The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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The Diplomacy of Conservatism and the Conservatism of Diplomacy
David Clinton - 10/15/08

If there is one characteristic that would seem to be found in conservatives generally, it is a skepticism about the plasticity of political life. Liberals may be convinced that the application of intelligence and good will can reliably effect steady improvements in society, while radicals of many stripes may believe that their scientific understanding of history gives them a blueprint for the fundamental reordering of institutions and the attainment of justice. Conservatives are not so sure. Whether because of the limitations on human intelligence or due to the restricted supply of human benevolence, they have the sense that abstractly stated schemes of reform or plans for revolution are likely to go wrong, either missing the intended aim of amelioration or making conditions much worse through unintended consequences. The weight of accumulated history, of unchanging human nature, of acceptable (because familiar) ills, inclines conservatives at least to be resigned to what is, and at most to make the most of it and to enjoy what pleasures it affords. Conservatives tend to be much more impressed by what cannot be changed than by any alleged capacity to alter it in predictable and beneficial ways. “We fancy ourselves more powerful than we are to do what pleases us, and we are not sufficiently ready to accept what we dislike,” Guizot remarked when considering the degree to which British or French institutions could be transferred to other countries with different historical experiences. “These are inevitable, incurable evils, evils with which we must live, for we should die of the blow which extinguished them.” He always wished the advocates of change to be mindful of “the necessity of accepting what is.” Within this shared conservative house, however, there have been many separate conservative mansions, and our three figures each manifested a form of conservatism adapted to his own time and place.

Calhoun and the Conservatism of Resistance

John C. Calhoun was throughout much of his adult life a man haunted by the fear that he was on the losing side of history. This is a state of mind common to conservatives, to whom a certain gloom concerning the direction that the world is taking is often unavoidable and sometimes congenial. Calhoun’s presentiment of peril concerned the fact that the greater activity, enterprise, and productivity of the North were producing an imbalance between the regions, in which the South was falling behind, in population (and therefore congressional representation and influence over presidential selection) and in wealth.

Given the central role that Calhoun’s political analysis gave to self-interest, it was only to be expected that if numbers and wealth provided the North with more political power, it would use that power to benefit itself and to increase its hold over the minority section. His observations bore out this line of theoretical reasoning; Northern politicians of both parties seemed to him dangerously willing to press an unlimited expansion of federal power, in the form of tariffs and internal improvements, that would enrich one regional sector of the economy and impoverish the other, while (even more dangerously) it centralized power, first in the federal government over the states and then, within the federal government, in the hands of the chief executive, in a way that put liberty at risk everywhere. It was out of this fear that he canvassed such ideas as nullification, the concurrent majority, and a dual executive, with each co-president, from the North and from the South, holding a veto. Seeking to preserve both the Union and the “peculiar institution” of the South, he saw his own role as that of leading the resistance to any further advance of the influence of sheer numbers in American politics, any further decline in the relative position of the South, any further swelling in the coercive power of the federal government.

Calhoun therefore frequently warned against an overly ambitious or militarized foreign policy, generally using terms similar to what he said about the project of conquering all of Mexico:

The conquest of Mexico would add so vastly to the patronage of this Government, that it would absorb the whole powers of the States; the Union would become an imperial power, and the States reduced to mere subordinate corporations. But the evil would not end there; the process would go on, and the power transferred from the States to the Union, would be transferred from the Legislative Department to the Executive [ . . . ]. The struggle to obtain the Presidential chair would become proportionably [sic] great—so great as to destroy the freedom of elections. The end would be anarchy or despotism, as certain as I am now addressing the Senate.

Skeptical about the Mexican War from the beginning and convinced that President Polk had rushed into war unnecessarily instead of pursuing negotiations, Calhoun sought to restrain the conduct of the war; in 1847, he proposed drawing a defensive line across the northern territory of Mexico, stationing American forces along that line, and waiting for the Mexican government to come to the bargaining table prepared to accept the line as the new border, in lieu of attempting to seize Mexico City itself. The land encompassed within the line would ultimately be an ample indemnity for any wrong done by Mexico to the United States; in the meantime, many fewer American lives would be at risk than if offensive operations were continued, and the lower cost of maintaining a defensive position would cut short the growth of a large military establishment and the taxes to pay for it, both of which Calhoun feared as inimical to liberty. (His advice on military strategy was not accepted, but the line he advocated turned out to run relatively close to the border accepted in the negotiations that finally ended the war.)

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