Tag Archives: John C. Calhoun

American Religious Tolerance: It’s Complicated

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-arounf nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much 'Murica in this image that it's almost too much freedom to handle...almost.

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-around nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much ‘Murica in this image that it’s almost too much freedom to handle.

Isn’t it great to be religious in America? After all, there are so many deities in the world today vying for the mantle of the “One True God®,” it’s nice to know that there’s one nation on earth that guarantees you the right to worship any deity you see fit — if for no other reason than to hedge your spiritual bets. But alas, all is not well in the land that separates church from state and (constitutionally, anyway) doesn’t recognize an official state religion. For you see, according to Georgia yokel Jody Hice, if you’re one of the 2.2. billion or so of the world’s Muslims who worship that bloodthirsty desert Satan known as Allah, then your right-to-worship ain’t protected by the Constitution, my friend. Because in America, some people think that if you’re not genuflecting to a heavily armed, tax-cutting American Jesus, then you can kiss your religious rights goodbye.

Jody Hice is a Georgia-based syndicated right-wing radio host and pastor who is currently running to fill the 10th congressional seat vacated by current GOP senatorial candidate Paul Broun. Now, admittedly, it’s hard to out-crazy Paul Broun, a guy who once stood in front of a wall of stuffed deer heads and criticized the idea of evolution — and most science in general — as un-biblical heresy “straight from the pit of Hell.” But this being the Deep South, loony right-wing politicians are more prolific than fantastic barbecue and diabetes, and Jody Hice doesn’t disappoint.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Hice recently claimed that freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Islam. “Although Islam has a religious component,” Hice stated, “it is much more than a simple religious ideology. It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.” And that’s not all. Talking Points Memo dug up similar statements Hice made at a Tea Party rally, at which he claimed that, “[m]ost people think Islam is a religion, It’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it’s much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected [under U.S. law].”

Now, look, you don’t need to be a card-carrying, Caliphate-beckoning, beard-stroking, desert monkey-bars training, Kalashnikov-toting member of Al Qaeda to recognize that Hice is one-hundred percent wrong about Islam and religious freedom in America. First off, the mind-boggling level of ironic self-unawareness on display from a Protestant religious fundamentalist who accuses Islam of having “governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components” while simultaneously proclaiming on his campaign website that American society is “based upon Christian principles” and “imbued with Judeo-Christian values” is downright awe-inspiring. It’s pretty damn ballsy of Hice to criticize Muslims for wanting to hijack all levels of American society while also bragging that Christians have already done that.

But lack of self-awareness aside, what Hice is invoking is an age-old stance that has challenged America’s most pie-in-the-sky ideals since day-one: tyranny of the majority. And no, I don’t mean the kind of “tyranny of the majority” espoused by nineteenth century South Carolina senator and pro-slavery nitwit John C. Calhoun, who claimed that an evil majority of abolitionist zealots sought to snuff out the political voice of God-fearing, black people-owning Southern planters everywhere. No, I mean the type of tyranny of the majority that emerges when a particular belief or practice becomes so widespread and so well-known among the majority of the population that it sheds its historical provenance and becomes ensconced in that nebulous cultural void known as “the way things have always been.”

An image depicitng the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

An image depicting the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

Christianity — especially the Christianity espoused by Jody Hice — falls into that category of a belief system that the majority of Americans subscribe to and, consequently, accept as the “default” American religion — even if it’s not recognized by the Constitution as such. But just because the majority of Americans are Christians doesn’t mean that Christianity is the state religion and that other belief systems should play second-bananas to the Jesus clubs. Unless you’re someone like Jody Hice. You see, despite America’s espoused ideals of religious tolerance, stances like Hice’s have been historically more common than most people think. In other words, quite often in America, “freedom of religion” in practice meant “freedom of religion as long as that religion is the same religion that I and everyone else I know practices.”

