Freedom of Thought in the Old South

By Clement Eaton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI THE Calhoun INFLUENCE

IN THE DFCLINE of Jeffersonian liberalism, the agitation of sectional politicians was a potent and insidious instrument. This imponderable force might well be called "the Calhoun influence," since Calhoun was the greatest and the most articulate of the Southern politicians who agitated the slavery issue. His figure looms above his contemporaries in the ante-bellum South and raises the question whether his magnetic leadership was responsible for a new orientation, of Southern thought. The answer to this riddle involves "the great man theory" of history, the assumption that the personality of some great leader gives character and direction to his period. If any individual in the land of Dixie played the role of "the great man" it was Calhoun. Did he lead the South astray, or was his influence on the destinies of his section negligible as compared with the dominant economic trends and intellectual currents of his day?

Calhoun was the South's most profound political theorist since the time of Jefferson. But his political theory was only a logical statement of the status quo in the South Carolina of his day. The mighty authority of the dead Greek philosopher, Aristotle, happened to harmonize with and justify such a political state as he saw before his eyes. Thus Aristotle took a place in his trinity of the Constitution, the Bible, and Aristotle -- all agreeing with the infallible mind of Calhoun. Boldly he discarded those elements of Jeffersonian liberalism that did not suit the new trends in Southern life. Vernon Parrington has called him a realist, because he frankly recognized that men are unequal, that liberty is the reward of capacity and not the birthright of all, and that the natural rights philosophy is largely a dream. In place of the contract theory of government, which had exalted the individual, he taught that govSenator Dixon H. Lewis of Alabama Silhouette by William H. Brown

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