Tanenhaus’s claim that National Review was baptized into the cult of Calhoun rests largely on a handful of quotes from Russell Kirk and James J. Kilpatrick. What results is a distorted picture of Kirk, but a nearly unrecognizable one of NR and conservatism. Neither Kirk nor Kilpatrick had the influence on NR that Burnham, Meyer, Chambers, Willi Schlamm, or Willmoore Kendall did. None of these founding editors of National Review is even mentioned in Tanenhaus’s indictment. Moreover, any remotely positive mentions of Calhoun disappeared from the magazine before most of the current staff and editors were born. Since then, the name has most often appeared in disapproving discussions of liberal efforts to create — dare we say it? — Calhounist majority-minority districts.
We suspect that an intramural disagreement among conservatives has confused Tanenhaus about Calhoun’s influence. For many years a group of conservative scholars led by the brilliant Harry Jaffa have contended that the Constitution must be read in light of the moral principles of the Declaration of Independence. It is a powerful argument even if not all of the implications Jaffa and his students draw from it are convincing. In his more recent and polemical works, unfortunately, Jaffa has often claimed that anyone who disagrees with any aspect of his theory is thereby taking Calhoun’s premises on board. If you didn’t believe in natural law, you were a Calhounist. If you placed more weight on the sovereignty of the states than on the powers of the federal government? Calhounist. Kendall, who perfunctorily dismissed Calhoun as a “man I cannot do business with”? Obviously a Calhounist, doubtless operating under deep cover.
Reviewing Jaffa’s Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution, Robert Bork tried to count up all of Jaffa’s enemies: “Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Edwin Meese, Russell Kirk, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William Rehnquist, and, I rejoice to say, given the company to which I am assigned, me.” Bork added, “It turns out, for reasons that are not entirely clear, that most of us are disciples of the late, unlamented John C. Calhoun.” Bork ran afoul of Jaffa by arguing that it was not necessary to advert to the principles of the Declaration to see that Dred Scott was wrongly decided; the text of the Constitution was enough.
While Tanenhaus does not mention Jaffa, he seems to have exaggerated Jaffa’s insults. If that is what happened, one irony is that Jaffa’s views have largely prevailed among mainstream conservative intellectuals, who are far more Lincolnian in their thinking about the Declaration than they were before he began writing. (Jaffa may not be willing to accept the credit: Buckley once quipped that if you thought disagreeing with Jaffa was hard, try agreeing with him.) In short, Jaffa issued an incidental and gratuitous smear against rival conservatives, and Tanenhaus has made the incidental central and the gratuitous fundamental in constructing a political smear against all conservatives.
Smears are not noted for their precision. What is Calhounism anyway? Tanenhaus never gets around to explaining Calhoun’s political theory in his 6,000 words, or to showing the links between the man and the alleged manifestations of that theory in the modern world. Everything is kept vague. After claiming that Calhoun has inspired conservatives to “overturn the will of the electoral majority,” he writes: