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How Yale begat the Tea Party?

It's widely agreed that a Yale man—William F. Buckley Jr. ’50—was the intellectual father of the modern American conservative movement. But in a recent New Republic article diagnosing the woes of the current Republican party, Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus ’78 points to another famous Eli as the movement's intellectual grandfather: one John C. Calhoun, Class of 1804.

Today, most people remember Calhoun only for his ardent defense of slavery when he was a US senator and vice president; that memory has led students and others to call for the renaming of Calhoun College over the years. But as part of that defense, Calhoun developed such theories about American government as nullification—theories that Tanenhaus says inspired postwar conservatives like Buckley:

When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun's ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.

Tanenhaus traces this strain of thought through Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan right up to the Tea Party movement in the Republican party, arguing that "the party of Lincoln . . . has found sustenance in Lincoln's principal intellectual and moral antagonist. It has become the party of Calhoun." Being less parochial than we are, though, he doesn't mention the irony that a university famously excoriated by Buckley for its liberalism is the alma mater of two of the brains behind contemporary conservatism.

Filed under William F. Buckley Jr., John C. Calhoun, Sam Tanenhaus
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