In this unusual political year, there has been an effort by some in high places to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. But not all white contributions have been toward progress. This is the first in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In a poll of Trump supporters last year, 20 percemt said that the abolition of slavery was a mistake. In response to a comment made by then First Lady Michelle Obama on living in a White House built by slaves, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly stated, “Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodging provided by the government.”
More recently, on the night of Feb. 9, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked an obscure “gag” rule to prevent Senator Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King, a letter that described now Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a racist.
If John C. Calhoun could turn over in his grave, he would probably be smiling at the 21st century support for two of his favorite themes: the bright side of slavery and gag rules to stop discussion of racial oppression.
In 1836, then Senator Calhoun led the effort to impose a similar gag rule, to prevent all discussion of slavery in the United States Senate. As the historian William W. Freehling observes, “The gag rule was the Pearl Harbor of the slavery controversy.”
The Republican poll numbers on slavery and O’Reilly’s comment, along with McConnell’s gag order provide an eerie echo of Calhoun. During his long career, which saw him holding any number of top federal government posts, Calhoun led the way in defense of slavery, on to secession, civil war and the tortured racial legacy that has plagued this country ever since.
Dying in 1850, Calhoun did not live to see the bitter fruits of his efforts, but his greatest negative contributions were related to slavery. Under Calhoun’s direction, the South’s position shifted from slavery being a “necessary evil” to its being an absolute good. A good that, as in O’Reilly’s updated version, provided employment and housing to black people who would do work suited to their skills.
In Calhoun’s worldview, elites rule, democracy leads to mobocracy, and slaves are simply property, which no one has a right to tamper with. In contrast to people like Trump and his plutocratic appointees who belong to the elite because they are rich, Calhoun measured elite status not by dollars, but by breeding, education and the number of slaves that one owned.
In these views, he anticipated the Dred Scott decision that would come just years after his death and be issued by another member of this worst people’s list, Justice Roger Taney.
Calhoun was also the champion of nullification, the notion that states could nullify federal laws that they didn’t like. The nullification controversy was a way station on the path to civil war and the destruction of the South. But nullification didn’t die with the end of the Confederacy. Southern politicians used it well into the 20th century to block measures aimed at social justice for black people.
Gov. George Wallace of Alabama – another name on the list – used it to “interpose” himself against the “central government” to prevent black students from entering the University of Alabama.
And surprise, like happy slaves and gag rules, nullification is back as Trump and a feckless Republican Congress nullify Obama administration rules that kept mining companies from dumping waste in streams that supply drinking water, require oil companies to disclose crooked payments and keep mentally ill people from getting guns.
Calhoun was a 19th century reactionary and racist. In our 21st century reactionary age, it should come as no surprise to see updated versions of his ideology.
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