The worst offenders of this type of cultural tyranny of the majority — in the past and today — have been American Protestants, if for no other reason than they got here first (aside from Native Americans, but they were heathens, so who cares) and constituted the majority religious population for a very long time. Historians John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal note that early on “a Protestant majority was secure in its belief that extension of its morality and beliefs to the nation as a whole was its God-given destiny, and it was confident that freedom of religion in America was a fact that Protestant ambitions could in no way undermine.”* Thus, when new religious groups gained traction, the various factions of Protestant Christians, drunk on their own majority cultural clout, have often freaked out, and they’ve reacted in a way that rendered them “unable to see that minority groups suffered at the hands of majority traditions.”*

Thanks to the long-time Protestant domination of American religious culture, other belief systems, even different factions of Christianity such as Catholicism and Mormonism, have faced discrimination for not being true “American” religions. Basically, Catholics and Mormons used to be what Muslims are today: supposedly shadowy, alien religious agents that threaten to infiltrate American society and alter it for the worse. This type of fear of the religious “other” is what’s freaking the Hell out of already borderline insane folks like Jody Hice.

Catholics, for example, were long considered to be scheming pawns of the Imperial Papal regime who were hell-bent on infiltrating America’s democratic society and transforming it into a slave colony beholden only to the pointy-hatted Roman Pontiff.

Heck, when Catholics started immigrating to the U.S. in large waves in the mid-nineteenth century, they spawned a Nativist Protestant political party known as the Know-Nothings (who I’ve written about more here and here) whose primary goal was to stamp Catholicism out of American life. The Know Nothings vowed to bar all Catholics from holding political office, and their supporters sometimes started riots during which they tarred-and-feathered and even murdered Catholics. One of the most notorious of these riots, known as “Bloody Monday,” occurred on August 6, 1855 in Louisville Kentucky. During a heated election that pit the Know Nothings against the Democratic Party, a wave of Protestant mobs attacked Irish Catholic neighborhoods in an orgy of street fighting, property destruction, and violence that left twenty-two people dead.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don't worry, Smith later got is revenge in teh form of Mitt Romney.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don’t worry, Smith later got his revenge in the form of Mitt Romney.

But Catholics haven’t been the only group to bear the brunt of Protestant religious intolerance. Also during the nineteenth century, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, were considered by “mainstream” American Christians to be a weird, heretical sect that needed to be put in its place. Mormonism was, of course, founded in 1830 by the boringly named New York prophet Joseph Smith, but Smith’s beliefs — especially his idea that the Christian God had once been a mortal man — earned him the heretic tag from upstate New York’s Protestant majority, and he eventually fled with his followers to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he established a new LDS settlement. But when Smith sanctioned polygamy as part of Mormon practice, the local non-Mormons jailed him and his brother. All hell eventually broke loose on June 27, 1844 when a mob stormed the jail and shot Smith and his brother to death.

These past examples of American religious intolerance may be more extreme than the bone-headed rantings of Jody Hice, but the common-thread of tyranny of the cultural majority remains. Wherever there are belief systems that stand in obvious contrast to the beliefs of the majority of Americans, friction and even violence have been the results. This strain of religious intolerance in the erstwhile land of the free continues to have repercussions, particularly in a post-9/11 world where troglodytes like Hice can reap electoral rewards from trafficking in anti-Islamic demagoguery.

As Corrigan and Neal write, “stories of religion in American have taught us to see religious intolerance and violence as something inflicted upon the United States or something that occurs in less-civilized and sophisticated nations than our own.” Thus, when would-be theocrats like Jody Hice tout their Jesus bona fides by invoking the Muslim devil, they’re tapping into a deep historical well of religious intolerance that has justified action against “foreign” minority faiths “all in the name of upholding American values and protecting American liberty.”* Of course, the obvious retort to such instances of religious bigotry is to remind America’s home-grown theocrats that religious tolerance and diversity ARE American values that DO protect American liberty. Anything else would truly be uncivilized.

* See John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, eds., Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 9.

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“12 Years a Slave,” the “American Spectator,” and the Historical Legacy of Paternalism

A scene from Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds that slaves were proprty no matter how they were treated, and that was truly awful.

