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Can “One of the Most Brilliant Essays on Political Philosophy Ever Written” Save America?

In an essay entitled “A Strategy of the Right” Murray Rothbard called John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government “one of the most brilliant essays on political philosophy ever written.”  Rothbard considered Calhoun’s Disquisition to be a brilliant analysis of how the American political system could evolve into tyranny and how to stop that from happening –essential knowledge for today’s Americans who want to stop their country’s plunge into “woke” totalitarianism.Just in time, Clyde Wilson has published a new book on Calhoun, his life, and his ideas:  Calhoun:  A Statesman for the 21st Century.

A case can be made that the Disquisition is superior to anything the founding fathers wrote since Calhoun was deeply educated in those ideas with the advantage of living another quarter to a half century longer than the founders and observed how their ideas played out in reality.  Wilson calls the book Calhoun’s “bequest to posterity” that predicted the “tendency of the United States toward a regime of bankers and imperial overreach.”  Has there ever been a more accurate political prediction?

When I wrote on this Web site some years ago that “the purpose of government is for those who run it to plunder those who do not,” I was probably inspired to do so, without realizing it at the time, by reading at some point of my career such passages from Calhoun’s  as this one, quoted by Wilson:  “[T]he powers vested in [government agents] to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community.”  This type of oppression came to a head during Donald Trump’s inaugural address where he said, surrounded by the entire Washington establishment, that they had done very, very well for themselves through government, but at the expense of the people – especially the tens of millions who had voted for him.  That was the spark that ignited the never-ending orgy of hatred, conspiracy, defamation, and government thuggery aimed at Trump, his family, and his advisors and supporters.  Such talk is never supposed to take place, especially during an inauguration ceremony.

Calhoun came from a family of what libertarians would call homesteaders.  They settled in the South Carolina upcountry before the Revolution and, like the residents of all the other colonies, considered their state to be sovereign and independent, every bit as sovereign and independent as Spain, France, or England.  The American Revolution, writes Wilson, was not a revolution against society but “the action of the existing societies of the 13 colonies to preserve themselves against the interference of a distant government.”  He quotes Madison as pointing out that the Constitution drew its authority “only” from the ratification by the states, which were sovereign, and that ratification “could be revoked [by any state] when its purpose was perverted.”  Unless of course you buy into Lincoln’s historically false theory that “the consent of the governed is something that can only be used once, like a bus ticket.”  This was the position of Lincoln, says Wilson, and of “all who have followed after him.”  Murray Rothbard once mocked this theory of the founding as the creation of a “one-way venus flytrap” from which there could never be any escape.  The founders would hardly have fought a bloody revolution against such a system and then turned around and created the exact same thing, but that was Lincoln’s theory that he used to “justifiy” waging total war for four years on his own country.

The result of Lincoln’s nationalist revolution is that “today the United States is a “regime of Bankers, Bombers, and Busybodies.  All three are deadly enemies to the preservation of building of any civilized community . . .”, writes Wilson.  Millions of Americans “assume it is their right to force other people to obey their notions of doing good” – or else.  Elsewhere Wilson has referred to this phenomenon as “the Yankee problem in America” and points to Hillary Clinton as a “museum-quality specimen of a Yankee.”  Calhoun warned against such folly by reminding his readers that the government is NOT “us,” the opposite of what American school children have been taught in the government-run schools for generations.

To Calhoun, almost all political and policy issues referred back to the divide between Hamilton, the advocate of centralization, empire, government patronage, protectionism, tax-funded corporate welfare, and a government-run banking monopoly, and Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” that rejected all of that.

The uneducated have smeared Calhoun for supporting a tariff increase early in his career and then opposing the hated Tariff of Abominations of 1828.  Wilson—the editor of The Collected Works of John C. Calhoun —  explains that what motivated Calhoun to support the earlier tariff increase was his desire to hold the union together.  New England was disproportionately harmed economically by the trade embargo enforced by Jefferson and Madison (as an alternative to another war with England), and threatened secession over it.  Calhoun’s support of the tariff was aimed at quelling such sentiments for the sake of keeping the union together.

