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John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Last weekend, I had the grand privilege of working with Emily Corwin, Adam Tate, and Richard Brake at a co-sponsored ISI/Liberty Fund colloquium in Philadelphia. Held at the gorgeous Omni, we overlooked Independence Hall. Our topic: Union, republic, and nullification. As I have been so many times in my adult life, I was struck by the sheer intelligence of John C. Calhoun.

Please don’t get me wrong–I’m not a Calhounite. But, I find him much more interesting and subtle, say, than pro-slavery, anti-Catholic John Locke, often one of Calhoun’s intellectual opponents. As Calhoun rightly notes, there never existed a State of Nature–unless, of course, you completely disregard all of Christianity and all of reality. In almost every way, Calhoun bests Locke in terms of social theory.

In the minds of the South Carolinians, Calhoun held the status of a Founding Father. His prestige was second only to George Washington. Calhoun was regarded as the patron saint of South Carolina. When some natives of the state took a visiting northern student to Calhoun’s tomb in 1860, they treated it as a medieval Roman Catholic would have reverenced a shrine. “The culmination of this sentiment was reached when the Northern visitor was taken to the grave of John C. Calhoun,” E. G. Mason remembered. “Then, if never before,” the Charlestonians expected the would-be pilgrim “to feel a due sense of his inferiority to the natives of the soil, which the presence of that superhuman individual had made more sacred than aught else of Mother Earth.”[1] William Howard Russell, the London Times correspondent mentioned earlier, remarked that he could not enter into a conversation with a South Carolinian in the spring of 1861 without Calhoun’s name being invoked. “The founder of the school [of secession] was St. Calhoun,” Russell wrote. “Here his pupils carry out their teaching in thunder and fire. States’ Rights are displayed after its legitimate teaching, and the Palmetto flag and the red bars of the Confederacy are its exposition.”[2]

John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) was a fascinating, complex figure and a first-rate American thinker. During his impressive career, he served as secretary of war, vice president, and U.S. senator. His thought, though, evolved considerably over his adult years. Prior to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Calhoun had been a war hawk and a nationalist. “Let it not be forgotten, let it be forever kept in mind, that the extent of the republic exposes us to the greatest of calamities—disunion,” Calhoun had warned as Secretary of War in February 1817: “We are great, and rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing. This is our pride and danger, our weakness and our strength. . . . We are under the most imperious obligations to counteract every tendency to disunion. . . . Whatever impedes the intercourse of the extremes with this, the centre of the republic, weakens the union. . . . Let us, then, bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space.”[3]

Even in the post–War of 1812 era of excessive nationalism, it would be difficult to find a more nationalist sentiment. But the debates surrounding the admission of Missouri as a slave or free state in 1819 and1820 moved Calhoun significantly towards a state-sovereignty position. Indeed, the debates over Missouri’s admission shocked Americans, north and south. Northerners had not realized how dependent the South had become on slavery, and the South had not realized how antislavery the northern population had become since the ratification of the Constitution. It was the first time in decades that slavery had been debated publicly, and it opened wounds that would not be healed before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The strong language of northerners during the debate, such as the views expressed by Senator Rufus King of New York, and the arguments of the eccentric Virginian aristocrat John Randolph of Roanoke, strongly affected Calhoun. He became convinced that the South must solidify and create its own philosophy to protect itself from what he perceived to be northern aggressiveness and potential coercive violence. Over the following three decades, Calhoun penned a number of influential anti-nationalist writings that placed him in the pantheon of South Carolinian heroes.[4]

Calhoun’s “The Disquisition on Government” was his classic statement. Strangely, but perhaps brilliantly, depending on one’s point of view, the Disquisition combines Christian, romantic, and utilitarian thought. Certainly, Calhoun embraced the romantic position that the “denial of Locke is the beginning of wisdom.” John Locke’s ideas proceed from the assertion that a “state of nature” once existed. In that state, good men felt insecure in their persons and property. Because of this insecurity, these men voluntarily came together to form a social compact, giving up a few of their rights for a much greater, collective security. Calhoun adamantly denied Locke’s claims. No state of nature ever existed, according to the South Carolinian. From the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, social and political authority had existed. God created and God gave men commands: to name things, to have dominion over the earth, to avoid eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When man complained of his loneliness, God created Eve as a companion and the institution of marriage began. Therefore, no abstract individuals existed or ever could exist. Simply put, there had never been a “state of nature. Authority and institutions had always existed.[5]

End Part I. Read Part II here.

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Notes:

1. E.G. Mason, “A Visit to South Carolina in 1860,” Atlantic Monthly (February 1884), 244.

2. William Howard Russell, My Diary: North and South (Philadelphia, Penn.: Temple University Press, 1988), 86. See also William Howard Russell, Pictures of Southern Life: Social, Political, and Military (New York: James G. Gregory, 1861).

3. Quoted in Dangerfield, Awakening, 18.

4. The best known of Calhoun’s writings are “The Disquisition on Government,” the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” and “The Fort Hill Address.” Each of these writings, to varying degrees, embraced Roman Republican, Scottish Presbyterian, Scottish Enlightenment, Burkean, and, later in Calhoun’s career, Hegelian thought. I am greatly indebted to my former colleague in Political Science, Thomas Krannawitter, for pointing out the Hegelianism (latent or direct) in Calhoun’s later writings. On Edmund Burke’s influence on Calhoun, see Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santyana (Chicago: Regnery, 1953). The other influences seem obvious upon examination. See, for example, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which anticipates Calhoun’s understanding of the nature of man almost perfectly. One might even go so far in 2012 as to state that Calhoun “lifted” from Smith’s TMS directly.

5. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for the very excellent and erudite essay. Your treatment of the Great Carolinian is more thoughtful than he usully receives. The attribution of Hegelian influence has been thoroughly questioned by Clyde Wilson and myself. The attempted connection to Hegel is a device often used by scholars who want to denigrate Calhoun in an effort to promote other theorists, or more often, their ideological formulations. While this is certainly not your argument, one is wise to question such literary devices, and you present a much more circumspective view. Guy Story Brown's recent book on Calhoun uses Hegel for the sake of comparison, which is helpful, but only for historical analysis.

  2. Thanks for the good words, Lee. I can't claim to be a Calhoun scholar or a Hegel scholar. If there is a connection–and I shouldn't claim there is–my understanding of it comes from hallway conversations with a colleague. I do think the other connections–Smith, Calvin, etc.–seem more concrete. Glad to know you and Wilson are doing such excellent work, and it's an honor to have you post here.

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