A scene from Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds us that slaves were property no matter how they were treated.

In the year 2014, most people would agree that slavery was – and is – a very, very bad thing. In an American context especially, slavery and its proponents flouted supposedly sacrosanct ideals such as freedom, equality, and liberty – you know, the really important stuff. Moreover, the “peculiar institution” caused unmeasurable human misery and left a cultural scar on U.S. society that still hasn’t fully healed. So if historians’ work hasn’t been in vain – and I think it hasn’t – then most of us will have long been informed about the nature of slavery and why it was (one of) the greatest atrocities ever committed by the United States.

Few films in recent memory have depicted the horrors of slavery better than Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a picture based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup: a New York-born free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana for over a decade. McQueen’s movie received widespread critical acclaim from both film critics and historians (a group known to be understandably finicky about how Hollywood depicts the past) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars.

But alas, James Bowman, culture critic for the conservative American Spectator magazine, has the brass gonads to stand above the consensus and claim slavery wasn’t all that bad, and that 12 Years a Slave should be viewed as “propaganda” because it fails to show any kind-hearted slaveholders or well-treated slaves. In a review for the Spectator that’s one part stupid, two parts asinine, Bowman argues that despite the film’s “considerable virtues,” 12 Years a Slave ultimately reflects “the politicization of historical scholarship in our time” because, maybe, just maybe, there were happy slaves, and director Steve McQueen only shows us the negative aspects of human bondage! I’m not kidding. Here’s the most offensive part of Bowman’s considerably offensive piece:

If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it.

You get all that? Bowman accuses the film of being politically correct and reflecting the so-called “Marxist-Leninist war of exploiters against exploited” academic agenda that conservatives are convinced is a real thing. Sort of like the way some people are convinced that they see Jesus in a potato chip. Now, given the pseudo-intellectual flavor of his Spectator piece, Bowman likely thinks that he’s making an original observation. But the thing is, he’s invoking a very old – and very discredited – defence of slavery, and in so doing he’s also demonstrating an odious conservative preference for paternalism.

In asserting that there must have been the occasional “kind master” and “contented slave” – and thus, a good side of slavery – Bowman is echoing a nineteenth-century pro-slavery defense that historians call the “positive good” argument. Proponents of this argument claimed that slavery was a benign institution because white people were the supposedly superior race, and that black people, as members of an “inferior” race, by nature needed the civilizing influence of white guidance. In this view, blacks were to accept their lot as social and racial inferiors in exchange for all the perks that came with white dominance; including Christianization, protection, food, clothing, free room and board, and a very full-time job.

The idea of Paternalism underlay every facet of the “Positive Good” argument. Paternalism is a relationship in which a state or an individual forcefully asserts their will over another person and limits that person’s freewill and autonomy under the pretence that the person being dominated will be better off under the heel of a superior individual. Basically, “paternalism” boils down to the idea that “it’s for your own good,” which was the favored argument of pro-slavery ideologues.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman's ideas about slavery.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman’s ideas about slavery.

The paternalistic “Positive Good” argument for slavery was most famously articulated by South Carolina pro-slavery demagogue, John C. Calhoun. In an 1837 speech titled (natch) “The ‘Positive Good’ of Slavery,” Calhoun argued that “the present state of civiliza­tion [in the South], 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 positive good.”

Other southern pro-slavery advocates elaborated on Calhoun’s basic premise that slavery was good for both those in bondage and their masters. Many cited the bible’s approval of slavery as justification for the institution’s prominence in the Old South. Moreover, southern religious writers claimed that slavery made masters kinder and slaves more obedient through a mutually beneficial relationship that existed only in the bullshitting minds of slavery apologists.

For example, in an 1851 essay titled The Duties of Christian Masters, the Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote that “the master should be the friend of his servant” because “friendship implies good will, kindness, [and] a desire for the welfare of him for whom it is entertained.”* Holmes then asserted that kind, Christian masters were a boon to slaves. “The servant, under such a master, knows his condition, and understands that, while he is restricted to certain privileges and required to perform certain duties, he is not held in subjugation by an unfeeling tyrant, nor driven to his work for a heartless oppressor.”* With those types of assurances in mind, it’s a wonder more black people didn’t submit their resumes to the slaveholders’ HR department! 

