“A republic, if you can keep it.”
—Benjamin Franklin

More often than not, historians of antebellum American politics lose their perspective, and perhaps their good sense, when they encounter John C. Calhoun. The other great men in the political history of the United States during that era-John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk-are of flesh, blood, and bone. But Calhoun remains larger than life, and less than human. 

Historians acknowledge the acuity of Calhoun’s intellect, while maintaining that his powerful mind was sacrificed to political ambition and corrupted in defense of slavery. Calhoun, they contend, was austere and humorless, with no interests save his work; capable of abstract political reasoning but never of practical statesmanship. Some obscure failing made it impossible for him to grasp the complexities of human nature. In consequence, he became lost in the rough-and-tumble world of Jacksonian politics. The reserve that characterized Calhoun’s temperament, manners, and conduct made him appear coldly intimidating to some of his contemporaries, and leaves him barely comprehensible to most of us. 

Clyde N. Wilson’s Essential Calhoun: Selections from Writings, Speeches, and Letters goes a long way toward correcting these caricatures, misconceptions, and distortions of Calhoun’s life, thought, and career. The image of Calhoun that emerges from these pages is not that usually presented in the history text books or, sadly, in recent biographies. In one of the more compelling sections Wilson exposes the inaccuracy of the myth that Calhoun was the “cast-iron man”-a myth, he writes, that seems “indelibly fixed in the popular imagination.” He shows Calhoun to have been a charming companion, a benevolent, even indulgent father, and a dutiful husband. More importantly, Wilson emphasizes Calhoun’s ties to the generation of the Founding fathers, whom he resembled more closely than the statesmen of his own day. He sees the whole of Calhoun’s writing as an extended commentary on the Constitution, in particular on the problem of achieving and sustaining a proper balance between liberty and power. For Calhoun, Wilson argues, this consideration was not preeminently political or economic but ethical, since it involved the challenge that confronted a government founded on the consent of the governed. A concern to overcome the partisan language of antebellum politics that continues to distort historical scholarship, as well as the desire to establish the leading ideas and principles that shaped Calhoun’s values and judgments, governs Wilson’s choice of the documents that constitute The Essential Calhoun

Wilson is uniquely qualified to make such determinations. As the editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun (20 volumes to date) for more than a decade, Wilson almost alone among students of antebellum America has an intimate knowledge-of the sources that illuminate Calhoun’s thought and character, and of the increasingly turbulent history of the times. Without exception, he has chosen wisely and well. In his introduction, he declares that selecting from among the vast corpus of Calhoun papers caused him more pain than any project he has undertaken. If I may be permitted for a moment to be cavalier about another’s suffering, I must say that  Wilson’s pain was worthwhile, if not for himself then for his readers. He has produced a book that displays the full range and depth of Calhoun’s insightful commentary on issues of enduring relevance to the United States and its people. 

Wilson presents Calhoun in the familiar guise of the political philosopher: the author of A Disquisition on Government, The Discourse on the Constitution, and the South Carolina Exposition and Protest; the theoretician of the concur rent majority and of interposition. But he is also intent to explore Calhoun’s neglected contributions to foreign policy, political economy, and public ad ministration. He has accompanied a feat that historians rarely attempt any longer: the revelation of how a man’s contemporaries knew and understood him, rather than a reflection of how he is perceived by posterity. 

From the earliest years of his career, Calhoun exercised an important influence on the formation and conduct of American foreign policy and on the development and implementation of a system of national defense. Upon his election to the House of Representatives in 1811, he gained national prominence as the leader of the “War Hawks” who sup ported James Madison in the fight to defend the republic against British commercial restrictions and political insults. When the war ended with nearly disastrous results for the United States, Calhoun attempted to rectify the inadequacies that he discerned in the organization of the military, the condition of roads, bridges, and waterways, and the financial structure of the nation. He advocated the moderate expansion of the army and navy, supported a modest plan of internal improvements, and sponsored the revival of the national bank, all in the interest of strengthening the American experiment in republican government that had faltered badly during the years 1812 to 1815. Yet these activities earned Calhoun a reputation as a “nationalist.” This view has remained powerful enough to make it a matter of conventional practice among historians to divide Calhoun’s career broadly into a “nationalist” and a “sectionalist” phase that seem inimical to one another. The most significant interpretive contribution that Wilson makes is to assemble documents that demonstrate a marked consistency to the positions that Calhoun took on critical questions throughout his forty years in public life. If sentiment made Calhoun a nationalist, circumstance made him a sectionalist. 

