteinmetz,

        If you understand the history of the moment, your comment would be that it is interesting to speculate about what would have happened had Lincoln not started a war by committing an act of war at Ft Sumter with the express purpose of starting a war in the most politically expedient way possible.

        1. M L : “If you understand the history…..”

          And if you understood the history you’d know that the Southern states had already fired on a U.S. vessel and seized federal property by military force long before Lincoln was inaugurated president. It was Buchannan who refused to surrender United States forts to the rebels. Likewise, the first attempt to resupply Sumter by sea was during his presidency, and that ship was attacked and driven off.

          So exactly how did devious Lincoln fool the rebels into starting a war? The Confederate government had already resolved to obtain all remaining forts and federal properties by negotiation or force. Davis’ entire cabinet (save one) was eager to make Sumter an example.

          1. What did Lincoln do and how, you ask? There is a lot of detail in the article below, if you actually wanted to know. Small sample:

            “..Lincoln called a cabinet meeting for March 15, 1861 and asked each member of his cabinet to submit in writing their view of what should be done with regards to Fort Sumter. Every member, except Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, voted against resupply and voiced their opposition to send reinforcements. Blair’s wife was brother-in-law to Gustavous Fox, a Naval Officer who had submitted a reinforcement plan to the President. Blair believed the plan had merit and petitioned Lincoln to give it consideration.

            For his part, Secretary of State Seward expressed the following in his written vote: “Suppose the expedition successful, we have then a garrison in Ft. Sumter that can defy assault for six months. What is it to do then? Is it to make war by opening its batteries and attempting to demolish the defenses of Charleston? …..I would not initiate war to regain a useless and unnecessary position on the soil of the seceding States.”

            The heads of States, and key people within the administration, were as aware as the Carolinians that Ft. Sumter was “useless” and “unnecessary” to the administration for any other purpose than to provoke and invade the seceded States.

            Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, stated “By sending, or attempting to send provisions into Sumter, will not war be precipitated? It may be impossible to escape it under any course of policy that may be pursued, but I am not prepared to advise a course that would provoke hostilities.”

            As well, Generals Winfield Scott and Joseph G. Totten both opposed Fox’s plan, with General Scott recommending immediate evacuation of the Fort. These men, and others in Lincoln’s cabinet recognized that an attempt to re-provision Sumter would constitute an inauguration of war.

            Not to be dissuaded, Lincoln agreed to send Gustavous Fox to Charleston to survey the situation. He met directly with Anderson who told him that resupplying the fort would be impossible and that “it would be a provocative act to merely make the attempt.” Denson explains that Ward Lamon and S.A. Hurlburt, who were appointed to accompany Fox to Charleston, met with Governor Pickens of South Carolina and reported back to Lincoln that “even sending supplies would cause the South to fire on the fort.”

            In what would become a recurring characteristic in Lincoln’s ability at political maneuvering, following Browning’s advice he chose a path that, while less hostile in outward appearances, he knew would be received as a threat by the Confederate government and its forces in Charleston. He chose to resupply the fort, not with ammunition and military supplies, but with food…

            Recall that Lincoln had already stated that invasion of the Confederacy would be undertaken if necessary to secure the property of the Union, and to collect the imposts and tariffs. On the day of his inauguration he had already decided that the South would be forced back into the union, or face invasion. The only question in his mind was how to initiate the war, and his efforts to resupply Sumter were an attempt to maneuver the Confederacy into firing the first shot while simultaneously attempting to not appear as the aggressor. This was obvious to everyone on both sides.

            Two of Lincoln’s trusted secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, disclosed that:

            ‘President Lincoln in deciding the Sumter question had adopted a simple but effective policy. To use his own words, he determined to ‘send bread to Anderson’; if the rebels fired on that, they would not be able to convince the world that he had begun the civil war.’

            Of course, as Denson relates, unknown to most is the fact that in December of 1861, Anderson had informed President Buchanan that, due to his relationship with the Mayor of Charleston, as well as with the town merchants, he had access to all of the food necessary to keep his troops fed…

            After the fact, Lincoln on May 1, 1861 wrote to Gustavous Fox, who commanded the naval detachment charged with resupplying Sumter, the following:

            You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail, and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.

            In other words, he had successfully provoked war while, in his mind, maintaining the appearance of a non-aggressor.”

            I’d suggest reading the whole thing, “Ft. Sumter: The First Act of Aggression”, the comment system seems to be blocking the link.

            1. An awful lot of words that change nothing.

              1. Fort Sumter was no danger to the rebellion. Reinforced or not reinforced, it could be leveled by shore batteries at any time the rebels chose.

