The purpose of Calhoun: American Heretic, Baylor historian Robert Elder writes, is “to reevaluate whether John C. Calhoun was indeed out of step with the flow of history.” We ought not to dismiss Calhoun as “the dark foil of an inevitable American progress and freedom.” The man who emerges from Elder’s biography is more worldly and progressive than the late-born provincial baron Elder suspects we see. Consequently, Calhoun’s devotion to white supremacy and slavery cannot be attributed to a fossilized way of life that might otherwise mitigate his sin. His was a defense of the indefensible by an undoubtedly modern statesman, who therefore should have known better. Furthermore, Elder proves that Calhoun’s influence on the growth and future shape of the United States was as great as that of any American of his age. He attempts to open our eyes to the uncomfortable realization that Calhoun’s present legacy is stronger than we might wish. He is “at the center of the stories we tell about our past.” The suggested inference is that since we are not so different from him and live in a world he helped create, we could easily succumb to Calhoun’s worst failings.
Readers inoculated against historicism might shrug at the revelation that Calhoun was modern in outlook and action. For us, good and evil exhibit no particular historical cast. Yet it is a tribute to Elder’s scholarship that his book can improve our reflections on Calhoun, regardless of one’s starting point of view. In our sobering times, while the question of revolution hangs in the air, Elder’s work gives us a fresh and timely opportunity to consider anew the master intellect of Southern revolution and to draw needed lessons fit for the present.
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Born in South Carolina in 1782, Calhoun and the country grew up together and matured apace. His Scotch-Irish family shared in the hard experience of immigrants and backwoods settlers. His grandmother and an uncle were among 23 massacred by a Cherokee war party; another uncle, Calhoun’s namesake, was killed by a Tory during the Revolution. His father eventually built the family’s fortunes, becoming one of the wealthiest planters in upcountry South Carolina, and serving in the state’s General Assembly. By a young age Calhoun was already familiar with the Northern states and some of their leading characters. Besides his years as a student at Yale College, Calhoun sojourned at Newport, Rhode Island, and attended law school under the supervision of Tapping Reeve in Litchfield, Connecticut.
Science and the mechanical arts fascinated him throughout his life. As a young member of the United States House of Representatives he wrote about his steamship travels up the Potomac River, less than ten years after the first steamship was deployed in America. Later in life he visited a New York City manufacturing plant, based on a newly patented technology financed by outside investors, and toasted “mechanical ingenuity.” He corresponded with academics on theories of racial differentiation, and those theories later would become the basis of scientific racism. Most striking were his abstract reflections on the inter-connected world of the future, which has been realized only in our time. He imagined “magic wires…stretching themselves in all directions over the earth…. [O]ur globe itself will become endowed with sensitiveness, so that whatever touches on any one point, will be instantly felt on every other.” Calhoun was well-connected, sophisticated, in touch with the intellectual currents of his day, and attracted to scientific discovery and application.
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Recognition of these personal qualities highlighted by Elder can help us understand better his political career. Although Calhoun professed the principles of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, he charted his own path from the beginning. In his maiden speech in the House of Representatives in 1811, he called out a minor omission in the Constitution to advance a major point. He vaunted “slow and successive experience” over “the foresight of wisdom” dispensed in times bygone. Not yet 30, Calhoun had already determined that in political affairs present generations ought to rely upon their own judgment informed by experience and leave behind the obsolete wisdom of the past. He was hinting toward a parallel with the process of scientific discovery and a peculiar philosophy of history, and giving himself permission to innovate.
Calhoun’s remarkable achievements in government over the next 15 years owed much to his independence of mind and spirit. Appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee, he quickly became leader of the congressional hawks. He garnered support for the 1812 declaration of war against Great Britain over the objections of his own party’s stalwarts, led by Virginia’s John Randolph. When New England Federalists threatened disunion over the war and asserted state sovereignty—the exact position Calhoun would take decades later—he “invoked the minority’s duty to submit to ‘the will of [the] majority’ even when they disagreed with it.”
The fruits of the American war effort were considerable and were sown by Calhoun. Far from “a farcical draw,” Elder writes, the War of 1812 taught “a generation of British military and political leaders” that “American wars were a losing proposition.” Calhoun had won for America room to grow unmolested by our one-time archenemy, and following the Treaty of Ghent, he focused the country on growth. Calhoun played an instrumental role in legislative “proposals for a new national bank, a tariff, internal improvements, and military reforms.” As Secretary of War in the Monroe Administration, Calhoun energetically oversaw reform “that transformed the United States into a modern nation-state capable of projecting its power across a continent or an ocean.”
