John C. Calhoun (1782—1850) of South Carolina was a major statesman of the antebellum era of American history. Unlike prominent politicians of his own and later generations, he was also a political thinker of international and continuous interest. The title, “Last of the Founding Fathers” of an article on Calhoun is appropriate in this connection. In the period of the War between the States and after, Calhoun’s reputation was narrowed down to the picture of an evil genius, conspiring to wreck the sacred Union in the interest of slavery and personal ambition. This is a gross falsification of both Calhoun and American history. During a long career in a dynamic period, he held the offices of U.S. Representative and Senator, Secretary of War and Secretary of State, and Vice-President. He was much more than a “sectional” statesman. He was admired in the North and Europe as well as the South and for his statesmanship on matters other than State rights and slavery: national defense, foreign affairs, federal spending and debt, free trade, banking and currency, Indian policy, and much else. And for his disinterested patriotism, integrity, and unblemished private life.
Calhoun was more important in his time than the offices he held. He always had influence because it was known that his stands on public issues were clear and principled and not the result of personal or party expediency. Along with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, he has often been designated as one of the Great Triumvirate of Senators who were more important in their time than any President except Andrew Jackson. Under the sponsorship of Senator John F. Kennedy, Calhoun was in the 1950s named as one of the five greatest Senators of all time.
Calhoun was born in the Upcountry of South Carolina where his family were among the earliest Scots-Irish pioneer settlers. His home for most of his life was in that region, finally at “Fort Hill” plantation, the house of which survives on the campus of Clemson University (which is named for his son-in-law). He was largely self-educated except for a period at Moses Waddel’s academy until he entered Yale. He graduated at the top of his class and studied law in Connecticut where slavery still existed and State rights were still invoked. No one who knew Calhoun in his youth doubted that he was headed for greatness. Returning home, he soon became prominent and was elected to Congress. His first speech in the House of Representatives in 1811 was in response to the feared debater John Randolph. After this speech a leading newspaper announced that Calhoun was “one of the master-spirits, who stamp their names upon the age in which they live.” For his eloquence and management of legislation in support of the War of 1812, he was called “the young Hercules who carried the war on his shoulder.” His administration of the War Department (1818—1825) showed outstanding administrative ability. Calhoun’s eloquence in the Senate later often came to be seen as prophetic. He predicted the Panic of 1837, the Civil War, and the future expansion of Presidential military power. His defense of slavery was not that far from Jefferson, an opposition to growing Northern interference and an acceptance of the status quo as the only viable alternative at the time. Lincoln on his election did not substantially disagree with the latter position.
It has been often said that Calhoun dictated to South Carolina, but the citizens of his State were far too proud to be dictated to. They followed Calhoun because they recognized him as a unique asset. It is also o0ften charged that Calhoun was governed by an obsessive desire to be President. He was certainly ambitious in his younger days, but after the Nullification crisis of 1832—1833 he knew perfectly well that he could never be elected President. The charge of excessive ambition is rendered silly by the facts that he several times resigned high office and often in his career moved from the majority side to the minority side on principle. He kept his name in Presidential discussion because it enhanced his influence for the good of the Union.
Clyde N. Wilson et al., ed., The Papers of John C. Calhoun, complete in 28 vols., is a comprehensive publication of letters, speeches, and writings. Clyde N. Wilson, ed., The Essential Calhoun (see 10.11.08), is a selection from the complete edition of the most important documents and those that show Calhoun’s far-seeing wisdom in such neglected areas as economics and foreign policy. Margaret L. Coit, John C. Calhoun: American Portrait (see 07.01.08), is a well-written and sympathetic biography that won the Pulitzer Prize. A more detailed biography is Charles M. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun, 3 vols. A good introductory summary to Calhoun’s thought is H. Lee Cheek, Calhoun and Popular Rule (see 10.11.09). Commentary on Calhoun’s political thought has been continuous and international, most of it admiring though varying greatly in quality of understanding. The 1950s especially enjoyed an outbreak of books and articles. A guide to literature on Calhoun up to the date of its publication can be found in Clyde N. Wilson, John C. Calhoun: A Bibliography (1990).
Calhoun’s political philosophy is expressed systematically in his two treatises: A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. See our review of this at 10.11.13.