              2. Jefferson Davis made the decision to attack Sumter and begin civil war. Nothing you quote explains how Lincoln’s actions absolve Davis of his choice.

              3. It was already a decision of the rebel government to seize all remaining federal properties / forts by force if necessary. So your theory is Lincoln’s evil absolves Davis of deciding for war by prompting it a week or two earlier than otherwise? Or was Lincoln evil just because he didn’t surrender? (Excusing the Confederacy is so bizarre a obsession, I can never predict which line of nonsense it’ll take)

              3. As I noted, the southern rebels had already committed acts of war before Lincoln became president. Why don’t they count?

              1. Excusing the Confederacy is so bizarre a obsession,

                But, it’s M.L.’s obsession, and you won’t take it away from him.

              2. I’m not looking to excuse the Confederacy or absolve them for their part in precipitating the war, nor any of their other moral failures. But the history is commonly distorted in the popular narratives, severely lacking in accuracy and nuance, and even filled with outright absurd claims (such as the idea that the North fought to end slavery). I’ve no doubt that there are just as many absurd claims from the “Lost Causers” as you would describe them, but they’re much less widely distributed, in my experience anyway.

                One thing that’s overlooked, and what you asked about here, is how Lincoln’s act at Ft Sumter was an act of aggression, designed to initiate war and successful in its purpose, as everyone seemed to understand at the time and as Lincoln seemingly admits in his own words. On the other hand, the CSA was offering to pay for federal properties in the South and attempting negotiations which were rebuffed by Lincoln.

                1. Bet if I stole your car at gunpoint & then offered to “pay” for it you’d still consider my actions objectionable & actionable. I wonder if you use equally bizarre reasoning to explain the aggressor in other conflicts. Germany & Poland? Go for it. It would be interesting to see how your elastic historical ethics apply there……

                  1. Not a good analogy. But regardless, under your logic the revolutionary founders were also “the aggressor” in precisely the same nature and to at least the same extent as the confederates. I am not saying you are wrong about this, only asking if you are consistent.

                    1. Yeah, ML – but I’m not here claiming King George III tricked the revolutionary founders into war……

              3. The author of the piece is a neoconfederate apologist, claiming that “the true motivation behind their departure was not slavery.”

    3. Secession is still an unresolved question. It wasn’t discredited by the Civil War.

      The error people make- and you are making it too, in your comment, is thinking of secession as a legal argument. It has nothing to do with law and everything to do with power. If you secede, and win the war, it doesn’t matter if it was the most illegitimate secession in the history of the world. If you secede, and lose the war, it doesn’t matter if it is the most legitimate. The only thing that matters are the facts on the ground.

      In general, I think this is a subset of people thinking way too much about rules and way too little about power when it comes to boundary issues. The current set of international borders are the product of who won what wars, for the most part. They carry no intrinsic “legitimacy” and were often not drawn where the separate populations and ethnic groups actually lived. So when, e.g., Russia invades Crimea, the only thing that really matters is whether they can make it stick. There is no actual law that can prevent either secession or transborder aggression- there is only whether it sticks.

      1. No, it’s not about power, it’s about law. If secession was accepted as a legal right then the “parent” country be ok with letting its children go. This has been accepted in a number of situations. Greek city-states were free to leave the various ancient confederations. Another example is the Holy Roman Empire, which expanded and contracted (with members leaving) throughout its long existence.

        1. As I said above, it’s possible to set up a system in which a disgruntled unit could leave unilaterally, or by jumping through certain hoops, peacefully. I don’t see a serious argument that our system is of that kind.

        2. In theory secession can be about either. But you have have to decide which right from the start. If the Southern states thought they had a inherent constitutional right to secede, then why didn’t they pursue a constitutional process? Even if they had to propose a structure of engagement with the remaining United States, that would have been a different choice than declaring a unilateral break and seizing federal lands & forts by military force.

          The South never acted like they believed in a right of secession. They acted like a rebellion, trying to create facts on the ground.

    4. “To us the issue of secession is bound up with the defense of slavery. As Whittington points out, that does not have to be so.”

      Yes. In fact Lincoln in 1847, before he became a bloodthirsty maniac in the seat of power and caused the war with the first act of aggression and war, wrote the following:

      “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable – a most sacred right – a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.”

      It’s pretty much a resolved question, as Lincoln expressed above. It was a founding principle. That doesn’t mean I suppose that there wouldn’t be resistance to secession, even violently. But instead of resolving things peaceably, you had a war (which was not a civil war) that killed more Americans than every other war before and since combined.

