One of the people I spent the most time discussing in my book on the history of the American political debate, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came To Be, was a man named John C. Calhoun. I went so far as to call him the founder of modern conservatism, and the events of this year, including Joe Wilson's offensive outburst on the floor of Congress, Wednesday night, have added strong evidence to my argument.
Although discussions about the relative power of the states and the federal government had been around since the days of the Articles of Confederation in the 1780s, Calhoun was the South Carolina politician who fused a particularly extreme view of states' rights with a patriarchal and violent conservatism. Calhoun argued that states could come and go into and out of the Union, whenever they wanted to; that they could secede from the Union at any time and for any reason; and that even if they stayed in the Union they could nullify any law they wanted, again at any time and for any reason.
He was also violently opposed to the idea of democracy itself, say that they growing population of the North had no power whatsoever over slavery or any other thing the southern states chose to do, and in fact believed that the Bill or Rights only applied to what the federal government couldn't do--that the states were free to eliminate freedom of speech and religion and other civil liberties. (In fact, most southern states had done exactly that by the time of the Civil War.)
Calhoun was ready to start a Civil War in 1832, when he and Andrew Jackson disagreed over a policy that would hurt Calhoun's beloved plantation economy. He resigned as Jackson's vice president, and encouraged the state to secede and raise an army right then and there. It was a protégé of Calhoun who beat abolitionist Charles Sumner almost to death with a cane on the floor of the Senate in 1856, and protégés of Calhoun who led South Carolina to be the first state to secede from the Union in 1861 after Lincoln's election, and be the first state to fire on Union soldiers at Ft. Sumter.
Calhoun's states' rights theories were used to justify Jim Crow in the South and oppose integration after the Civil War all the way into the 1960s. Today, we are seeing Calhoun Conservatism spreading throughout the Republican party and the right wing movement. Joe Wilson's thuggishness on Wednesday night and the conservative movement's embrace of his action yesterday are just the latest examples. Some highlights from the last year:
• John McCain picks a vice presidential candidate whose husband was a seven-year member of a far right secessionist party with ties to the racist, neo-confederacy movement. Palin had gone to at least one of the party's conventions herself, and had done a warm welcoming video for their most recent convention, telling them she shared their values.
• Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested that Texas might have to consider seceding from the United States.
• One of the congressional sponsors of a right wing rally on the Capitol steps, the "9/12 movement," which will be attended by Wilson and several other Republican members of Congress, is an organization advocating secession and the violent overthrow the United States. See this remarkable clip of Rachel Maddow talking about this group:
• Just yesterday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a likely Republican presidential candidate, said he would consider asserting "state sovereignty" to keep Minnesota from participating in a health reform passed by Congress. (State sovereignty is what Calhoun used to call the right for state to nullify and generally ignore Federal laws.)
Maybe you thought the victory of the Union at Appomattox settled these kinds of issues for good. Or the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Or the defeat of Jim Crow in the South in the 1960s. Not so much. Conservative Republicans, birthers, militiamen toting their assault weapons to town halls, Congressmen screaming insults at the top their lungs during a Presidential speech--they are united in wanting to refight the battles of the Civil War all over again, perhaps literally. These people are extremist to the core, and progressives have had to defeat their crazy political theories again and again in American history. But, hey, I guess we can be thankful for some things--at least Joe Wilson didn't try to cane anybody Wednesday night.