Calhoun deviated but little from his fundamental vision of the character of the United States. He always in tended to preserve a constitutional government of checks and balances that would strictly define and limit federal power, and thus control the actions of the federal government when adverse to the commonwealth. The concurrent majority was designed, Calhoun wrote in A Disquisition on Government, “to enlarge and secure the hounds of liberty, because it is better suited to prevent government from passing beyond its proper limits, and to restrict it to its primary end-the protection of the community.” This conception of the nature of the Constitution and of the union of states that it created informs and ex plains Calhoun’s trenchant criticisms of American politics in the 1830’s and 1840’s. 

During the two decades of his most active involvement in, and most mature reflection on, the American system of government, Calhoun witnessed the nation severing its connections to the stable and ordered world of the past. Without regard for the damage done to their traditions of liberty and self-government, the American people and their leaders became inclined toward conquest and empire. As the speeches and selections that Wilson has included in the chapter “On War and Foreign Relations” indicate, Calhoun, even in his youthful enthusiasm, always approached the prospects of war and conquest with gravity. Perhaps this sober attitude is enough to recommend him to the leaders of our own time who can issue and execute orders that result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands with apparently little consideration for the political-not to mention the moral–consequences of victory. 

Whether it was the debate over the War of 1812, which he favored, or the Mexican War, which he did not, Calhoun’s advice was always the same. He counseled prudence and reflection be fore plunging into war. In his remarks delivered in the House of Representatives on December 12, 1811, for example, Calhoun urged that:

War, in this country, ought never to be resorted to but when it is clearly justifiable and necessary; so much so, as not to require the aid of logic to convince our reason nor the ardor of eloquence to enflame passions. There arc many reasons why this country should never resort to war but for causes the most urgent and necessary. It is sufficient that, under a government like ours, none but such will justify it in the eye of the nation. 

Almost thirty-six years later, in February 1847, an older and more pessimistic Calhoun repeated in the Senate his ear lier admonition about the consequences of an unnecessary war: 

On the passage of the act recognizing the war [with Mexico], I said to many of my friends, that a deed had been done from which the country would not recover for a long time, if ever; and added, it has dropped a curtain between the present and the future, which to me is impenetrable. . . . I also added, that it has closed the first volume of our political history under the Constitution, and opened the second, and that no mortal could tell what would be written in it. These deep impressions were made upon my mind, be cause I saw from the circumstances under which the war was made, a total departure from the course of policy which had governed the country from the commencement of our Government until that time; and this, too, under circumstances calculated to lead to most disastrous consequences. 

Calhoun approached domestic affairs with the same devotion to constitutional precedent. He thought frugality in public expenditure indispensable to the operation and the survival of free governments. Governments with access to limitless resources commonly brought misfortune to their citizens. He under stood the usefulness of the National Bank in providing a stable currency, which the country sorely needed, but feared the extraordinary grant of economic and, inevitably, of political power to a private institution. According to the Constitution (Article I, Section 8), Congress alone had the authority to regulate the currency. Unlike his colleagues in the House and Senate, and unlike An drew Jackson himself, Calhoun under stood the Bank War primarily as a debate over competing interpretations of the Constitution. It was of no advantage to the country, as well as of dubious constitutionality, for the Executive to dismantle the Second Bank of the United States only to establish in its place privileged agencies that competed with another without offering a well-regulated and stable medium of circulation and exchange. 