      1. Pretty hilarious. I’m originally from Richmond, and a few years back the Civil War Museum at the old Tredegar Iron Works put-up a statue of Lincoln & Todd on-site. Even after all these years, many of my fellow southerners insisted on fuming in a petulant snit. God alone knows if they took their own bullshit seriously; for some it just seemed an obligation from their gone-with-the-wind confederacy nostalgia.

        Item : The southern states rebelled. They acted not even from any direct threat to their precious “Peculiar Institution”, but over fear they wouldn’t be able to expand slavery into new territories.

        Item : The options available to Buchannan first, then Lincoln, were surrender to the dissolution of the United States, or war, which the southern rebels pursued from the very beginning.

        Item : Your quote – the “most sacred right – a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world” – looks a little out of place in defending a rebellion to preserve slavery.

        Item : Lost Cause Romanticism is so damn ridiculous.

        1. Not from “the South” myself and never lived there. However, it is interesting. I don’t disagree specifically with anything in your general comment here. I sure thought it was curious when I found that people in the South were still obsessed with the “War of Northern Aggression” as if it just happened yesterday. And now I’m only more amazed at the depth of it. But I’ve also come to see why it’s so closely related and pertinent to the major questions and issues concerning government today. A major part of the lasting, salient meaning of those events is reflected in this 2019 headline from Bloomberg: “China Invokes Abraham Lincoln in Justifying Push to Take Taiwan” June 1, 2019, 11:22 PM EDT

          1. George Allen fils (not the coach) grew up in sunny California wearing confederate flag lapel pins for his high school yearbook picture, sporting a Stars&Bars front plate on his red Mustang, and having the flag tacked to the wall over his bed. Apparently he thought the Confederacy was “closely related and pertinent to the major questions and issues concerning government today.”

            Kinda weird. I grew up immersed in this nonsense, so it may be excusable I had an ever-brief childhood fascination with myths like Marsh Robert Lee. But even at the youngest age I understood the overall moral framework behind the war, and quickly realized just how much the confederacy was a destructive & loathsome regime – one prompted by a grotesque criminal stupidity that left death in its wake.

            If you find the Confederacy “closely related and pertinent to the major questions and issues concerning government today”, then you probably need to reconsider your questions & rethink your issues. That’s my advice.

            1. Not the Confederacy per se, but these events as a whole, and the issues behind them, like secession, state nullification, and decentralization of government generally.

        2. RHETT BUTLER:
          I think it’s hard winning a war with words, gentlemen.
          What do you mean, sir?
          I mean, Mr. Hamilton, there’s not a cannon factory in the whole South.
          What difference does that make, sir, to a gentleman?
          I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many gentlemen, sir.
          Are you hinting, Mr. Butler, that the Yankees can lick us?
          No, I’m not hinting. I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coal-mines . . . and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is Cotton, Slaves and . . . [dismissive glance] Arrogance.

      2. It was a founding principle.

        The founding principle was the natural right of revolution, not the legal right of secession.

  4. Calhoun graduate from Yale, the pinnacle of our liberal/libertarian universities.

    He broke with the fairy tales and superstition of fundamentalism in favor of Unitarianism and founded a Unitarian church in Washington, D. C.

    A true hero for our time! /sarc

    1. Ivy indoctrinated lawyers believe they can boss others because of their superior intellect. These bookworms are idiot savants. They are seriously impaired, and shoild be excluded from all responsible policy positions. They are in utter failure as leaders.

  5. Whittington is a subtle advocate for defense of classical liberalism. His essay seems nervously mindful throughout that Calhoun in his political arguments was appealing to classical liberal ideals—especially in the counter-majoritarian arguments. Alas, by citing Locke—an investor in the slave trade and a would-be tyrant over the powerless wherever found—Whittington makes a mistake common among non-historians, positioning Locke as if he were arm-in-arm with the founders, and at the same time a redeeming counter-example to set against Calhoun’s candid motive of defending slave-owner interests first and foremost. Given who Locke actually was, and who the Southern founders actually were, it’s a wreck of an argument.

    By the way, I wish I knew where veneration of Locke as a figure important to the founders comes from. I haven’t found much trace of it in the historical record. Admittedly, I’m especially weak on the lesser Southern founders and anti-Federalists—references so often a source of satisfied citation by libertarians pushing political agendas from gun rights, to states rights, to property rights. If Locke really was a major influence among founding-era figures, I suspect that it must be looked for among those southerners, and more with respect to regional influence than national.

    I got my first instruction in American history in the public schools of Maryland, a former slave state, and still emphatically a Jim Crow state at the time. Some of it came from teachers who were fairly openly in rebellion against Brown v. Board of Education. Mine enthused about Locke, even to uncomprehending 3rd graders. I came away with a well-indoctrinated opinion that Locke was very, very important to America’s founding. That stuck, and made it uphill work to notice, decades later, that the famous remarks about rights in the Declaration of Independence were actually more in the vein of Hobbes than of Locke.

