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The ghost of John C. Calhoun walks

Posted by Christopher Shea  December 8, 2009 03:31 PM

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The Abbeville Institute, an academic club of sorts founded by a popular philosophy professor at Emory University, Donald W. Livingston, serves as a forum for academics who want to discuss a topic that's been out of fashion for roughly 145 years: secession. Why it's a good thing, that is--both in the abstract and in the American context, a useful check on overweening federal power. The group, with 64 "affiliated" scholars and counting, according to The Chronicle of HIgher Education, is preparing for its eighth annual conference, in February, in Charleston.

Up till now, the group has been quite secretive. (Even Livingston's departmental chair was unaware of his involvement.) But this year, for the first time, the institute is advertising its get-together. Is it possible that it sees a chance for a warm welcome in this season of tea-party protests?

Donald W. Livingston, founder of the Abbeville Institute

On the one hand, members of the Abbeville Institute--named for the South Carolina birthplace of John C. Calhoun, perhaps the most famous antebellum advocate of states' rights--argue that its philosophical interests are all-American: the United States was born in an act of secession from Great Britain, after all. And certainly the Supreme Court has shown a fresh interest in states' rights in recent years. On the other, its members evince a distinct nostalgia for the Lost Cause, and a racial subtext--or surtext--can be found in its documents and in statements by its members.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups (it does not think Abbeville qualifies for that title), calls attention to the following language, from the group's mission statement "Rarely these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of white people in the South."

Says the law center's Heidi Beirich: "At the end of the day, they are just trying to revise the history of the South in favor of whites."

Livingston and others dispute that characterization, but his choice of analogies does give one pause. Defending the existence of both a distinct Southern way of life and a distinct Southern political philosophy, he says: "The Southern tradition as taught in the academy today, if taught at all, is studied mainly as a function of the ideological needs of others. It is not examined in terms of its own inner light. It is as if you had programs of Jewish studies explored from the point of views of Catholics, or worse, of Nazis."

PS. The Chronicle piece was written by the former Globe correspondent Ben Terris.

(Photo: Billy Howard for The Chronicle of Higher Education)

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