The uneducated also smear Calhoun for his role in advancing the Jeffersonian policy of nullification of the Tariff of Abominations.  They usually lie about his by claiming that Calhoun invented the idea when in fact the colonists employed the tactic even before the famous Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, authored by Jefferson and Madison, that nullified the attacks on free speech by the Federalists’ Sedition Act.  (Shortly after the ink was dry on the First Amendment the Adams administration abolished free political speech with its Sedition Act, which thankfully ended when Jefferson became president).

To Calhoun, as Wilson explains, nullification was an alternative to secession.  Once again Calhoun’s motivation was to preserve the union, not destroy it as Lincoln did.  The uneducated Lincoln cultists who revel in libeling Calhoun have their American history completely backwards.

Wilson’s description of Calhoun reminds yours truly of our own Ron Paul.  As Wilson writes:  “There was always a considerable segment of the intelligent public, in the North as well as the South, who listened to Calhoun with attention at any juncture.”  And, “he never had the services of a political organization of any size or effectiveness . . . .  His influence was intellectual and ethical.”  He “always sought to persuade, never merely to posture or impress.”

In diametrical opposition to the Hamilton/Clay/Lincoln crusade for centralized governmental power, corporate welfare, protectionism, heavy debt, and a national bank, Calhoun enunciated his policy preferences as “Free Trade: Low Duties: No Debt: Separation from Banks: Economy: Retrenchment: and Strict Adherence to the Constitution.”  No wonder the government establishment hates and despises Calhoun to this day with  Trump-caliber hatred, toppling his statues and attempting to eradicate any evidence of his existence in American history.  The same goes for the South in general, Wilson reminds us, for “The conservative regime of the South has often been the chief obstacle to the bourgeois conservatism of the business classes.  The latter needed a strong national government for protected markets, credit expansion, infrastructure expenditures, and much else.”  I would add that the South was also the only region of the country that ever tested the proposition that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.  Whey they withdrew their consent, Lincoln waged a total war on them that killed at least one-fourth of the adult male population and maimed for life more than double that number.

Wilson points out that quite a few contemporary libertarians such as Condy Raguet supported Calhoun and “agreed that the South was a necessary restraint to acquisitive mercantilism and . . . Puritan mania” that was so pervasive in parts of New England.  Moreover, Calhoun described what sounds similar to the Austrian business cycle theory in his warnings about central banking.  As Wilson describes his views:  “The banks were lending far out of proportion to their specie reserves, thus creating what would later be called the business cycle – boom followed by bust.”  (Just as Ron Paul was warning of a real estate bubble as early as 2003, Calhoun “accurately predicted the panic of 1837 three years in advance”).

Calhoun, like Jefferson, fiercely opposed the ideas and policies of John Adams. He advocated a “wise and masterly inactivity” of government!  Adams (and all of his successors, down to today’s “neoconservatives”) believed that the purpose of the U.S. government should be “the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth” (emphasis added).  Here we have the original neocon enunciating the notion that eventually came to be known as “American exceptionalism” as a “justification” for aggressive imperialism.

In the imperialistic, empire-building spirit of the likes of Hamilton and Adams, President James Polk instigated a war with Mexico, setting the template for, as Wilson explains:  Fort Sumter, “Remember the Maine,” Pearl Harbour, the Gulf of Tonkin, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and many other similar diabolical lies designed to instigate wars of conquest.

The “neocons” of Calhoun’s day were little different from the ones who plague America and the world today with their faux “nation building” expeditions, always christened (so they think) with the rhetoric of their holy “Father Abraham.” Calhoun never fell for it.  In his words:  “I must say I am at a loss to see how a free and independent republic can be established in Mexico under the protection and authority of its conquerers.  I can readily understand how an aristocracy or a despotic government might be, but how a free republican government can be so established under such circumstances, is to me incomprehensible.”  It is a “sad delusion,” Calhoun wrote, to believe that “it is the mission of our country to spread civil and religious liberty all over the globe . . . even by force, if necessary.”  Sound familiar?

Clyde Wilson’s new book on Calhoun also explains the truth about what Calhoun actually said about slavery as opposed to the “cartoon version of history,” as Wilson describes the writings of such people as the late Harry Jaffa and his fellow Claremont Institute Lincoln cultists.  If I were to put together a list of “Best Books of 2022” it would rank a close second to my own The Politically Incorrect Guide to Economics!