Time's Comic Book History

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Time magazine recently took a break from advocating the nationalization of health care, a massive enlargement of the welfare state, and swooning over Barack Obama (who’s been on the cover seven times to date this year) to compile a list of America’s worst vice presidents. It’s mostly politically-correct baloney with just enough facts to make it appear legitimate to the uneducated reader. One entry in particular — the one for John C. Calhoun as the third-worst vice president (Aaron Burr was the worst, followed by Elbridge Gerry) — caught my eye because almost every single sentence in it is untrue.

The Calhoun entry was written by one Tiffany Sharples. I wondered what kind of background Tiffany has that would have led a Time editor to give her the assignment of educating Americans on their vice presidential history. A Google search revealed that she’s a "political and health" reporter for the Medill News Service out of Chicago. There’s a listing of many of her articles on the Web, the most interesting of which (to me, anyway) is "Drink Pink! Forget Cosmos and Appletinis, Watermelon is This Season’s Hot Cocktail of Choice."

The first falsehood in Tiffany’s Calhoun entry is her statement that President John Quincy Adams, under whom Calhoun served as vice president, was "a Northern abolitionist." Not true. All of John Quincy Adams’s biographers write that he was never an abolitionist per se, even though he made anti-slavery statements. Anti-slavery rhetoric alone did not make one an abolitionist in the nineteenth century. Robert E. Lee called slavery "a moral and political evil," but no Time magazine writer would conclude that he was therefore a closet abolitionist.

Adams himself explained why he was not an abolitionist: He felt "bonded" by the Constitution, and its implicit protection of slavery. (Yes, that’s right, slavery existed and was protected by the U.S. flag more than twenty times longer (about 90 years) than it was by the Confederate flag). As a diplomat John Quincy Adams supported slave-owners who sought to capture their runaway slaves in foreign countries. He also opposed allowing the British Navy to board American ships suspected of violating the prohibition of the international slave trade (the law of the land in the U.S. as of 1808).

An even bigger falsehood in Time’s entry for John C. Calhoun is one in which he is denounced for being an "arch Nullifier." Tiffany and her Time editors claim that the principle of nullification was "rejected by Northerners and Southerners alike."

First of all, the principle of nullification is associated with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798, which were designed to allow states to refuse to assist in the enforcement of the totalitarian Sedition Act, which made criticism of the government illegal. At the time the Act was being enforced by John Quincy Adams’s father, President John Adams. Calhoun did not invent the idea of nullification in order to defend slavery, as Time (and the entire Lincoln Cult, for that matter) falsely contends.

As Jefferson wrote on November 10, 1798: "Resolved, that the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principles of unlimited submission to their General Government; but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States and of amendments thereto, they constituted a General Government for special purposes, delegated to that Government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self Government; and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force . . ." (See William J. Watkins, Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy).

When Calhoun advanced this principle to assist South Carolinians in nullifying the 1828 "Tariff of Abominations" he was merely carrying on the Jeffersonian tradition. And of course the nullification of the tariff had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery. It was an effort to defend against an early scheme by Northern Yankees to use the powers of the state to financially plunder their fellow citizens in the Southern states.

Moreover, there was no federal law during Calhoun’s time (he died in 1850) that was threatening slavery, and was therefore in need of nullifying by slave-owners. The silly, comic book implication of this claim is that heroic champions of morality and racial equality in the Northern states (where slavery existed in some places until the late 1850s) were threatening to end Southern slavery by legislation. This never happened, despite the fact that this lie has been repeated by Lincoln cultists like Harry Jaffa for decades. Indeed, as I write in my book, Lincoln Unmasked, the famous Massachusetts abolitionist Lysander Spooner excoriated the Lincoln administration, especially Secretary of State William Seward, for failing to seek legal and constitutional means to end slavery, as all the other nations of the earth where slavery existed had done during the nineteenth century. (Spooner had written a roadmap for the peaceful abolition of slavery in his book, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery).

It is also untrue that nullification was rejected by Northerners and Southerners alike, as Time claims. Up until 1861 many Northern states utilized this important principle as a means of restraining the tyrannical impulses of the central state. In the 1830s, for instance, the Ohio legislature assisted President Andrew Jackson in opposing the first central Bank, the Bank of the United States, by imposing enormous taxes on the branches of the Bank ($50,000 per year on each branch) that had opened up in the state, and issuing a resolution that "the States have an equal right to interpret the Constitution for themselves," and declared the Bank to be unconstitutional. Connecticut, New York and New Hampshire did the same thing, literally quoting Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolve of 1798. Some Northern states also nullified the federal Fugitive Slave Act which forced Northerners to hunt down runaway slaves and return them to their owners.

The statements that Time magazine makes about nullification in particular, and about John C. Calhoun in general, are pure hokum.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book, Hamilton’s Curse, will be published on October 21.

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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