By Robert Elder
Coming so soon after a neoconfederate mob rampaged through the Capitol, a respectful biography of the ideological father of the Confederacy may feel as welcome as an exhumed corpse. But the young historian Robert Elder has given us just that in “Calhoun” — an illuminating account of the life of the notorious white supremacist as well as his complex afterlife in American political culture.
John C. Calhoun was a zealous defender of slavery. His name has lately been stripped from a residential college at Yale (his alma mater) and from a lake in Minnesota named in his honor when he was secretary of war. His monument in Charleston — a glowering bronze figure in a cloak spread like eagle wings atop an obelisk — has been removed to an undisclosed location, as if in a witness protection program.
Already in his own day many people would have sent Calhoun into oblivion. But others who loathed his commitments nevertheless held his intellect in high regard. John Stuart Mill, who knew no “doctrine more damnable” than the idea that “one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind,” considered him “a speculative political thinker superior to any who has appeared in American politics since the authors of the Federalist.” Herman Melville, who regarded slavery as a “sin … foul as the crater-pool of hell,” took Calhoun as a model for Captain Ahab, a dark and wild genius whose defiance (“I’d strike the sun if it insulted me”) makes everyone around him seem small. Even some passionate abolitionists predicted that Calhoun’s posthumous reputation would be “without that element of contempt and loathing which must mingle with the memory of his Northern imitators and tools.”
Born in the South Carolina backcountry in 1782 and educated in New England, he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1811, where the Virginian John Randolph sized him up as a combination of “cold unfeeling Yankee manner with the bitter and acrimonious irritability of the South.” Outraged by British impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, he banged the drum for war, declaring that “the liberty of our sailors and their redemption from slavery” were at stake. Twenty years later in the Senate, he denounced a federal import tariff as a punitive tax on Southern planters and a subsidy for Northern manufacturers. When President Andrew Jackson proposed a “force bill” to compel South Carolina to comply, Calhoun replied that a nation united by force is no different from “the bond between master and slave; a union of exaction on one side, and of unqualified obedience on the other.” Like many before him — including slaveholders among the founders — he saw no contradiction between using slavery as a damning metaphor and sustaining it as a defensible practice.
In 1820, he remarked to his friend John Quincy Adams, who regarded slavery as a “merciless scourge,” that the enslavement of Black people was “the best guarantee to equality among whites.” Calhoun believed that by maintaining a docile class of dependent laborers, slavery solved the chronic problem of conflict between workers and employers. In the wage-labor system of the North, exploited whites — “galled,” as his disciple James Henry Hammond later put it, “by their degradation” — would inevitably become a force of contention and raise the risk of revolution. (The historian Richard Hofstadter called Calhoun “the Marx of the Master Class.”) But in the South, the dignity and tranquillity of white people, rich and poor, were secured by the degradation of Black people. Especially as he grew older, Calhoun rationalized these shameless arguments with pseudoscientific claims that Blacks were the natural inferiors of whites.
By the 1840s, “Free-Soilers,” some of whom shared Calhoun’s racism, were demanding that the Western territories must be reserved for white settlers and closed to Black slaves. Calhoun regarded this demand as an intolerable attack on the constitutional rights of Southerners. His mission became “the protection of one portion of the people against another” — by which he meant protecting the South from the North. He regarded this struggle as a fight for democracy against tyranny.
Although the antebellum South controlled huge wealth in the form of human chattel, Calhoun correctly foresaw the region’s decline into an electoral and economic minority. His conception of minority had nothing to do with what the term means today — a historically demeaned or disregarded group. He meant, as Edmund Fawcett puts it in his recent book “Conservatism,” which devotes several searching pages to Calhoun, “an enduring regional or social ‘interest’ large enough to bear weight in the nation but too small not to be out-votable.” Calhoun’s particular interest was, of course, that of his own slave-owning caste, but he believed that at issue was the general principle of minority rights.
Concern for this principle is what led John Stuart Mill, despite his personal revulsion at the interest Calhoun sought to protect, to respect him as a formidable thinker who challenged the utilitarian ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Fearing for the lesser number, Calhoun developed his idea of the “concurrent majority,” whereby “each interest or portion of the community … separately, through its own majority,” would possess veto power in a government requiring “the consent of each interest either to put or to keep the government in action.”
Underlying Calhoun’s political thought was his conviction — derived in part from the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions written by Jefferson and Madison — that the states were not subsidiary parts of a permanent union but sovereign members of a compact subject to continual revision. To resolve inevitable conflicts between state and national governments, he proposed different means at different times in his life — from his early idea that states should have the power to veto or “nullify” acts of Congress, to his desperate proposal just before his death in 1850 of a dual national executive, each with veto power over the other. If conflict proved irresolvable, the ultimate recourse was secession.
Calhoun always denied he was a disunionist and did not live long enough to witness the guns of South Carolina firing on United States forces in Charleston Harbor. But he became permanently associated with that act of what President Lincoln called domestic “insurrection.” His “real monument,” Walt Whitman wrote after the Civil War, was not his gravestone, but “the desolated, ruined South; nearly the whole generation of young men between 17 and 30 destroyed or maim’d.”
That was not the end of Calhoun’s legacy. With the repeal of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, a series of new monuments — culminating in the grandiose Charleston statue — went up as symbols of what white Southerners called “redemption” and Black Southerners experienced as renewed degradation. By the mid-20th century, Calhoun, whose racist premises were often brushed off or silently endorsed, became a hero to conservatives aghast at the expansion of federal power following the New Deal. The right-wing theorist Russell Kirk credited him with having revealed “the forbidding problem of the rights of individuals and groups menaced by the will of overbearing majorities.”
In his lucid book about this complex and contradictory figure, Robert Elder wisely refrains from assigning Calhoun to a stationary spot along the political spectrum. He points out that echoes of Calhoun’s ideas have not come exclusively from the right. In the 1990s, for example, when the liberal legal scholar Lani Guinier put forward the idea of “a minority veto on critical minority issues,” she was proposing a version of Calhoun’s “concurrent majority.” This time, however, the outrage came not from the left but from conservatives who attacked her for favoring group identity over majority rule.
Elder finished writing this valuable book too soon to add that with Donald Trump’s brazen effort to overturn election results where Black voters — so long disenfranchised by heirs of Calhoun — helped determine the outcome, the cause of states’ rights suddenly became the cause of the left. Almost two centuries ago Calhoun wrote that “the states must have the power really intended by the Constitution, in order, not to destroy, but to save the Constitution and the Union.” In one of the supreme ironies of American history, all those who cared about the fate of the nation in the waning weeks of 2020 could have counted themselves among his followers, if only in this respect.
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