A Message From A Renowned War Hawk To the “War Parties” of Today: Peace Out!

Unlike that eevil librul Stephen Colbert, I like books. And I especially like history books. Even better are personal memoirs and biographies. Google Books is one of my favorite tools, and that is where the volumes which comprise the the YIMCatholic Bookshelf (see link under the banner above) came from and are stored.

I shared a few weeks back that I’ve been reading about politics viewed from the perspective of Catholic thought. Last night, I came across a quote in John Courtney Murray, SJ’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, attributed to John C. Calhoun.

If your unfamiliar with Calhoun, or your U.S. History is kind of dusty, and cobwebs have formed in the corners, there is plenty of information about him that you can find with a few keystrokes. Here’s the quick and dirty on him: South Carolina native (born in 1782), Yale graduate, served in Congress as a representative 1811-1817; Secretary of War 1817-1825; Vice President of the U.S. 1825-1832; U.S. Senator for South Carolina 1832-1843; Secretary of State 1844-1845; back to the Senate 1845-1850; died in office. Renowned “warhawk”, slaver, etc., etc. Wikipedia can fill you in with all the rest , with copious footnotes, etc.

Say what you will about Calhoun, but “panty waist” is not a phrase you would use to describe him. Nor would “peace-lover,” or “dove.” That is, unless he spoke out against something that didn’t make any sense to War Party A and War Party B who are vying for power nowadays. I mean, have a look at this speech he made toward the end of his career.

This is from a speech to the Senate on January 4th, 1848, where Calhoun had the temerity, not to mention the wisdom, to argue against the conquest of Mexico. You may recall that the War with Mexico was where a lot of great and heroic Civil War soldiers cut their teeth, and gained experience, which was used later on in the American Civil War. Folks like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, etc.

Step into my time-machine and have a look at the Honorable Mr. Calhoun’s reason why we shouldn’t go on “nation-building” expeditions. The quote Fr. Murray used is in bold.

Senator Calhoun, taken in 1849, with his "game face" on.

“We make a great mistake in supposing all people capable of self-government. Acting under that impression, many are anxious to force free governments on all the people of this Continent, and over the world, if they had the power. It has been lately urged in a very respectable quarter, that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the globe, and especially over this Continent, even by force, if necessary. It is a sad delusion. None but a people advanced to a high state of moral and intellectual excellence are capable, in a civilized condition, of forming and maintaining free governments; and among those who are so far advanced, very few indeed have had the good fortune to form constitutions capable of endurance. It is a remarkable fact in the political history of man, that there is scarcely an instance of a free constitutional government, which has been the work exclusively of foresight and wisdom. They have all been the result of a fortunate combination of circumstances. It is a very difficult task to make a constitution worthy of being called so. This admirable Federal Constitution of ours, is the result of such a combination. It is superior to the wisdom of any or of all the men by whose agency it was made. The force of circumstances, and not foresight or wisdom, induced them to adopt many of its wisest provisions.

But of the few nations who have been so fortunate as to adopt a wise constitution, still fewer have had the wisdom long to preserve one. It is harder to preserve than to obtain liberty. After years of prosperity, the tenure by which It is held Is but too often forgotten; and I fear, Senators, that such is the case with us. There is no solicitude now for liberty. Who talks of liberty when any great question comes up? Here is a question of the first magnitude as to the conduct of this war; do you hear anybody talk about its effects upon our liberties and our free institutions? No, sir. That was not the case formerly. In the early stages of our government, the great anxiety was, how to preserve liberty. The great anxiety now is for the attainment of mere military glory. In the one we are forgetting the other. The maxim of former times was, that power is always stealing from the many to the few; the price of liberty was perpetual vigilance. They were constantly looking out and watching for danger. Not so now. Is it because there has been any decay of liberty among the people? Not at all. I believe the love of liberty was never more ardent, but they have forgotten the tenure of liberty, by which alone it is preserved.

“We think we may now indulge in everything with impunity, as if we held our charter of liberty by right divine—from Heaven itself. Under these impressions we plunge into war, we contract heavy debts, we increase the patronage of the Executive, and we talk of a crusade to force our institutions of liberty upon all people. There is no species of extravagance which our people imagine will endanger their liberty in any degree. Sir, the hour is approaching—the day of retribution will come. It will come as certainly as I am now addressing the Senate, and when it does come, awful will be the reckoning; heavy the responsibility somewhere.”

Wake up and smell the coffee, huh. History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. Nowadays, this poor guy would be marginalized immediately as a weak and worthless defeatist. An obvious dove, and self-evidently unfit for leadership.

G.K. Chesterton said it well when he reminds us of the following truth in his book (there I go again!) Orthodoxy,

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Or our forefathers. They that have ears, let them hear.

  • http://tonylayne.blogspot.com/ Anthony S. Layne

    Of course, the other side would discount him as a dead white slave-owner and therefore irrelevant. People will find any number of reasons to disregard inconvenient truths … if I can say that without being tagged as an “eevil librul”.

  • http://theworldlovesitsown.blogspot.com/ Patrick

    This was a very good post. Calhoun (along with Clay and Webster) is an unknown figure because very few people encounter him during their education unless they are history majors in college…… (primarily) in the South. White Pre-war southerners have been banished and tarred with the racist tag. Calhoun was a great man, albeit with faults, and was an heir of the great Jeffersonian tradition and was its standard bearer during the antebellum period. We must remember that the USA was a real Republic during that period and his generation were the children of those who fought in the Revolution. There were many good reasons not to invade Mexico and some bad ones (Mexicans were Catholics) but Calhoun understood that ‘empire-building’ and republicanism are incompatible. The Jefferson philosophy went into a steep decline following the civil war and it is ironic that Ron Paul is deemed an extremist for espousing it once more. Unfortunately, the empire building phase of our nation has been ongoing for 160 years ever since we crossed the Rio Grande.


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