Philosophy Weekend: John Calhoun and Confederate Ethics

American Big Thinking Biography Classics Existential History Politics Religion Southern Transcendentalism

This seems to be a primal aspect of human nature: we always believe ourselves to be ethically correct. It would be very surprising to hear a person openly declare that he or she lives without moral principle, and it would be even more surprising to find any society or group of people that openly declares itself to be amoral.

This fact provides a stunning contradiction that ought to be endlessly fascinating to ethical philosophers who wish to deeply challenge their own belief systems. Every past as well as current society believes itself to be moral, and yet when we discuss history we can easily identify various past societies that seem to have been highly immoral. If we examine the ways in which these bygone societies convinced themselves of their high ethical principles, we can glimpse the powerful engine of delusion itself, and discover the mechanics that make it so effective in clouding intelligent minds. We may even discover that some delusions still drive our thinking today.

One great example is provided by the nation that briefly called itself the Confederate States of America, a nation that was defeated in the United States of America's Civil War between 1861 and 1865. I'm beginning a road trip this week to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to take part in the 150th anniversary of the most dramatic extended battle of the entire war. This anniversary provides a nice opportunity for us to pause and look closely at the philosophical underpinnings of the entire secession movement in the Southern states. This philosophical system can be broadly represented by the voice of a once-great politician, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was a legendary United States Senator, and was the Vice President of the United States for two terms. He died before the Civil War began, but his inspiration was present for the entire period of the war, and he was taken seriously as a brilliant scholar, a passionate orator and a principled ethical thinker by both his compatriots and his enemies.

John Calhoun defended the institution of human slavery with words like these:

I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good -- a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe–look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse. But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact. There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.

John Calhoun's defense of slavery does not represent his loftiest attempts at political philosophy. During his own lifetime he was known more for a more positive approach to representative democracy that stressed the dangers of simple rule by majority. Identifying the slave-holding Southern states as a minority interest within the USA's federal government, he constructed a system of political thought that stressed the importance of a "concurrent majority" -- a majority based upon consensus -- rather than a numerical majority. If Calhoun's words about slavery appear frightening today (indeed, the fact that the person who wrote the words above was once Vice President of the USA may seem even more frightening than the fact that torture enthusiast Dick Cheney was also recently Vice President of the USA, or that Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan nearly ascended to the office just last year), his words about the democratic process may appear more soothing and more familiar. It is true that we should expect a wise democratic government to rule by more than a simple numerical majority, and the question of how a nation may obtain a majority of consensus as well as a numerical majority is one that vexes us still today.

As I study the life and words of John Calhoun -- a man who was vastly respected during his lifetime as a man of principle, a man who is now remembered along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay as a representative of a golden age of oratory in 19th Century America as well as a representative of a sublime religious and cultural awakening within the southern states that once rivaled the northern-based American Transcendentalist movement for intellectual prestige -- I am most impressed not by his words themselves, but rather by what he represented to the people who stood on his side.

These were not stupid people. These were not thoughtless and uneducated people. These were not brutish or callous people, though when we look at the effects of the African slave trade today we can clearly see that slavery was brutish and callous to its victims.

I'm not sure how much value can be obtained by studying the ethical philosophy of John Calhoun today. But I think great value can be obtained by studying the fact that John Calhoun existed, and the fact that the Confederate States of America, so often maligned in historical memory today, did strongly believe itself to hold ethical principles of the kind presented by John Calhoun.

We should study John Calhoun today -- not in order to rediscover the values he represented, but rather in order to question the values we ourselves now hold. Do we also sometimes cling to lofty words when we need to justify brutal behaviors? If we assume that 19th Century Southern society and the Confederate nation of 1861 to 1865 existed without valid moral principles, but that we ourselves hold excellent moral principles today, we are probably letting ourselves off much too easily.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Humbled at Gettysburg. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Nationalism and Alienation.
10 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: John Calhoun and Confederate Ethics"

by ds on

One value is that these passages show bigotry for what it is. Give this passage to a fundamentalist friend and he'll agree that slavery is evil. Do a Ctrl-H on the passage and swap race for sexual orientation, and labor for civil rights, and give it back to that friend, and maybe he'll see that the exact same arguments are used today to keep gay people second class citizens.

by hypcollector on

..well intentioned defense and protection of a way of life or our children is a huge trap for followers of Jesus. From a Christian theological standpoint, the only protection needed is Jesus. Convictions are fine, but Christians are way off base if and when mix politics and religion. Jesus never tried to alter His culture. He altered individuals. And contiues to this day through the work of the Holy Spirit. His view was bigger. Levi, your thoughts on nationalism apply here as well. God didn't create the United States to save the world. But its hard to live forgiven and saved, we want to protect, defend, work for the Lord . Go into the world, don't change the world. Proclaim. Don't blame, don't shame, don't complain. Most of any faith would agree, Jesus was a horrible politician....just drove through the south from Dallas to Destin and back. East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, to the majestic beaches of the emerald coast. I met cheerful people, smart people, dumb people, sweeties, jackasses, and others. Pick any issue and that won't change, regardless of region and history. Use your faith to form your convictions, not to justify your convictions. Jesus is a savior teacher, not a cop.

