Excerpt- Genovese on Democracy and Natural Rights in the Antebellum South

The following is from Eugene Genovese’s 1994 book The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism, pp. 51-53. Genovese reviews prevalent opinions on democracy and republicanism among antebellum Southern thinkers. It highlights the assertion I have made that the South became generally more Rightist between the time of Jefferson and secession, slowly waking up to the fact that joining the Union in 1789 had been a mistake and dealing with the resultant dissonance holding the opposing views caused in the meantime. Highlighted passages bolded by me.

From Jefferson’s presidency to Jackson’s and on to secession, disillusionment with democracy and universal manhood suffrage rose steadily among conservatives both North and South. Electoral realities forced dissidents to restrict themselves to private or only semipublic expression, but the antidemocratic undercurrent nonetheless built steadily. G. W. Featherstonhaugh reported Calhoun as saying that the federal government worked well until northern demagogues set universal suffrage and other political contrivances in motion. In the 1850s, James Stirling found that “most intelligent Americans I have met [agree] that the plague of this country is her universal suffrage.” Yet he noted that southerners especially mix up practical questions with speculations on the principles of society. Southern principles “smack strongly of the old aristocratic leaven; and though in public politics republican equality is grudgingly admitted, in private the Southerner expresses unmeasured disdain for his Yankee brethren.”

Old Jeffersonians like Thomas Cooper and William Branch Giles joined prominent old Federalists and Whigs in the backlash. Cooper, who had been a radical in Britain and then been convicted for violation of the Alien and Sedition Acts, gave up on universal suffrage before he arrived in South Carolina. Giles, speaking at Virginia’s constitutional convention in 1829-1830, denounced universal suffrage as the gateway to demoralization and corruption. Among the Whigs, George Badger of North Carolina restrained himself in public but privately expressed disgust and contempt for “modern democracy.” A steadily growing number of prominent southerners was declaring democracy itself a failure. Even John Taylor had assailed direct democracy: “Turbulence, instability, injustice, suspicion, ingratitude, and excess of gratitude, are among the evil moral qualities, which this form of government has a tendency to excite.” He supported frequent elections because he thought they would limit democracy through the imposition of republican checks.

Calhoun pulled the threads together at the end of his life in his Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution, in which he sought to preserve a restricted egalitarianism and minimal democracy within a conservative republican framework. Following Aristotle, he insisted that men are born in society with different talents, capacities, and situations and neither have been nor can be viewed as autonomous individuals. Men, “instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country were born and under whose protection they draw their first breath.” In the Discourse he wrote, “Ours is a democratic, federal republic. It is democratic, in contradistinction to aristocracy and monarchy. It excludes classes, orders, and all artificial distinctions.” It is democratic in resting upon “the great cardinal maxim that the people are the source of all power.” It is republican because the people do not surrender power; if they did, the government would no longer be democratic. Rather, they delegate power consitutionally. In Hobbesian accents, he declared that sovereignty is indivisible, and, therefore, a sovereignty divided between the states and the federal government could not be sustained. The people alone are sovereign. The federal and state governments stand in relation to each other with respect not to their functions but to their powers, with each paramount in its own sphere.

Without blushing, Calhoun could speak of the sovereignty and equality of “the people” because his basic concepts had nothing to do with the radical egalitarianism of Rousseau, much less of a Robespierre, or even of a Jefferson in his more enthusiastic moments. Calhoun normally made careful distinctions, but he sometimes risked ambiguous formulations. He recognized natural rights when it suited him but in such a way as to justify the suspicion that his definition reduced them to one of those abstractions he and his colleagues constantly protested against. To put it another way, he in fact denied the several doctrines of natural rights in vogue at the time. Political rights, he insisted, derive from the collective will of society and are not natural. In an essay on the Dorr rebellion he explained: “When political and not natural rights are the subject, the people, as has been stated, are regarded as constituting a body politic, or State; and not merely as so many individuals. It is only when so regarded, that they possess any political rights.”


3 thoughts on “Excerpt- Genovese on Democracy and Natural Rights in the Antebellum South

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/04/10) | The Reactivity Place

  2. I am glad that you excerpted out of this lovely little book. In it, he recapitulates so much of what he had learnt and what he taught us in his history seminar at Emory back in 1990. I am very thankful to him for opening the door to the “Southern Conservative Tradition” for me. Particularly interesting is the Old South’s criticism of the proto-socialism of the Revolutions of 1848 which we often ignore.

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