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Hardly a particle of the later Calhoun is visible on the surface of the young Calhoun. The two strikingly dissimilar parts of his career formed what a political ally later called “two grand epochs.” Had there never been a second epoch, Americans today would likely rank him alongside Alexander Hamilton—as John Randolph did—among the foremost builders of the country. Even on the slavery issue, young Calhoun seemed to be indistinguishable from James Madison or Henry Clay. In 1816 he condemned the transatlantic slave trade in the House of Representatives and received a letter from an antislavery Quaker, who wrote, “I have not the smallest doubt, we think alike.”
The first disappointment of his presidential ambitions, and South Carolina’s anger over the 1824 tariff, coincided with the beginning of the end of the first half of Calhoun’s political career. Henceforth, Calhoun struggled to sustain his popularity in his home state and in the country simultaneously, each necessary to maintain his position in federal government and his political viability for the presidency. Calhoun blamed a breakdown in the founders’ model of government for his troubles. Great national political parties had formed and were behaving like unjust factions, he argued. The large size of the republic, Madison’s remedy in Federalist Nos. 10 and 51, had failed to prevent majority factions because increased communication and easier travel had diminished the taming effects of distance—the result, ironically, of the very internal improvements Calhoun supported.
The unequal burdens of the tariff carried by South Carolina raised the prospect that tyrannical national majorities could perpetually harm Calhoun’s home state. He hatched the idea of a state veto against national majorities, building on Madison’s and Jefferson’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. The publication of his South Carolina Exposition in 1828 reimagined the constitutional order and inaugurated the second half of his career, which soon eclipsed the fame of the first half.
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On a surface reading of Calhoun, Elder’s interpretation of his steady emission of novel theories and doctrines from that point forward is honest, sympathetic, and fair. Though he recognizes the potentially anti-democratic character of Calhoun’s idea of rule by “concurrent majority,” that is, that simple majorities ought not to rule without the concurrence of the minority, Elder accepts Calhoun’s protestations that he was sincere in his attempts to solve the unforeseen problem of democratic excess in order to save democracy. Calhoun remained, Elder avers, “Jeffersonian at heart.” But “he possessed…a deep-seated belief in progress, and a sense that the world was constantly, swiftly changing. Preservation required adaptation. Conservation required re-creation.” Woodrow Wilson might not have delivered for Calhoun, or desired for himself, a better eulogy.
Elder’s Calhoun measures above the current standard of historical scholarship, allowing us to see the revolutionary orientation of this extraordinary man. Revolution can only be achieved through force or fraud. In a country as patriotically devoted to Republicanism as early America, force was ruled out. As for fraud, the necessity of “progress” can serve as a cover for revolutionary innovation and did serve Calhoun as a convenient excuse to dethrone Jefferson, whom he outwardly professed to admire and follow.
The next step is to recognize that Calhoun’s rejection of the natural right to liberty, possessed by all alike, jettisoned the animating core of Jefferson’s republican principles and the basis of majority rule. Anyone who accepts the idea propounded by Calhoun and the slaveholders that slavery underwrote anybody’s liberty is deceived by their use of the word “liberty,” and understands neither the principles of the American Founding nor the brute effect of slavery on the political community. Oligarchic liberty gains its form and strength from feeding a devouring appetite to do as I will with myself and also to you, if I can; republican liberty requires moderation and restraint. I may do with myself what I please, which you must respect; and I must respect your right to do as you please. The same word—liberty— used by genuine republicans and self-servingly misused by Calhoun and his ruling class, covered over a difference in principles as stark as night and day.
Power, young Calhoun said on the floor of the House, “can only be restrained by power. Nations are, for the most part not restrained by moral principles, but by fear.” That aptly describes the oligarchic view of political society in which the rights of individuals are not equally fixed by mutually respected moral principles, but by their variable power to fix rights where they can, in struggle against one another. Studied in light of the contrast between oligarchic and republican principles, the “two grand epochs” of Calhoun’s career form a coherent whole.
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Careful readers can espy Calhoun’s devotion to minority rule in his home state. When presented with what might appear a mild reform—a proposal to change the selection of South Carolina’s governor from the legislature to the voters at large—Calhoun threatened “to oppose it, with all my might.” Elder defends Calhoun against the anticipated anti-democratic charge and claims that South Carolina was “one of the most radical democracies in the world” in 1810 because of its early embrace of universal manhood suffrage. Calhoun’s democratic image was fortuitously aided by his birth in South Carolina’s wild Jeffersonian backcountry, which was underrepresented in the lowcountry-dominated legislature. And indeed, in 1808 South Carolina had flirted with republican reform and adjusted representation, favoring Calhoun’s backcountry section.
