You can tell skilled debaters from amateurs by this simple test: skilled debaters can argue either side of the argument with equal success. It’s why public defenders are often better attorneys than public prosecutors. In most situations, public prosecutors can choose which case to take to court. Given this option, it’s not surprising to see them avoid cases they don’t agree with. Public defenders have no similar choice. They must make a case for the defendant whether they believe that defendant is guilty or not. Unlike private defense attorneys, who may choose not to represent any particular party, public defenders have no right to pick and choose their cases.
It’s easy to see why people sometimes think less of the legal profession. The ability to argue either side of any issue with the same fervor can indicate a certain level of amorality that can make a preacher’s skin crawl. After all, in the court of law, judgment is fungible – the power of a lawyer’s rhetoric can sway it. On the other hand, from the point of view of the pulpit, judgement is absolute, that is, insofar as it comes from the Word of God and not the mouth of man.
This is the lesson of the Greek tragedy Antigone, who, in violating the king’s law to leave her dead brother unburied on the battlefield, chose to follow the gods’ greater law and bury her brother. Greek drama is full of heroes and anti-heroes. Ancient playwrights, however, didn’t paint these protagonists in just two dimensions, either good or evil. Rather, it was the blending of good and evil within the characters that make these stories alluring. This literary style spilled over into Greek history, with Thucydides and Herodotus employing similar techniques of catharsis, and especially the sin of hubris, to teach their lessons.
These lessons of history were not lost on our Founding Fathers. Indeed, Harvard-trained historian Rufus Fears in his Teaching Company lecture series “The Wisdom of History” said the founders saw history as a way “to make you better, better as an individual and better as a citizen of a free republic. That is why all citizens of a free republic, they believed, should study history.” Among their favorites was Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Carl Richard tells us in The Founders and the Classics (Harvard University Press, 1994), “Even as a teenager James Madison typified the founders’ regard for the second century Greek historian when he copied into his commonplace book Cardinal de Retz’s statement: ‘The E. of Montrose was the only Man in the World that recalled in me the Ideas of some Heroes what are now to be found only [in] Plutarch’s Lives.’”
What the founders saw in Plutarch wasn’t merely a litany of role models, but examples of both success and failure. They understood that failure often provides a more lasting lesson than success. They wished to learn from the failure of others so they would be less likely to have their American experiment suffer from it. They also learned well the lesson of the Roman triumph, where legend had the victorious Roman general, as he led the parade in his chariot, had a slave behind him whispering in his ear “Memento mori,” (literally “Remember death” meaning “Remember, you are but a man, not a God”).
With this in mind, the Founding Fathers strived to avoid the god-like hubris of perfection as they crafted our Constitution. They understood it had flaws – flaws necessary to achieve the compromise needed to get thirteen separated colonies to agree as one. More important, they understood it had flaws they could not imagine, so they crafted the Constitution not as a definitive solution, but as a definitive system to allow future generations to endeavor towards an ideal that may be unreachable, but worth forever reaching for.
With the passing of the Founding Fathers came a new generation that spawned (with the exception of Andrew Jackson) a litany of presidents most notable for lack of notability. The philosophical torch, while bypassing the executive branch, found its home in the legislative branch. Specifically, for the decades immediately after the War of 1812 and just prior to the onset of the Civil War, our nation inched towards that unreachable perfection under the intellectual guidance of what history now calls “The Great Triumvirate.” After beginning their careers in the House of Representatives during the presidency of James Madison, Henry Clay (1811), John Calhoun (1811), and Daniel Webster (1813), quickly became the voice of their respective regions. Recall, the Founding Fathers created a republic, not a democracy, and it was the duty of elected representatives to speak for their constituencies. In this sense, elected officials, though they act like public prosecutors and choose their platforms while campaigning, must act like public defenders once they are sworn in. No doubt The Great Triumvirate, serving under the final administrations of the last of the Founding Fathers, held this duty in high regard.
During the period of their prominence, America was experiencing both profound growth (with westward expansion) and profound agony (an increasing sense of “sectionalism” within the nation). Faithful to the separate views of the sections of the nation they represented, Clay (the west), Calhoun (the south), and Webster (the north), carefully crafted legislation, built mostly on compromise, that kept the nation unified while still allowing it to grow. While they did, at times, all agree, more often than not their compromises represented a ballet of switching two-on-ones.
We saw this first with the War of 1812, with Clay and Calhoun on the hawkish side and Webster against the war. (It was at this time that Webster suggested the New England states might secede if the nation declared war with Britain.) The end of the war ushered in “The Era of Good Feelings” with the first term of the last Founding Father president James Monroe. At this point, Clay, Calhoun, and Webster were united in their nationalist spirit. That unity helped craft legislation in the area of commerce and, most particularly, the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
This unity soon disintegrated as Calhoun, during the Nullification Crises prompted by the Tariff of 1832, found his state at odds with federal government law. When Andrew Jackson threatened to send troops to collect the tariff, South Carolina dug its heels in. Calhoun, fearing secession and war, joined with Clay to enact the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
The last act of the Triumvirate took place with the Compromise of 1850. Another slave crisis prompted the three to each make a major speech on the Senate floor, albeit Calhoun’s was read by a proxy as the South Carolina senator was within weeks of dying. Clay outlined the proposal. Calhoun, again fearing secession and war, then made one final attempt to convince the north to decide the fate of the country. Webster, to everyone’s surprise, showed sympathy to Calhoun’s position. The measure passed, and so did the Great Triumvirate. They had succeeded in staving off a Civil War. Unfortunately, the successor generation of leaders placed passion above compromise, and the nation suffered through four years of internal armed conflict.
While it’s difficult today to defend Calhoun’s defense of the institution of slavery, we must acknowledge that he remained loyal to his duty to faithfully represent his constituents. Furthermore, it must be said that, like Webster, although Calhoun threatened secession, he did his best to ensure things didn’t go that far. Towards the end of his career some of the firebrands in the south disagreed with his willingness to compromise (the same thing happened to Webster).
More intriguing, though, is Calhoun’s comprehensive view of republican government. He recognized the same lessons of history as the Founding Fathers when it came to the tyranny of the majority. The Founding Fathers feared this so much they purposely did not create a democracy, opting instead for a republic. In his final years, Calhoun wrote two extensive works addressing the issue of the tyranny of the majority, including a philosophical justification for secession. His political descendants, bolstered by this work, followed it to its bitter end a decade later.
Just as with any Greek history, John Calhoun represents the character of all mankind – he possesses both admirable and flawed traits. He remains an important figure in American history not just due to his successes, but, in the sense that Plutarch would have appreciated, for his failures. We learn from him the merit of compromise. There’s also merit in his ultimate failure to resolve what continues to present the greatest threat to our nation: the tyranny of the majority.
It is this latter point that has suddenly become relevant again today, although in an oddly ironic way. We see once again states threatening to secede from the union. No doubt they can usurp Calhoun’s very arguments on this matter. Yet, chances are these same states would vilify Calhoun solely for his support of slavery.
Unfortunately, just as the pertinence of his thinking has returned, Yale University has decided to send Calhoun down the memory hole of history. (Perhaps this explains the sudden sales resurgence of 1984 – they wanted to see how to send things down the memory hole.) Yale’s explanation suggests a judgement that Calhoun doesn’t fit within their contemporary value system. It sounds like Yale needs to revisit Plutarch’s Lives and why Plutarch chose to include some of those names. Worse, the decision smacks of the god-like holier-than-thou hubris that has taken down more than its fair share of Greek heroes.
We’re then left with this: Which is more offensive: Calhoun believing what his contemporaries did or Yale believing it is a god?