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The Giants of American Conservatism
A thoughtful discussion of the men who contributed the most to what is now the dominant political pattern
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
The conventions of the 1820’s were the last and most outspoken stand of genuine, antidemocratic conservatism as a major force in the life of the whole nation. The blunt language of the old-fashioned republicans was not to be heard again in public debate. While Kent wailed and Randolph sputtered, Story held fast on a Court “gone mad” and Marshall was gathered still unyielding to his fathers, the “practical” men of the Right, even such as Daniel Webster, were already moving toward a new political faith. There was little place for a hard-bitten, plain-spoken Federalist in a land where farms, factories, railroads, and states were sprouting all over the map, and where the new voters, all of them real or potential capitalists, were proving themselves something other than European canaille. Democracy had become, thanks to its breath-taking yet peaceful surge to victory, the national religion, and conservatism, except in the South, was in demoralized rout. The swift passage of the Right from the old Federalism of 1820, when Story talked about the rich helping the poor and the poor administering to the rich, to the new Whiggery of 1840, when birth in a log cabin was the test of political virtue, is evidence enough of the fullness and abruptness of the sweep of democracy across the American mind.
It was Webster who made perhaps the most honorable peace, at least intellectually, with the victorious democracy; it is Webster, therefore, who stands out from other conservatives of his time as the most promising candidate for election to the conservative hall of fame. His political philosophy, which he expressed most powerfully in the great speech at Plymouth, December 22, 1820, looked to a “property-owner’s democracy,” a formula for liberty that is still dear to conservative hearts. His political actions were aimed consistently at preserving the Republic inherited from the fathers: “I go for the Constitution as it is, and for the Union as it is.” For his words and deeds Webster is well remembered by thoughtful conservatives.
His character, too, is worth remembering, not because it was replete with those virtues the conservative cherishes, which it certainly was not, but because it was such an astonishing mixture of strength and weakness. While we cherish Webster the matchless orator, brilliant lawyer, and fervent patriot, we must not ignore the other Webster, the man whose hunger for cash, thirst for whiskey, and all-around appetite for the White House could never be satisfied here on earth. Webster’s life is a vivid reminder that a man may be heroic in his very faults and still be a hero. This nation would be the poorer had he not replied to Hayne.
Southern conservatism in the Nineteenth Century found its most able spokesman in John C. Calhoun. There are those who deny that Calhoun was a conservative, some insisting that he was committed more deeply than he realized to Jeffersonian democracy, others that he was “the Marx of the master class,” still others that he was little better than a fabulous reactionary. Actually, these people are saying only that he was an heir of the constitutional tradition, or that he was more realistic than most Americans about the facts of class warfare, or that he sought to prevent the agrarian South from going the way of the industrial North. None of these charges removes him unequivocally from the conservative ranks.
Calhoun was first of all a man who cherished a way of life and strove ably and sincerely to save it from ruin. More than this, he was perhaps America’s most original and imaginative political thinker, and his Disquisition on Government, in which he sought to demolish the very foundations of Jeffersonian democracy, remains an immensely useful if tricky tool of conservative rhetoric. Especially significant was his doctrine of the “concurrent majority,” the doctrine that each minority must have the power to defend itself against public policy determined by mere weight of numbers. The conservative’s concept of unity is of unity that arises out of meaningful diversity, and in proclaiming this doctrine Calhoun faced squarely, as few Americans have, the problem of protecting the many small interests against the relentless pressure of the general interest.
That his own interest was especially repugnant to the democratic tradition should not blind us to the broader significance of his intellectual achievement. The concurrent majority lives on in a dozen techniques and arrangements in our political and social systems. Southern conservatives may yet be persuaded to recognize that Calhoun rather than Jefferson is their political and intellectual hero.
From John C. Calhoun to Abraham Lincoln is a long leap, but the leap should not be impossible for those who are careful to distinguish between Calhoun’s purposes, which must now seem repellent to most Americans, and his principles, which have never seemed more relevant. Lincoln is even less the property of any one group than Washington; indeed, there was something about him, perhaps the quality of pure charity that transcends politics and political theory, that makes it almost an act of impiety to pin any sort of label upon him.