But the effect of this ostensibly republican reform was the opposite of what it appeared to be. Slave culture had spread into the backcountry by 1808 and directly into Calhoun’s family, resulting in the merger of the rising aristocracy in the backcountry (renamed upcountry) and the existing lowcountry aristocracy. The reform simply extended and expanded the state’s ruling class, incorporating upcountry slaveholders like Calhoun’s family and strengthening the status quo ante in state government. The malapportioned, all-powerful legislature remained firmly under slaveholder control, denoted by the preponderance of black-majority—that is, slave-majority—districts in the legislative apportionment. Malapportionment vitiated the voting power of free, white non-slaveholders whose impotent right of suffrage Elder celebrates. Universal manhood suffrage was useful to present the image of democracy, but was of little practical value. Popular sovereignty was a sham. The compromise of 1808 more firmly established oligarchic government, misleadingly denominated republican. But, as Elder notes, Calhoun touted the result of that compromise as an ideal constitutional arrangement in his posthumous treatise, A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States.
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Calhoun opposed the popular election of South Carolina’s governor, Elder argues, because he wished to prevent the rise of harmful political parties within the state and to reserve the powers of government to local communities. But political parties were crucial to the formal expression of popular sovereignty, leading to the unanswerable objection that without them, self-government was impossible. Moreover, the slaveholder-dominated legislature exercised overawing power over the state’s low-slaveholding, and therefore underrepresented, communities. For example, when citizens of Greenville-Spartanburg attempted to levy a local tax for the purpose of organizing and funding a New England-style, common school system—which the state government had refused to do—the legislature blocked them on the grounds that the power to tax belonged exclusively to the state government. Local communities could not tax themselves and so could not organize a school system without permission.
Denied equal representation in the legislature, denied the power to elect their own governor, the non-slaveholding majority was at the mercy of the slaveholding minority. Running for state governor in 1890, populist Benjamin Tillman bluntly surveyed that past: “Before the war South Carolina was a pure aristocracy. We have never had a republican form of government in South Carolina.” This was the system Calhoun wished to protect “with all my might.”
Neither republican nor oligarchic principles necessarily conflict with nationalist policy, and this fact can explain the nationalist public conduct of young Calhoun. As long as he felt no impending threat to the integrity, perpetuation, or possible spread of oligarchic institutions within the Union, his priority could be the promotion of national strength. His expected reward was the presidency. When his presidential ambitions were disappointed, he blamed the nationwide rise of popular political parties, which his slaveholding class had prevented in South Carolina. In elections at home, Calhoun only needed to win over his slaveholding brethren to secure a constitutional majority. But in a national election, a constitutional majority required winning over a popular majority, that is, the genuinely republican citizens of the North. It seems likely that his disappointed presidential ambitions taught Calhoun the importance of the growing difference between political regimes in the North and South.
In addition, the maturing Calhoun realized that the Northern states’ affirmation of republican liberty was producing the elements of power—population, patriotism, and diffused wealth—at a faster pace than were the slaveholding states. Strengthening republicanism threatened oligarchy within the Union. Faced with this threat, Calhoun’s priorities shifted. This explains his later statesmanship with which we are more familiar. Thereafter, Calhoun tried to change the rules of the game through hostile reinterpretation of the constitutional order and by redrawing the map of America to the advantage of slavery and its progeny, oligarchy. These new rules attempted to magnify the waning power of the Southern ruling class and restrain the growing power of the free states, with the hoped-for result that the slaveholders’ tiny, ambitious minority could dominate the Union and the Western hemisphere.
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While attempting to revolutionize the constitutional order, Calhoun tried to win by the standing rules of the game. In the presidential campaign of 1844 he wooed and won the support of “New York’s radical Democrats, the so-called Loco Focos.” How could they support a man like that? More generally, we should ask ourselves, why does mankind so often and so willingly put on its own chains? In the National Gazette in 1792, James Madison raised this question and delivered the answer: ignorance. The antidote, Madison wrote, is popular enlightenment, but sufficient enlightenment is hard to attain when great men exert themselves night and day to discover new means to deceive the people and advance their ambitious visions. Calhoun’s contemporary, Klemens von Metternich, the aristocratic foreign minister of the Austrian empire, can give us some insight into the calculations of such men. To the surprise of an American visitor, the prince said that were he American he would join the Loco Focos, showing that he both studied our politics closely and already knew best what disguise to don. No doubt, he too would find a way to play the part of a convincing Loco Foco, as Calhoun had. Great, dangerous men may be discovered in the most unexpected precincts of political life, and they cannot be easily unmasked.
But we must try to equal them. To strengthen our powers of discernment we might study Robert Elder’s admirably researched and narrated biography of Calhoun. The reward of understanding such men is no less than popular enlightenment, and the preservation of our liberty.