Indeed, Holmes argued that slaves got real benefits from being dominated by masters who acted as both protectors and teachers. “The servant should feel [sic] that the superior wisdom, experience, power and authority of his master, constitute his [the slave’s] abiding security,” Holmes wrote.* Moreover, the good Reverend also claimed that masters should act as teachers to their slaves because “ignorance, in a peculiar sense, attaches to the negro.”* Of course, education shouldn’t extend to stuff like literacy, knowledge of Enlightenment law, and biblical stories like the Exodus, because then slaves might get the idea that they were entitled to basic human rights and start getting all uppity, which would be bad for slavery’s PR as a “benevolent” institution.

And so, when James Bowman of the American Spectator insists that films like 12 Years a Slave should, in the spirit of avoiding political correctness, depict “a kind master or a contented slave” to show that slavery wasn’t all that bad, he is, whether consciously or unconsciously, referencing the exact same argument that slavery apologists used to justify human bondage in the Old South. Bowman essentially claims – as did pro-slavery ideologues – that benevolence softened an institution otherwise predicated on the most extreme form of paternalism. Yet while this argument is wholly repugnant, it’s not unexpected given that paternalism is central to conservative ideology.

The Americcan Spectator's James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he's willing to auction his freedom off to teh highest bidder - provided that said bidder treat him kindly.

The American Spectator’s James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he’s willing to auction his freedom off to the highest bidder – provided that said bidder treats him kindly.

I’ve already detailed the common ideological threads that link the paternalistic slaveholders of the Old South to modern-day conservatives in a previous post, which you should read – right after you finish this post. But it bears repeating that paternalism is essential to conservatism. As Corey Robin observes in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, “conservatism is about power besieged and power protected.”* As an ideology, conservatism acts to defend the power of the ruling classes in both public and private spaces against “the agency of the subordinate classes.”* Throughout history, the subordinate classes have risen up against their rulers in the name of labor rights, feminism, abolition, and other like causes; and in each instance, conservatives have fought back under the banner of submission for the lower orders; agency for the elite.*

Conservatives believe that those in power (a group that, not coincidentally, includes themselves) are by nature superior to, and know what is better for, the people in subordinate positions. Conservatives are consummate paternalists. This is why they favor the power of employers over organized labor; it’s why they’re hostile to women gaining reproductive rights over their own bodies; it’s why they once argued that whites were permitted to enslave blacks, and it’s why James Bowman can find a supposed silver lining in the horrors of slavery. Conservatives have historically defended the agency of those in power, and they continue to do so today.

It isn’t that James Bowman supports slavery; rather, as a conservative, he can’t understand why paternalism is antithetical to freedom. He’s incapable of comprehending the full meaning of slaves’ status as property, and that as such, no amount of kind treatment could mask their inherent status as human beings deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by self-interested paternalists. A person who is under the total control of another person can never be truly free, regardless of their material conditions.

Thus, what Bowman laments is not the end of slavery itself, but American culture’s gradual rejection of paternalism – the idea that underpinned slavery – as an acceptable condition in society. If and when paternalism ever goes the way of the dinosaurs, you can rest assured that plenty of other conservatives will lament the triumph of an “exploiters against exploited” worldview: after all, if paternalism goes, so goes the power of the exploiters.

* See Reverend A.T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters,” in Paul Finkelman, ed., Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 103, 104, 105.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28, 3, 7.

The Cult of Bipartisanship and Henry Clay’s Long Shadow

1852 Painting of Henry Clay by Ambrose Andrews depicting Clay's American System. Clay hoped compromise would solve the slavery issue and make the U.S. a world power. He was wrong about one of those things.

1852 Painting of Henry Clay by Ambrose Andrews. Clay hoped compromise would resolve the slavery issue. It did, until 1860.

