Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

The Reactionary Enlightenment

by LOUIS HARTZ

[From Western Political Quarterly V ( March 1952), 31-50. Reprinted by permission.]

The civilization of the pre-Civil War South is not without defense in contemporary American historiography. Much of this defense centers about the personality and political philosophy of John C. Calhoun. Opposing government by simple majority, Calhounproposed instead the theory of the concurrent minority, guaranteeing to large economic interests and geographic units a veto on the majority determination. By giving the minority a "concurrent voice in making and executing the laws or a veto in their execution," Calhounwould protect the "different interests, orders, classes, or portions" of the community.1

Historians differ widely in their views of Calhoun's political doctrine. Biographers sympathetic to him, like Margaret Coitand Charles M. Wiltse, see Calhounas both defending liberty and creating precedent for "all the shifting minorities of the future."2On the other hand, Richard Current3and Richard Hofstadter4see the principle of the concurrent minority as designed primarily for the protection of the interests of the slaveholders in the pre-Civil War South.

As for the civilization which Calhounwas striving to defend, Russell Kirkand Avery Cravenpeer beneath the blanket of slavery and find values in pre-Civil War society that they feel impelled to extol. In many respects their idealization of Southern agrarianism is reminiscent of the plea for tradition and provincialism represented in I'll Take My Stand,5in which, at the height of the industrial boom of the 1920's, a dozen Southerners, including the

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