    I don’t know what classical liberals and would-be orginalists would do if they had to do without Locke. I suggest a close reading of original historical sources might leave them as much at a loss as I have been.

    1. The fact that the Framers admired Locke shouldn’t surprise you, because the Framers were a group of immoral people who enjoyed living a life of leisure and raping their slaves.

      The problem you have is admiring the Framers. You shouldn’t. It’s basically akin to a Mongolian admiring Genghis Khan or a German admiring Hitler.

      1. Your hyperbole is far out there, but the framers were not all that different from the confederates. Both rebelled for one reason at the most basic level, because they didn’t want to be ruled by someone else. In both cases, emancipation proclamations were issued that had no legal effect but were simply a “war measure.” In both cases, the rebels were not assuaged by offers of concessions because they preferred independence.

        1. the rebels were not assuaged by offers of concessions because they preferred independence.

          Confederates. Champions of liberty. What a joke.

          1. I don’t view either side in that conflict as being more of a “champion of liberty” than the other, given the South’s attachment to slavery.

        2. Another history flub from ML !!!

          Wanna know the direct line of cause&effect that led to secession & war? The Democratic party of the time had a long run of success in politics because of a coalition that joined slave&free interests. It splintered into two groups approaching the 1860 election – and for a reason exactly the opposite of not wanting to be “ruled by someone else”.

          Stephen A. Douglas demanded slavery in the new territories be settled by popular sovereignty – the voters living in those territories deciding yes or no. This so enraged the slave states that they broke with the party, walked out the nominating convention, and created a parallel convention & party in Baltimore. The vote split, Lincoln was elected and the southern states rebelled.

          You see, the “states rights” myth sounds good until you actually look at the facts. Then you discover the South demanded an active & aggressively controlling federal government whenever their ownership of other human beings was concerned. When it came to slavery, they consistently championed strong clear federal power. The Fugitive Slave Act, postal-suppression legislation on abolitionist tracts, or laws that created a federal right of slave transit are the exact opposite of “states rights”. They have nothing to do with not wanting to be ruled by someone else.

      2. Esper, if you recognize incongruity in what you think I wrote—and you make that same remark repeatedly—maybe you ought to ask yourself if your interpretation is off the mark. I think your concern about people admiring the framers is wearing a groove in your brain.

        I will help you out this far: I am not someone who thinks there is anything to be gained by studying historical figures with moral comparisons in mind, whether favorable or not. If you study history that way, you inevitably create a present-minded frame of reference, and then read it back into the history you are trying to understand. After that mistake, you end up just re-considering the present in a more roundabout way, while losing your chance to learn about history. It’s worse than a waste of time, because to the (great) extent historical people lacked experience to think the way we do, when you think that way you are doomed to get most of the history wrong.

    2. I suppose the question posed in the second paragraph depends upon whether it is posed the Founders *adopted* or were *influenced by* Locke’s concepts. The latter element of course allows _addressing_ but yet _rejecting_, in whole or in part, of them. While certain of them, Hamilton and the High Federalists, were of course more sympathetic to say Hobbes, Locke was certainly familiar to and highly-respected by many of them.

      There are a number of scholarly comparisons of the Founding Documents and either the concepts or verbiage of Locke. Time constrains me from assembling them.

      Time also constrains me from extracting direct references to Locke or his concepts from the Federalist Papers. All I had time to do was investigate references to Locke in the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, perhaps the two most-authoritative sources. I thus discovered these references in:
      JM 08/12/93 letter to TJ
      TJ 08/30/23 letter to JM
      TJ 11/30/24 letter to JM
      JM 02/0825 letter to TJ
      There may be more but I am presently unaware of them.

      While Madison makes little editorial comment on Locke, it is clear Jefferson extols Locke and the dissemination of his concepts. I am curious then about your conclusion that “the famous remarks about rights in the Declaration of Independence were actually more in the vein of Hobbes than of Locke”. Being familiar w/ both Leviathan and the Second Treatise, I am confused. Could you edify me?

  6. Apparently the commentators have all had time to read the essay and comments. I have not but was required to PDF the 48 pages for future review.

    Perhaps the hostile comments to Calhoun — based upon the essay and comments thereto, rather than his defense of slavery — are justified; I reserve judgment. However I did read his Disquisition back 52 years ago now, and was greatly impressed w/ his lucid and insightful observations. My revisiting it, along w/ the contemporary assessments, is likely justified.

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