Calhoun U: “Safe Spaces,” Trigger Warnings, and Echoes of the Old South

By | 2016-12-13T20:47:05+00:00 December 13th, 2016|

No Small Irony Alert: The people who vandalized John C. Calhoun’s statue in Charleston, S.C., have more in common with the man than they may realize.


In his congressional career, John Quincy Adams famously fought the “gag rule.” The rule prohibited consideration of anti-slavery petitions by the House of Representatives. Any such petition, apparently, was an insult to the honor of Southern lawmakers—a “trigger,” as we might say in today’s lingo—so they tried to make the House a “safe space” for the adherents to the “peculiar institution.”

Like the gag rule of old, today’s rage for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” comes from a desire to cut off debate and to impose a particular way of life upon reluctant Americans. When defending the “positive good” of slavery John C. Calhoun declared that he was responding to “aggression,” by which he meant the mere criticism of slavery. Hmmm.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously said that men raised in a slave society are raised to be tyrants.

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

Today’s “snowflakes” or “cry bullies,” as some people are starting to call them, are obviously not raised to be slave masters or by slave masters. These “social justice warriors” do fancy themselves as masters of acceptable public opinion, however, and those who find themselves on the “wrong” side it—to say nothing of History!—should not expect any magnanimity from them. Yet these are young men and women. They are not really expressing well thought out opinions. Instead, it seems, they are playing the role assigned to them by their parents and teachers and engaging in “noble” protest against “hate.” Oy!

Yet this “acceptable” public opinion (that which is deemed “politically correct”) that our Socially Unjust Worriers are trying to impose reflects a narrow and elite point of view. It is no coincidence, then, that many of the marquee incidents of the latest phase of political correctness have taken place on elite campuses, such as Yale, Emory, the University of Chicago, and Oberlin. Today’s “organization kids” with “helicopter parents” have been raised to understand that signaling their virtue is the way to end an argument and get their way. And as elite high schools grow more politically correct, they’re more certain than ever that “social justice” demands that those who deviate from the accepted standard should just “STFU” (to borrow their ever so temperate lingo). Indeed, they believe that justice can only be secure when no one expresses a contrary point of view. How else can one explain the persistence of contrary points of view?

The possibility that the nature of justice is open to debate is beyond the pale. And that might the true source of the rage we see on campus, and across the Left after the election. Their god is failing. If history is the record of human nature in action, rather than a record of sins to be overcome, then the life dedicated to moving humanity “forward” is a mistake, for it cannot be done. Rather than allow that possibility to be raised, all opposition must be silenced.

That logic is not so different from that used by those who advanced the gag rule in Antebellum America and sustained it for several years. Adams’ actions and speeches against what he called the “slave power” were clearly “micro-aggressions.” In high dudgeon, Adams easily manipulated (or “trolled,” as we might say) the Democrats into moving to censure him for violating House rules. (In class, I compare Adams to Obi Wan Kenobi: “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” The unhinged Southern response to Adams helped to strengthen the anti-slavery cause in the North. In other words, Adams helped to make Lincoln possible). Again, to borrow from today’s lingo, Adams demonstrated how the “hate speech” charge was really an excuse for petty tyrants to stifle free and open debate, even in the people’s House—an outrage against the Constitution and democratic-republicanism.

All the major Founders—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, John Marshall, among others—recognized that slavery was wrong, and that the United States would have to abolish it at some point in order to live up to its founding principles. They also realized that any precipitous movement to that end at that time could break the republic apart, so they went slowly. Their view was not so far from that of Martin Luther King, that the principles of 1776, enshrined in the Declaration were a “promissory note.” When John Randolph of Roanoke died in 1833, he became the last great American statesman to free his slaves in his will. Four years later, when Calhoun—one of the pre-eminent American statesmen of his day—defended the “positive good of slavery” he was staking out new ground in American political discourse, at least among major figures. He, of course, denied he was doing any such thing.

In February 1837, when Calhoun defended the “Positive Good of Slavery,” he felt that he was under siege. Almost at the start he notes, “I do not belong to the school which holds that aggression is to be met by concession. Mine is the opposite creed.” What were these “aggressions?” Americans had the temerity to criticize slavery, and to express that opinion in petitions to the House. Heavens! It gave slave masters like Calhoun the vapors.

