Quo Vadis?: Trent Lott and GOP Principles

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2002

In light of comments Sen. Trent Lott made recently during a tribute to Strom Thurmond, many have called on him to step down as Republican Senate Majority Leader. Like most conservatives who have called for his resignation, I seriously doubt that Sen. Lott is a racist, closet, or otherwise. But he does have some serious issues—as does the GOP.

Statements Sen. Lott has made over the past couple of decades indicate a troubling pattern of thought suggesting that he has a skewed understanding of what the Republican party stands for. For instance, during a 1984 speech to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Biloxi, Miss., Lott declared: “The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform.” Now I am sure that then Rep. Lott was referring to what we now think of as “states’ rights,” not Davis’s view on race and slavery, but such a claim reminds us that it is occasionally useful “to recur to first principles.” What are the principles of the Republican party? What do Republicans believe in? What differentiates Republicans from Democrats?

The Republican party was founded on the basis of principles invoked by Abraham Lincoln. He himself recurred to the principles of the American Founding, specifically the Declaration of Independence, so we can say that the principles of the Republican party are the principles of the nation. In essence these principles hold that the only purpose of government is to protect the equal natural rights of individual citizens. These rights inhere in individuals, not groups, and are antecedent to the creation of government. They are the rights invoked by the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.

On the other hand, the modern Democratic party was founded by FDR. Its central idea is that government’s job is to adjudicate the distribution of resources among competing claimants. Democrats increasingly view the United States, not as a community of individuals, but as an array of groups whose demands must be met. But since government produces nothing on its own, certain favored groups prosper at the expense of others. The modern Democratic party invokes the language of rights, but what Democrats really mean by the term are privileges or claims to resources that are granted by government. They certainly don’t mean by rights what the Founders meant when they used the term.

The question is, how did the party of Jefferson become today’s Democratic party. The short answer is that it fell prey to the evil genius of American politics, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun’s fundamental enterprise was to defend the institution of slavery. To do so, he had to overturn the principles of the American Founding. He started with the Declaration of Independence, arguing that

[the proposition “all men are created equal”] as now understood, has become the most false and dangerous of all political errors….We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the declaration of independence. For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its dangerous fruits. It had a strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson, the author of that document, which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South; and to hold, in consequence, that the former, although utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the latter; and that to deprive them of it was unjust and immoral.

According to Calhoun, insofar as equality existed at all, it was a prescriptive attribute of the states, not a natural right of individual human beings as the Declaration holds. Calhoun maintained that citizens derive their equality and the dignity of that equality, not from their sovereignty as individual human persons under “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” but from the constitutional equality of the states within the Union.

All this prescriptive equality meant in practice was the constitutional right of any citizen of a slave state to carry his slave property into any U.S. territory, then require that the federal government provide all necessary protection of that property. As a necessary means of protecting this constitutional right within the Union, a state possessed the constitutional right to withdraw from the Union. This was the basis of the “states’ rights” argument for secession. Is this what Trent Lott meant when he claimed that the spirit of Jefferson Davis, who of course took his bearings from Calhoun, lived in the 1984 Republican-party platform?

Now in point of fact, the modern Democratic party is the creature of Progressivism, the 19th century science of politics that rejected the political thought of the American Founders based on equal natural rights, substituting “progress” for nature and justifying unlimited government power to direct and promote that progress. But Calhoun prepared the soil for the triumph of Progressivism in the Democratic party.

As Harry Jaffa observed in A New Birth of Freedom, Calhoun’s heirs, like the “Marx of the Master Class,” have used “a shallow and permissive historicism and relativism” to subject “’the laws of nature and of nature’s God’ to scorn and contempt. They have done so by propaganda appealing to the basest passion, and reason has been in retreat.” The contemporary followers of Calhoun, both in politics and the academy, reject the idea that rights belong by nature to individuals and that they are antecedent to the state. They hold instead that rights are prescriptive, i.e. that government determines what constitutes a right and then distributes those rights unequally according to its own preferences.

The Lott affair should lead Republicans to ask themselves a series of questions: Does the party still “hold these truths to be self-evident”? That all men are created equal? That they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights? That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men?

As the country-music philosopher, Aaron Tippin, said in a song a few years back, “you’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” Republicans have traditionally stood for limited government to protect equal rights. If its leadership is not careful, the party of Lincoln will become another party of Calhoun.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.