Politics / February 2, 2024

The Party of Lincoln Is Really the Party of Calhoun

Nikki Haley and Greg Abbott echo the theorist of secession.

Jeet Heer
Charleston Removes John C. Calhoun Statue From City's Marion Square
A statue of John C. Calhoun is removed from the monument in his honor in Marion Square on June 24, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

Although former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is running to be president of the United States, she often seems to be auditioning for leadership of an entirely different polity: the long-defunct Confederate States of America. On Wednesday, Haley was interviewed for the radio show The Breakfast Club about the current standoff between Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Biden administration over immigration policy. Abbott has repeatedly indicated that he believes Texas has the right to reject federal law—even when compliance has been mandated by the Supreme Court. The Biden administration and the Supreme Court have both affirmed that federal Border Patrol officials trying to protect migrants at the Eagle Pass border crossing cannot be stopped by the Texas National Guard. Abbott’s position has won wide assent within the Republican Party, with 25 of 26 current Republican governors penning a letter supporting his position.

My Nation colleague Elie Mystal labeled Abbott’s revival of law-breaking states’ rights an act of “Civil War reenactment.” Vindicating Mystal’s analysis, Haley not only defended Abbott but affirmed the right of Texas to leave the union. Haley told the radio show, “If that whole state says, ‘We don’t want to be part of America anymore,’ I mean, that’s their decision to make.” The former governor did try to cover herself by adding, “Let’s talk about what’s reality. Texas isn’t going to secede.” This is not the first time Haley has affirmed secessionism. In 2010, as a gubernatorial candidate Haley was asked if states could leave the union. She responded, “I think that they do. I mean, the Constitution says that.”

Haley’s position is odd, since the issue of the indissolubility of the union was surely settled in 1865 by the Civil War. Nor was this merely a battlefield victory. In Texas v. White (1869), the Supreme Court put to bed all fantasies of constitutional secessionism by declaring the United States an “indestructible union.”

Given their party affiliations, this history should not be obscure to Haley, Abbott, nor the 25 GOP governors supporting Texas’s current defiance of the law. After all, the Republican Party was formed in 1854 by anti-slavery activists who flatly rejected the states’ rights arguments of enslavers.

But the current GOP is far from being the party of Abraham Lincoln. In its present intellectual orientation, the party more clearly owes a debt to Lincoln’s polar opposite, John C. Calhoun, the leading antebellum theorist of states’ rights.

Calhoun, who lived from 1782 to 1850 and served as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, was the most intellectually supple advocate of the slaveowners’ cause. Worried that slaveowners would one day be overpowered by popular opposition, he developed a novel constitutional theory of minority rights that gave primacy to states over the federal government. This extended to the right of states to reject—or nullify—laws they regarded as unconstitutional.

Writing in HuffPost, Paul Blumenthal notes that “Abbott’s declaration that that the Biden administration had ‘broken the compact between the United States and the States’ by failing to ‘fulfill the duties’ of protecting Texas from an ‘invasion’ is an eerie echo of the political thought that gave rise to nullification and secession in the 19th century and resistance to desegregation in the 20th.”

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Blumenthal rightly names Calhoun as the fountainhead of this tradition, noting that 19th-century statesman “embraced a virulent strand of states-rights legal thinking in defense of slavery when he put forward his theory of nullification in 1828. Since the nation was simply a compact created between the states, this thinking went, states had the ultimate authority to reject any federal law they deemed unconstitutional. In 1832, Calhoun’s South Carolina declared that it would not follow two national tariff laws, and, if forced to do so, would secede.”

The story of how the GOP went from being the party of Lincoln to the party of Calhoun dates back to the political realignment that occurred after the Second World War. At that point, the Republicans had a stronger tradition of supporting civil rights—a low bar to clear given the power of Southern white racists in the Democratic coalition. But as African American voters in the North migrated for economic reasons to the New Deal coalition, Democrats started to shift on civil rights, a change seen in Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1941 and Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order desegregating the military.

This shift by the Democrats created an opening for the rising conservative movement to encourage the Republicans to appeal to disaffected Southern whites. This nascent Southern strategy was championed by the conservative intellectuals at William F. Buckley’s National Review, created in 1955 in opposition to the more moderate conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower. For National Review right-wingers, one of Eisenhower’s major sins was sending federal troops to Little Rock to enforce civil rights law.

In a 2013 New Republic article, the journalist Sam Tanenhaus, who is working on a biography of William F. Buckley, noted that a revival of Calhoun’s ideas fueled many National Review writers, notably Russell Kirk and James J. Kilpatrick. Buttressed by Calhoun, National Review argued for nullification as a rationale for defying civil rights law. As Tanenhaus pointed out:

In his most notorious editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail” [1957], Buckley drew on Calhoun’s championing of “the concurrent voice” to defend voting restrictions since “ the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically,” even if it meant violating the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Buckley repeated the argument in his book Up From Liberalism (1959), suggesting that African Americans needed to be properly educated and trained before they were brought up to the level of the enfranchised whites who were holding them down.

Under Eisenhower, Calhounite arguments were marginal. But as the Southern strategy altered the GOP, the Calhoun tradition found a new lease on life in the Republican Party.

Tanenhaus focused on the traditionalist wing of conservatism. In her 2017 study Democracy in Chains, the historian Nancy Maclean extended the argument by documenting the influence of Calhoun on libertarian thinkers, notably the influential “public choice” economist James Buchanan.

Tanenhaus and Maclean were both virulently attacked for drawing attention to the Calhounite legacy on the right—an understandable response in an era when even Calhoun’s own alma mater was sufficiently ashamed of the association to strip his name from their buildings. Jonah Goldberg in National Review described Tanenhaus’s article as “Sam’s smear”—a risible allegation from someone who wrote a meretricious book arguing that American liberalism is fascist. Writing in The Baffler, historian Andrew Hartman noted, “In response to MacLean’s blunt criticism, several libertarian attack dogs have churned out dozens of essays and critiques—many prominently featured in The Washington Post‘s online policy vertical The Volokh Conspiracy—howling that MacLean is not only wrong, but perhaps even guilty of intellectual fraud, ideological bad faith, and other trespasses against proper academic inquiry.” Yet, as Hartman also notes, support for Maclean’s argument can be found in the research of libertarians themselves. Hartman amusingly called attention to a 1992 academic article by libertarian economists Alexander Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, titled “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun,” that emphasizes the affinities Maclean’s critics tried to deny.

Tanenhaus and Maclean have nothing to apologize for. They were writing history, and their research has been vindicated by history itself. Given the arguments Abbott and Haley now make, with near-total agreement from party leaders, can anyone still deny that Calhoun has actually been a formative influence on the American right?

Tanenhaus’s bracing words from 2013 ring even more true now than a decade ago: “We are left with the profound historical irony that the party of Lincoln—of the Gettysburg Address, with its reiteration of the Declaration’s assertion of equality and its vision of a ‘new birth of freedom’ —has found sustenance in Lincoln’s principal intellectual and moral antagonist. It has become the party of Calhoun.”

In 1948, the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described Calhoun as “the Marx of the Master Class.” This perhaps explains Calhoun’s enduring power. Just as Marx’s call for class war continues to resonate in a world of economic inequality, Calhoun’s defense of privilege has an eternal appeal for those who want to maintain racial hierarchy in defiance of popular resistance. Marx, of course, was a fierce partisan of Lincoln. The question is: As the GOP revives Calhoun, will the Democrats ever find a way to return to the truculent clarity of the Great Emancipator?

Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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