Constitutional Opinions

The Grave Robber

The left attempts to dig up the moldering remains of John C. Calhoun and plant them on the Republicans. 

By From the April 2013 issue

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Your Constitutional correspondent has rarely had such a fright, peering, as I was, from behind a sarcophagus in the Graveyard of the Democrats. It was the dead, so to speak, of night. The suspect was visible in the moonlight, opening a grave, piling up the dirt, and climbing down into the just-opened pit. When he came out he was bearing a cadaver over his shoulder. He flopped it onto a cart.

I scrunched lower and watched him wipe his brow. Then he grasped the handles of the cart and moved past me. I could hear the crunch of the wheels on the gravel. Lagging at a discreet distance, I followed him to a neighboring arrangement of tombstones, with its rickety sign that said “Republicans’ Resting Place.”

It seems he’d already opened one of the graves of the GOP, as dirt was freshly piled up. Now the shadowy shoveler set down the handles of his cart. He clambered into the Republican pit and emerged with a different set of remains. An owl let out an eerie hoot as he laid them on the cart. He picked up the Democratic bones and dumped them into the Republican pit.

Then he shoveled in the dirt and smoothed it over. It was when he looked up and a patch of fog blew by that I suddenly caught his face. My hair stood on end. I had to clasp a hand over my own mouth to keep from calling out in surprise as he picked up the handles of his cart and shuffled back toward the Democratic burial ground to complete the switch. For it was my old friend, Sam Tanen...


Forgive me, but I must have dozed off. I’ve been trying to figure out the mystery of Calhoun’s corpse. It involves an effort to dig up the moldering remains of John C. Calhoun and plant them on the Republicans. Talk about your bizarre plots. Calhoun, America’s seventh vice president, was not only a notorious defender of slavery, but was also a towering figure in the Democratic Party.

Yet 163 years after he died, a leading magazine, the New Republic, newly acquired by a fast-rising funder of the Democratic Party, is out with a cover story trying to stick the one-time senator of South Carolina with the modern GOP. The magazine has an all-white cover with a headline labeling the Republicans the “party of white people.” The article concludes by calling the GOP the “party of Calhoun.”

The author, Sam Tanenhaus, is a distinguished editor of the New York Times. He suggests—he doesn’t quite say it, but implies—that the GOP, the party of Abraham Lincoln and of Lincoln’s vision of a new birth of freedom, has become racist. He writes that the GOP has “found sustenance” in Calhoun, Lincoln’s political and intellectual antagonist.

Yet no Republican supports the racism Calhoun defended. Among the rising leaders of the Republican Party listed by the New Republic are Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz. There’s also the only African American in the Senate, Tim Scott, from Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina. They are a veritable rainbow coalition of Republican revolutionaries.

What these new leaders support is neither a racial test nor a nullification of the federal Constitution, an idea that Calhoun embraced in his battle to preserve the slave empire. What these rising right-wingers stand for is a federalism of liberty. They want race-neutral constitutional and economic principles that apply equally to all Americans. The irony is that the idea of special protections—privileges—for political minorities can be traced back to Calhoun himself.

Paul Gigot pointed this out in a 1993 column in the Wall Street Journal, which ran under the headline “Back to the Future.” It addressed the way Calhoun was being echoed by a law professor named Lani Guinier, one of First Lady Hillary Clinton’s friends, whom President Bill Clinton had nominated to run civil rights at the Justice Department.

“Politics is weird,” Gigot’s column began. “So is history.” He called John C. Calhoun and Guinier “the strange new bedfellows of American civil-rights policy.” Calhoun believed that, in Gigot’s words, “any minority with a major ‘interest’ (say, slavery) could ‘veto’ the decisions of a mere numerical majority.”

A century and a half later, Gigot noted, Lani Guinier was “not content with such constitutional notions as ‘one-man, one-vote’ or removing barriers to voting.” She cared “much more about guaranteed electoral and legislative results” and wanted a system of proportional representation to ensure the election of African Americans.

Personally, I can appreciate Guinier’s frustration. She’d worked on voting rights as a young lawyer in the Justice Department. Long after her controversy, I visited her at Harvard Law School and found her to be not only brilliant but gracious—too much so to complain to a newspaperman about being dropped by Clinton. It had been the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee that balked. Its chairman had been one Joseph Biden.

No wonder Gigot called her travail a lesson in the “perils of Calhounism.” The Democrats have been trying to get rid of Calhoun’s corpse ever since. The Republicans don’t want him. Everyone comprehends that Calhoun was a powerful thinker. This was remarked on admiringly in 1850, when Calhoun died, even by the anti-slavery newspapers in New York. But Calhoun used his brilliance to defend slavery. Slaveholders were the minority for which he stood.

At Calhoun’s funeral, Senator Thomas Hart Benton famously declared that the South Carolinian wasn’t really dead. “There may be no vitality in his body,” he rumbled, “but there’s plenty in his doctrines.” The Democrats harbored the Southern segregationists well into the time of JFK and LBJ. When the Republicans finally began to attract Southern voters, it was with ideas of economic liberty and growth for all Americans. The idea of gerrymandering districts for minorities was picked up by the left.

So don’t look for the Republicans to start a revival of Calhoun’s way of thinking. The GOP stands for the principle that the political economy will be sorted out on the merits when we’re all mixed up together. What Lincoln himself might say of the notion of Calhoun as a Republican, one can but guess. “You can fool some of the people all of the time,” he might have said, “and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”


I had followed the nocturnal shoveler back to the grave at which I first spotted him. He pushed his tumbrel back and lowered into the Democratic grave whomever he’d just removed from the soil of the GOP. But who could it be? I raced back to the Republicans’ Resting Place. It was, to my relief, not Lincoln. That would have been too much. No, it turned out the body he’d just moved over to the Democrats had been resting under a stone chisled with the name William F. Buck...


Suddenly, I awoke with a start. Could that explain the mystery? Could Tanenhaus be trying to improve the biography, on which he’d long been working, of William F. Buckley Jr.? No doubt he’d come to admire the columnist. Maybe he figured that, while he was moving the remains of Calhoun over to the Republicans, he could transfer the skeleton of William F. Buckley to the Democrats. Farfetched? We shall see when his biography of Buckley is brought out. 

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About the Author

Seth Lipsky, founding editor of the New York Sun, is the author of The Citizen's Constitution: An Annotated Guide (Basic Books).