The iconoclastic fervor that began to crystallize last summer continues apace.
For example, just last month a multi-week search for a new host of Jeopardy!, as Robby Soave recently explained, turned “unexpectedly acrimonious” because a generic-looking white guy named Mike Richards was selected to host the show on a regular basis. The cancel culture did its thing, and Richards resigned. Earlier this summer, Winston Marshall and Carrie Underwood came under fire after alleged Twitter mishaps. Even Hollywood insiders, like The Late Late Show’s James Corden, have been called out for disrespecting common Asian dishes.
I’m a busy law clerk, husband, and father to two little girls, but every now and then I find time to read. To combat the iconoclasts’ efforts to expunge culture and history, I’ve started reading more biographies. Right now, I’m wrapping up Robert Elder’s masterful new biography of John C. Calhoun. While you may know who Calhoun is, you probably don’t know much about him because Calhoun — like so much else that depicts our checkered past — has been canceled.
While there’s an admittedly easy case to be made for Calhoun’s cancellation (if you’re into that sort of thing), I do not condone Calhoun’s — or anyone else’s — cancellation. And neither should you. Because to cancel the past is to deny that there are “remnants of virtue in the tattered rags of our collective past.”
Even those generally predisposed to disagree with the notion of “canceling” history seem amenable to it in Calhoun’s case. This is no doubt partly attributable to Calhoun’s adherence to—and evangelism for—the doctrine of interposition, or nullification. Proponents of nullification, including household names like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, more or less held to the view that the Constitution granted state legislatures, or special conventions, the right, as Daniel Walker Howe puts it, to “interpose their sovereignty and nullify unconstitutional federal legislation.” Although Calhoun would die in 1850 — more than ten years before the outbreak of war among the states — you don’t have to be a historian to connect the dots between the 1832 nullification crisis and the eventual outbreak of the Civil War.
But Calhoun has not been excised from American memory because he embraced a largely debunked theory of constitutional law. No, Calhoun has been canceled for two other reasons: first, for his convictions regarding slavery (which Calhoun held was a net good, for whites and blacks alike); and second, for his convictions regarding the status of blacks, whom Calhoun believed were ontologically lesser than whites like himself.
Such beliefs border on the unbelievable. But Calhoun, as Mr. Elder reminds us, left little to doubt when it came to his convictions regarding slavery and the ontological status “of the African race.” In an 1837 Senate speech, Calhoun said, among other things:
We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions [including slavery]. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both.… 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.
Convictions like these rightly shock the conscience if for no other reason than that they fly in the face of the doctrine of the imago Dei, which teaches that all men are made in the image and likeness of God — regardless of race. For many twenty-first century Americans, however, Calhoun’s convictions aren’t mere mistakes. Rather, they’re manifestations of the unforgivable sin of being wrong about an important subject or two. Because Calhoun held such beliefs, so the iconoclastic “logic” goes, he is anathema and must therefore be cut out of our collective memory.
Cut From the Same Cloth
While we should not idealize our past, nor venerate our forebears blindly, we must be wary of practicing the kind of chronological snobbery that pretends like we’ve cornered the market on moral perfection. The line dividing good and evil, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed, cuts through every human heart.
Each of us — Calhoun included — is cut from the same cloth. We may not want to admit it, but few men exhibited this reality as clearly as Calhoun did. The same Calhoun that was “the defender of a rejected path in American history, the antidemocratic defender of an antiquated brutality, and the father of the failed Confederacy” was also a doting husband and father, progressive farmer, and a statesman par excellence.
But don’t just take my word for it. Following Calhoun’s death, his Senate colleagues rose to memorialize him, not because he was perfect — far from it — but because they saw remnants of virtue in the tattered rags of his fractured life. “I was [Calhoun’s] senior … in years — [but] in nothing else,” said Henry Clay, with whom Calhoun served in Congress for nearly four decades. Likewise Daniel Webster, the senator from Massachusetts with whom Calhoun sparred often, said, “I have not, in public nor in private life, known a more assiduous person in the discharge of his appropriate duties.… He has lived long enough, he has done enough, and he has done it so well, so successfully, so honorably, as to connect himself for all time with the records of his country. He is,” Webster concluded, “now a historical character.”
Rather than fume over Calhoun’s status as a historical character, or actively working to excise him from American memory, perhaps the cancel culture should meditate on his memory. Doing so will “confront [them] with [their] own potential for evil” and nudge them toward the kind of humility that awes, not at the fact that men do evil, but at the fact that despite the incurvatus in se, or inner bent at the center of our being, each of us somehow manages to be, and to do, some good. Despite his deplorable anthropology, Calhoun was no exception.
Grayson P. Walker currently clerks on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. Previously, he served as Deputy General Counsel to Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt, to whom he provided strategic counsel on legal, policy, and ethical matters.
Source: The American Spectator