In the storied annuals of the history of the great American republic, the U.S. in 2013 finds itself at a distinctively low point. Like a stumbling barfly who breaks his neck after tripping over so many discarded Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, the United States federal government has ground to a halt because the United States federal government decided that it should grind to a halt.

Who is to blame for this epic display of stupidity-laced chutzpah? Look no further than the “people’s chamber” (pot). Its been over a week now since the pit of witless, but highly agitated Rancors known as the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress decided to throw one of the biggest collective tantrums in American history and shut down the federal government over the president’s shockingly anticipated refusal to defund his signature health care reform law.

Initially, the Republicans expected (not unreasonably, given the Democratic Party’s propensity for mimicking invertebrates) that by holding the government hostage, President Obama and Senate Democrats would cave and cut a deal to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling in exchange for defunding Obamacare. Surprisingly, however, the Democrats decided that the resounding reelection of their candidate in the 2012 White House race might actually justify their party’s right to implement its policies. Republicans, blind-sided by Democrats’ newfound ability to justify their political existence, have thus been left flailing in the legislative wind, unable to articulate what they hope to get out of the shutdown…or even how to end the shutdown.

So whose to blame for all this? If you believe the always profound wisdom of the American public, there’s plenty of blame to go around, with both parties at fault. This idea, that “both sides do it,” is a false equivalence that ignores the radicalization of the Republican Party. But its nonetheless touted by the esteemed lap-dog academy that compromises the Beltway media, which has spent years bowing before the golden calf of “bipartisanship” to the point where compromise in the service of the political center has been lionized by journalistic toadstools like the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman as the catch-all solution to political gridlock.

Those who promote the cult of compromised bipartisanship invoke, however unconsciously, the legacy of one of America’s towering political figures, the 19th century Kentucky politician known as the “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay.

Clay dedicated his political career to turning the United States into a great world power, and when it came to slavery, the issue that nearly tore the country apart, Clay viewed compromise between pro and anti-slavery factions as the key to moving the U.S. forward in its inevitable path towards national glory. Yet by devoting himself to bipartisan compromise, Clay only managed to stave off an uncompromisable issue, pushed by conservative slave-holding radicals, that finally blew apart in the form of the American Civil War. Contemporary compromise fetishists would do well to consider Clay’s career before attending their next bipartisan worship session.

Henry Clay was born in Virginia in 1777, but eventually relocated to Kentucky where he played out his long career in law and politics. One of the most influential political visionaries in U.S. history, Clay promoted the Whig Party “American System,” in which the federal government would promote economic development through protective tariffs and the creation of a national bank to fund commerce and subsidize internal improvements like canals and roads. Clay’s system won him plenty of enemies among those who favored limited government and federalism, particularly Andrew Jackson. Clay also ran afoul of powerful southern slaveholders wary that empowering the federal government would spur it to mess with the “peculiar institution.”

Henry Clay introducing the Compromise of 1850 to the U.S. senate. He was later primaried by a Tea Party challenger.

Henry Clay introducing the Compromise of 1850 to the U.S. senate. He was later primaried by a Tea Party challenger.

Though a devoted political leader of the Whig Party, Clay was, above all, an ardent American nationalist who often touted compromise in the name of national development, especially regarding the slavery debate. In 1819, for example, the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state, spurring anti-slavery New York congressman James Tallmage to propose an amendment that made ending slavery a perquisite for Missouri’s statehood.

Outraged southern slaveholders claimed that a slaveless Missouri would tilt the congressional balance of power in the free states’ favor. One irate Georgia representative blew a gasket, claiming that the Tallmage Amendment would ensure a dissolution of the Union “which seas of  blood can only extinguish.”

In 1820, then-Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a slaveholder himself (albeit of the Charlie Brownish variety that, like Thomas Jefferson, disliked slavery but wanted to hold onto it nonetheless) supported a compromise that admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and banned new slave states in the portion of the old Louisiana Purchase above the 36 30′ north latitude line. Clay squeezed the so-called Missouri Compromise through the congressional sausage factory by stacking its committees with supporters and breaking the bill up into its component parts so that separate majorities could approve individual provisions of a bill that most found odious as a whole. When the House successfully passed the Missouri Compromise in March of 1820, Clay emerged triumphant as the “Great Compromiser.”