Keep in mind that when Calhoun wrote in 1837, the “aggression” was mostly one of moral and intellectual opinion. Several months after Calhoun’s speech, a mob even lynched Elisha Lovejoy for the crime of daring to criticize slavery as a wrong. Two decades later, Preston Brooks “triggered” by a “hate speech” delivered by Senator Charles Sumner, entered the Senate chamber and beat the thought criminal to a bloody pulp with the head of his cane. Though Brooks was censured for his violence, supporters sent him an abundance of new canes and asked in return for bits of the weapon used in the assault as if it were a holy relic.

Is this spirit really so different from the one that seeks to drive out of business a family-owned pizza parlor for the “crime” of refusing to cater for a hypothetical same-sex wedding (and forces said family into hiding)? Is it different from the spirit that forced into bankruptcy a florist who refused to sell flowers to yet another such wedding?

And now, after Donald Trump won the presidency, Californians are ginning up a petition to secede from the union. Dixie lives!

On this last matter, I wonder if there might be an analogy to South Carolina’s reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Recall that the state seceded months before Lincoln’s inauguration. Why? What could Lincoln have done? His election marked the end of their monopoly on the political discourse in the South. On campus, Trump’s win might signal an end to many taboos on thought and speech that SJWs had assumed were now ready to grow cultural roots.

Further, in 2016, no Republican candidate for U.S. Senate appeared on the ballot in the Golden State (according to the state’s rules, the top-two vote-getters in the primary are on the general election ballot, and two Democrats were the top-two candidates in the primary). Similarly, Lincoln’s name was not on the ballot in the South. President Lincoln would have been able to take steps to change that in the 1864 election, and with the anti-slavery Republicans (“Black Republicans,” the Democrats called them) making inroads, perhaps the South would become, in time, a bit less solidly Democrat. Might something similar be said of California in relation to Trump today?

Suppose, for example, President Trump proposes as part of his $1 trillion infrastructure effort to build a dam or two in California? It would provide zero-emissions energy, better water management (which the state desperately needs), and jobs, presumably in the less wealthy parts of the state. And the Gaia-worshiping Green element of the state Democratic Party would have to oppose it. Yet Trump could, in fact, use bills like that to bring “minority” voters into the Republican camp. He could also end the ways the Democrats used government to fund left-wing activists, just as Lincoln could have ended the Southern censorship of the U.S. mail.

In short, the spirit that animates the hard core Left, and more and more holds the heart of the Democratic Party, is a postmodern recrudescence of the spirit of the old South—from trying to silence opposition, demanding the government endorse their political views and censor other views, and having a conniption when they lose.

Trump, of course, is no Lincoln. But if we are lucky (and we might or might not be), perhaps he can be, as Decius says, a “blocker” to help the American people turn back toward liberty and equality, rightly understood.

About the Author:

Richard Samuelson
Richard Samuelson is an Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino, and a fellow of the Claremont Institute.
  • CaptSmith415

    Thank you for citing noted abolitionist, Thomas Jefferson.

  • Epaminondas

    Samuelson, you know next to nothing about John C. Calhoun. You have rummaged about in the attic of American history, found a few historical garments, and then you’ve come traipsing downstairs in your ill-fitting moral costume, self-preening in front of a mirror that actually shows you up to be a monkey. Southern historians are getting a huge guffaw from this nonsense.

  • Jeff_Georgia

    “Trump, of course, is no Lincoln.”

    Before he was inaugurated, who on Earth knew Lincoln was Lincoln?

    Mr. Samuelson, like every other person on Earth has no idea what Trump will turn out to be.

  • I get a little tired of slavery-dumping on the South. In reality. slavery was legal in ALL the states and if cotton would grow north of the Ohio River there would have been no civil war, California would have been a slave state and slavery would have continued until mechanized farming made it obsolete. More than likely, descendants of slaves would have been better off than they are now and no one would have ever heard of Abraham Lincoln.