He’s the nineteenth-century southern leader infamous for saying that slavery was “a positive good.”
So, it’s no wonder that in June of 2020, the city of Charleston, SC, took down the statue of the state’s most famous politician, John C. Calhoun.
Today, Calhoun is pretty much only remembered as the guy cruel (or clueless) enough to say that slavery was awesome. It may be hard to believe that, in his own day, Calhoun was known as one of the leading political minds not just in the South but across the whole United States, as Irving Bartlett writes in John C. Calhoun: A Biography (affiliate link).
Many of Calhoun’s contemporaries weren’t so bold. They accepted the growing national consensus before the Civil War that because slavery was oppressive and cruel, it should end, someday — maybe in 1900, for example. Compromisers both North and South argued that for the foreseeable future, the South’s peculiar institution was a regrettable necessity. It would be too expensive to extricate the economy from slave labor and too dangerous to try to set enslaved people free to live next door to their former masters.
But Calhoun was having none of that kind of talk.
A man of convictions who wasn’t afraid to contradict popular opinion, Calhoun boldly proclaimed that slavery was “a positive good,” the best social and economic relationship for both master and slave and a boon to republican society.
Another strike against Calhoun today is that he’s known for starting the “Nullification” crisis of 1831-1832, an episode that foreshadowed the secession of southern states three decades later that led to the Civil War.
Nullification was ostensibly about South Carolina objecting to a high tariff on imports passed by Congress and signed by President Andrew Jackson that Palmetto State leaders thought would wind up transferring wealth from southern planters to northern manufacturers.
South Carolina claimed the right to “nullify” the tariff legislation and to refuse to implement the tariff inside the state. Hopefully, this could be done peacefully, with the state continuing to remain in the Union. But if not, then secession was always an option…
While heated talk was all about tariffs, everybody knew that nullification was also about slavery. It was about setting a legal precedent. If the federal government could force South Carolina to accept a tariff it didn’t want, then couldn’t Congress also force southern states to restrict or even abolish slavery, at some time in the future?
Why Calhoun Still Matters
Slavery a “positive good” and nullification — that’s the heart of Calhoun’s legacy. And Irving Bartlett doesn’t flinch from it in his biography of the planter and slaveowner who served as senator, secretary of state and vice president across four decades in the early nineteenth century.
But, ironically for a college professor from Boston, that capital of Yankeedom, and author of a book on abolitionists Wendell and Ann Phillips, Bartlett finds much to admire in the statesman known in his own time as the “cast iron man” for his lack of humor and stern personal bearing.
Actually, Calhoun was warmer and funnier back home on his plantation in the foothills of South Carolina than he was in Washington, DC, where he spent much of his adult life serving either in Congress or in the executive branch. But his persona as the lion of the Senate was no act, and Calhoun strove the be the genuine embodiment of republican virtue that he thought America needed.
Along with Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Kentucky’s Henry Clay, Calhoun was one of the three perennial leaders who dominated the era between the founders and the Civil War. Deeper and more respected for his integrity than either Webster or Clay, Calhoun lacked their charm and ability to connect with the public. Nonetheless like them, Calhoun never managed to achieve his ambition to become president.
You can’t understand America before the Civil War without Calhoun.
Admired by Friends and Enemies Alike
It’s a fitting tribute that even leading abolitionists found Calhoun admirable for his unshakable commitment to preserving and extending slavery. While Clay and Webster attempted many compromises to keep North and South together, Calhoun remained the cast-iron defender of the planters of the South.
That’s why Wendell Phillips, legendary for his abuse of pro-slavery politicians, called Calhoun “the pure, manly and uncompromising advocate of slavery; the Hector of a Troy fated to fall.” And William Lloyd Garrison wrote that Calhoun was “a man who means what he says and who never blusters. He is no demagogue.”
Bartlett’s biography helps us get to know a man both valued and loathed by presidents. Calhoun guided James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, sparred with Andrew Jackson and towered over the party hacks and warmed over generals who, by occupying the White House, deprived Calhoun of the prize he wanted most: Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor.
Calhoun was also a great political thinker, considered in his time on a par with Jefferson and Madison. Educated at Yale and widely read in the history of constitutional law, Calhoun authored two respected treatises on government where he argued that, to avoid falling into despotism, a republican government must protect the interests of political minorities.
To accomplish that, Calhoun offered his theory of the “concurrent majority.” Though Calhoun applied this concept to the issue of slavery, to protect the southern minority from abolition imposed by the northern majority, Bartlett thinks the concept of the concurrent majority might have applications today.
In today’s age of one-dimensional history where figures from the past are summarily judged as either all good or all bad, Calhoun represents a challenge: a brilliant theorist of good government, a public servant genuinely devoted to his idea of republican virtue and a courageous defender of the rights of the minority, all ultimately in service to one of the worst institutions in American history, slavery.
No Hero but Still Formidable
Calhoun didn’t just accept white supremacy. He argued stubbornly that the American founders were wrong in declaring all men to be created equal. This claim is another thing from Calhoun that prefigured the Civil War.
A decade after Calhoun’s death in 1850, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave his infamous “Cornerstone” speech about how the founders were wrong by declaring that all men were created equal.
According to Stephens, the Confederacy would correct this error: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
For setting the stage for Stephens and because Calhoun himself opposed the best part of the Declaration of Independence, statues of Calhoun in public places in Charleston and anyplace else should come down.
The cast-iron champion of slavery and nullification does not deserve to be honored as an American hero. However, the life and thought of Calhoun deserves wider attention outside the Palmetto State. Not only does Calhoun show how the American project can go wrong. He also shows how it can go wrong even while trying to go right.
Calhoun should be expunged from the pantheon of American heroes in the South. But this paradoxical thinker, both great and greatly deluded, should not be expunged from history.
That’s not a simple story to understand these days. But for a reader willing to stretch their understanding of the American past, Calhoun’s story is worth knowing.