Three decades later, when the debate over slavery once again threatened to rip the country in two, Henry Clay engineered another uneasy compromise. Pro-slavery southerners, led by Democratic Party chieftains like John C. Calhoun, demanded that the vast southwestern land cessions won during the Mexican War be open to slavery’s extension. If northerners did not bend to these demands, southern Fire-Eaters threatened the slave South’s secession from the Union.

Now a Kentucky senator, Clay proposed maintaining the slave and free state balance of power by admitting California as a slave state while organizing the rest of the Mexican cession without restrictions on slavery. An additional measure, the Fugitive Slave Act, permitted southern slave catchers to enter northern free states – irrespective of those state’s laws forbidding slave-catching – and bring them back south. Once again breaking an unappetizing whole bill into slightly more palatable individual parts, Clay and fellow compromisers Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Stephen Douglas of Illinois helped pass the Compromise of 1850. The “Great Compromiser” had again averted secession and Civil War, at least for another decade.

Though Henry Clay’s famous bipartisan compromising over the slavery issue helped stave off bloodshed for decades, it also had the effect of empowering the radical conservative slaveholding elements in southern society by appeasing to their increasingly totalistic demands. In the name of the greater national good, Clay willingly put the moral issues regarding slavery on the historical back burner to be dealt with when sectional passions cooled. But they never did cool. Emboldened by decades of appeasement by the likes of Clay, radical pro-slavery Fire-Eaters’ demands for total recognition of the South’s right to maintain slavery heated up further until, following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, they took the South out of the Union and initiated a bloody Civil War.

The Tea Party: Trust me, even Henry Clay couldn't negotiate with these folks.

The Tea Party: Trust me, even Henry Clay couldn’t negotiate with these folks.

Contemporary political pundits who urge President Obama to compromise with radical conservative Republicans over Obamacare and the debt ceiling, such as the dunder-headed Ron Fournier of the National Journal, are oblivious to the fact that you cannot compromise with zealots who do not respect the traditional operations of the political system. Like the pro-slavery fanatics of the 19th century, today’s conservatives view compromise as a weakness. Like Henry Clay before them, in 2011 President Obama and the Democrats already compromised with the raging Tea Party menace over long-term governmental budgeting, and again like Clay, they only emboldened the conservative radicals to demand further concessions.

Now, I’m not arguing against the idea of compromise. Heck, the American political system was built for compromise, and to eschew the idea of bipartisan compromise altogether won’t cut it. The U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy, and will thus need to rely on the tradition of tried and true backroom deal making. But valuing compromise as inherently superior by virtue of its bipartisanship alone misses the forest for the big, slobbering troll that’s tearing trees out by the roots.

Obama cannot compromise with the GOP because the GOP doesn’t want compromise; they want total submission, and like their secessionist forebears, they’re willing to take the government hostage to achieve their goals. Pundits stricken by what columnist David Sirota termed “Obsessive Compulsive Bipartisanship Disease” are leaning far too heavily on the old Henry Clay model by complaining that if only the U.S. could compromise to resolve its own internal dysfunctions, it could sail off into the horizon of greatness.

To this day, Henry Clay is revered as a great American statesman, and, in many ways, he was just that. But his great weakness was mistaking fanaticism for a principled political stance, and that mistake ultimately plunged the nation into Civil War. President Obama can’t afford to follow Clay’s lead with the government shutdown, and pundits would do a great service to the nation by supporting the Democrats’ stance against Republican hostage-taking, even if doing so means becoming apostates from the Cult of Bipartisanship.

Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession

John C. Calhoun, with one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

John C. Calhoun, sporting one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.

Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:

The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.

Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:

“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.

Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.

Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander  Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:

He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.

Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.

An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.

Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.

No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.

This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.

Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.

Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.