Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer, President of the Institute for Liberty

Politics, a process of using rhetoric to maneuver and influence in order to either induce policy change or maintain the status quo, has been compared to many things–war, football, chess.  And like these comparatives, one side or another can outmaneuver the other (or, in turn, be outmaneuvered).

So it is with today’s subject, again former Vice-President John C. Calhoun, on the issue of slavery and Oregon’s acceptance as a newly-created territory.  Calhoun, now back in the US Senate, was Secretary of State when the treaty underlying Oregon’s possibility as a US Territory was negotiated with the British, (avoiding a third war with Great Britain), is laying out, once again, his case for the maintenance of the South’s peculiar institution, this time on the nation’s most-western frontier.

In this speech, which contextually sits a decade after his speech preaching that slavery was a “moral good,” but a decade before the start of the Civil War, Calhoun–who, by all regards, was an intellectual giant for his day, shows that even those most brilliant of politicians can be outmaneuvered by his own rhetoric.  Unwittingly, Calhoun, one of the fiercest defenders of constitutional principles, opens the door for the elitist and anti-individualist rhetoric and philosophies underlying today’s most-liberal progressive statists–and in defending the rights of southern states, he unwittingly endorses the very centralized powers that led to the Civil War, and which America grapples with to this very day.

After a great deal of rhetorical flourish through his commentary on the varying stations of life of men (rhetoric eerily similar to the off-hand statements we hear today with regards to the immigration debate), Calhoun launches into one of most-distressing and intellectually-disappointing arguments from one of the most notable figures in the history of the United States:  an attack on the opening statements of the Declaration of Independence–specifically, Jefferson’s pronouncement of the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal”.

Calhoun disagrees–he had started with the corollary that “all men are born free and equal”, claiming that this was false because “men are not born. Infants are born.”  And since infants are dependent upon their parents, they are not free, etc.

For a man of a keen intellect, the only word that could be applied to this narrow interpretation is, “childish”.  It is an interpretation of our founding documents that is unworthy of a man of Calhoun’s stature–and were it to be offered by any politician today, it would be considered laughable.

Calhoun attempts to further justify his narrow interpretation of the phrases in the Declaration by taking issue with Locke’s posit that all men are, in a state of nature, free and equal.  Locke subscribed to what some scholars call the “single, solitary man” view of the bundle of rights:  that a hypothetical man, existing alone in a state of nature, retains all measure of the rights to which the creator endowed, and he is free to exercise those rights in any manner.

It is when that single, solitary man interacts with another man that the exercise of those rights comes into conflict… and it is the intersection of those exercises of rights out of which all just law is born.

But rather than focus on just law, and the necessity of government to facilitate the protection of individual rights, Calhoun takes us down a very dangerous path:  that man is required to be governed.  That the degree of that governance required is directly related to the heightened state of that man.  In other words, the more civilized, rich, and educated the man, the less governance is needed.  Conversely, the less educated, crude, and poor the man, the more governance is needed.  He says, quite plainly, that “individual liberty, or freedom, must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy within or destruction without; for the safety and well-being of society is as paramount to individual liberty.” (emphasis added).

Though Calhoun died a decade before the Civil War, one can only imagine how horrified he might have been had Abraham Lincoln recited these phrasings back to Calhoun as the justification for a greater centralization in federal power as a response to the decision by southern states to rebel.  Certainly, if individual liberties must be subordinate to these powers, the rights of those states must be subordinate as well.

This watering down of the concept of individual liberty, the subornation of the individual to the state, this belief that intellectual elites can better govern those without economic or academic advantages… these are the hallmarks of the modern left.  And just as the use of these arguments to perpetuate literal enslavement in the 19th Century were wholly without merit, their use to justify economic, entitlement, or regulatory enslavement in the 21st Century are without merit as well.

Read Sen. John C. Calhoun’s Speech on the Oregon Bill here:

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, and host of The Broadside, a weekly internet radio show, which can be found on

Monday, April 22, 2013 – Essay #46 



1 reply
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    I thought that the progressive, elitist viewpoint in our Country took root in the early 20th Century with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but apparently it was much earlier. And it wasn’t just Calhoun. History is repeating itself, or should I say continuing..


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