Calhoun opposed taxes and tariffs that promoted the welfare and prosperity of one section or interest at the expense of another. Such arrangements disrupted the social peace and material progress of the Union and, in the particular situation that concerned him, exposed the South to exploitation. Fiscal responsibility, fair taxation, sound currency, and free trade were for Calhoun more than means to attain commercial advantage or economic prosperity: they constituted the foundation of social order and civilized life. “FREE TRADE; LOW DUTIES; NO DEBT; SEPARATION FROM BANKS; ECONOMY; RETRENCHMENT, AND STRICT ADHERENCE TO THE CONSTITUTION,” became the slogans of Calhoun’s last presidential campaign in 1843. But these words also delineated the principles to which he had long and faithfully adhered. 

Calhoun hoped, and always sought to ensure, that the leaders of the federal government would act vigorously for the national welfare, but would at the same time scrupulously observe the constitutional limits imposed upon their actions. Even in his most spirited and dangerous opposition to the expansion of federal power during the Nullification Crisis of 1828-1833, Calhoun considered nullification as a way of preserving the South in the Union, of preserving the South and the Union. Throughout his career, Calhoun’s love of the Union almost balanced his fear for the South. As the documents that Wilson has collected show, Calhoun proposed nullification because he wished to save his nation and his section, and because he recognized the dangers that threatened to destroy them both. 

If the promise of the United States was to vindicate man’s capacity not sim ply for independence and liberty but for responsible self-government, the Constitution stood against the constant threat of the usurpation or the abuse of power, by the government or by the people. For Calhoun, the great unanswered question of the American experiment was how to ensure social order and political stability in a government that, al though properly dependent on the will of the people, was also vulnerable to the vagaries of popular opinion and the vicissitudes of partisan mischief. 

For a solution to this question, Calhoun turned to the American past, brief though it was. He emphasized a reverence for tradition not only as an indispensable source of stability but as the repository of meaning and truth in human affairs. Severed from tradition, government would shift endlessly to accommodate popular opinion, and would become vulnerable to the unsavory influence of demagogues who would manipulate power according to their own whims and to indulge their own ambitions. The fancies and passions of the moment would prevail, and the republic would be lost. 

Honoring Calhoun’s prescription for a stable republican social and political order imposed a heavy burden on a generation of Americans who were jealously protective of their own sovereignty. His way required humility, discipline, restraint, and above all deference to ancestral authority among a people who had begun unabashedly to celebrate the autonomy of the individual liberated (apparently) from the bonds of community and the tyranny of the past. 

Wilson’s assertion that the slavery question wJs unimportant to Calhoun until the last four or five years of his life is extravagant. But Wilson is at least partly correct in arguing that Calhoun’s defense of the American tradition of constitutional government was not in his own mind a strategic maneuver de signed to protect slavery. For Calhoun, the defense of the Constitution was a defense of civilization itself against the twin evils of anarchy and despotism. 

Calhoun’s dark predictions concern ing the fate of the republic at the hands of entrenched bureaucrats, party politicians, greedy capitalists, and others have been fulfilled with a vengeance. The callousness of a government no longer responsive to the needs of it people, the irresponsibility of business in pursuit of unexampled profits, the intensifying racial antagonisms, the mounting violence in the streets and in the home, the widening gulf between vast private fortunes and unrelenting public squalor are only symptomatic of the deeper spiritual crisis of a people and a nation cast adrift from their historical moorings. Under the conditions that now prevail in the United States, other peoples at other times have called on a dictator to solve their problems and to end their misery. Although Calhoun refused ever to succumb to the expediency of totalitarianism and unfailingly defended the principles of liberty and self-government, he warned his daughter, Anna Maria, in a letter of June 10, 1847, that “We act, as if good institutions & liberty belong to us of right, & that neither neglect nor folly can deprive us of their blessing.”

Calhoun’s words now have an aura of prophecy about them. I salute Clyde Wilson in his efforts to rehabilitate the essential Calhoun, for he has shown how much Calhoun still has to teach us and how much we yet have to learn. 


[The Essential Calhoun: Selections from Writings, Speeches, and Letters, by Clyde N. Wilson (New Brunswick: Transaction Books) 436 pp., $32.95]