by wjwiippa on

Regarding " It would be very surprising to hear a person openly declare that he or she lives without moral principle"; I work for The Man in the USA & got Blue Cross/ Blue Shield & I worked for the Communists in China. Any time you're not working for the greater good, you're a parasite or an economic externality, or to put it as a '60s radical said it--who now sells BBQ grills--"Either you're part of the solution or you're part of the problem."
One of Calhoun's comments from the above are still true today, viz., …there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.
As for the rest of Calhoun's comments, remember Orwell: Political language is to make lies respectable & murder respectable.
"Whatever's expedient" is political philosophy's realpolitik. Sometimes there have been exceptions to this rule in the USA but not often enough. Robert F. Kennedy said it best when he said, "America can do better", e.g., per year, the cost of incarcerating an inmate is 500% the cost of educating a grade-school student. There is also the greater cost of lack of education for the child and that two thirds of all inmates return to do a second time in prison.
I have wrote here before that rule ethics rule and this seems to reduce the arguement to what are the rules we agree on & who is included to who they apply, viz., otherwise drone strikes couldn't be ordered on enemy combatants or Texans get lethal injections.
Calhoun didn't include the slaves. This is the first time I really read anything about it but remember hearing some of this discussion in the earlier movie briefly discussed here, "Gettysburg." Until a white American lives in a homogenous society such as South Korea or a xenophobic society like mainland China's, you cannot realize how race factors in to daily life. [A disclaimer--it is all dog-eat-dog & foreigners are better off only because they can leave.]
Reading his wikipdia entry, he appears a self-serving tool: The Clemson University campus in South Carolina occupies the site of Calhoun's Fort Hill plantation, which he bequeathed to his wife and daughter. They sold it and its 50 slaves to a relative. They received $15,000 for the 1,100 acres (450 ha) and $29,000 for the slaves (they were valued at about 600 USD apiece).Calhoun was also honored by his alma mater, Yale University, which named one of its undergraduate residence halls "Calhoun College". A sculpture of Calhoun appears on the exterior of Harkness Tower, a prominent campus landmark.
What always eats at me is this doggerl: "Either you're part of the solution or you're part of the problem." Eighteen years ago, I bought into Schopenhaur's "Art is the only salvation", but, looking at my oeuvre, I am damned.
We're all wage slaves nowadays unless you're truely independently wealthy. It's too bad Calhoun can't join the dustbin of history.

The first step to gaining an ethical insight into our own views is to keep an open mind. If we think we're right in what we think and believe and how we act and reject any possibility that we might be wrong you end up with a John Calhoun.

His position on slavery doesn't reflect upon his intelligence but rather his lack of open-mindedness which I suspect was a common problem for society at that time on the whole.

by TKG on

"God didn't create the United States to save the world."

How do you know?

Democrats from Calhoun til now are making the same argument til this day, "yeah, you'll lose some freedom but we'll take care of you".

by hypcollector on

...God's already provided ultimate freedom...He sent Jesus to save the world..'it is finished.'...I know because the Holy Spirit allows for me to have faith in His word. Otherwise known as truth to those so inclined to believe....the crusades were a bust. Also, anyone looking to the goverment for shelter (literal and figurative) will be disappointed...'come in, He said, I'll give ya shelter from the storm'....God will use the good ole U.S. as He sees fit. We all have free will in the civil arena...and all are capable of extrordinary good...Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and zombies....salvation is another matter....however, without faith, its gonna be hard to relate. Martin luther (reformation dude) was considered s bafoon by many...he did little to alter this perception as he created many famous and lasting hymns at the pub...these were bar songs, which is way off topic, but I'm just saying. This world will not be saved, but every individual can be. Even the flamboyant ones. While walking the earth, proclaim and kick the devil in the teeth whenever possible...he is a sneaky and sly fool and self rightousness is one of his favorite tools....slavery, a huge black mark on the U.S. and other supposedly enlightened nations (pun not intended). That God was evoked to justify the intitution was God slander, but even the bigots can get saved. Jesus bless them all .... and you all ... 'You got to let love rule.'...'all you need is love'....God is love.....

by Wojciech on

I gotta agree with you, Levi. It's easy to look back and point the finger, not so easy to examine ourselves, here and now.

hypcollector, are Jews, Muslims and atheists getting into heaven? how?

by hypcollector on

.woj.....great heaven question. I don't know. What are your thoughts?....again, salvation is such an individual thing. Not a collective matter. As a follower of Jesus, I know I'm going. I don't make those judgements on others...as Lao, getting into heaven seems earthly, like its a place. My assurance is complete, my expectations wild. But I got bullets to dodge and proclamations to proclaim. Just echoing the good book and asking for advise along the way. I sin too much and don't pray enough. Drink blood and eat bread. Not about what I think, its about what he did. It's alien. It's supernatural. It's chicken fried. This is my expression, you see. Poured out and compelled. Not to save my own skin, but to be real....I've said too much, I'm really only interested in answers for myself. Even my kids know the journey is their own. Wash your own brain.

by Wojciech on

i'm with you, man. i don't know either, which is why i asked. i really like your response. but i tend to gravitate towards finding heaven on earth. i don't know if its a place you go when you die, maybe it is. but i do believe we can find a piece of it while we're alive. so that is what i try to do, even among all the bullshit, you can find your piece of heaven. i certainly don't think it is off limits to anybody, instead, i feel like anybody can create it for themselves, if they choose to.

by hypcollector on

i'm with you brother...glimpses of heaven in the middle of this gutter world...

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