There are some biographies which are almost impossible to write. Sometimes this is because the subject is guilty of such monstrosities that the empathy required to write a worthwhile biography can undermine the moral judgment a difficult subject demands. Ian Kershaw, at the beginning of his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, admitted that “any biographical approach” to a character like the Nazi fiend has the “inbuilt danger” of requiring “a level of empathy with the subject which can easily slide over into sympathy, perhaps even hidden or partial admiration.” Any attempts to understand Hitler as something other than a consummate devil—as an opportunist, a hypnotizer, an anti-Bolshevik, a social revolutionary, or a Weberian charismatic—all have lurking within them the “potential for a possible rehabilitation of Hitler” as some version of a national hero, if only his “crimes against humanity” could be somehow contextualized.

Yet, context is as much a necessity in biography as judgment; the one, in fact, has no meaning without the other. “The biographer’s mission,” wrote Paul Murray Kendall, “is to perpetuate a man as he was in the days he lived—a spring task of bringing to life again, constantly threatened by unseasonable freezes.” But context is itself a slippery task, and contextualizing a difficult subject sets up a different hazard for the biographer, that of being misunderstood as a co-conspirator in the subject’s project, so that both the subject and the biographer are heaped with opprobrium by a drone of self-congratulatory criticism.

For such a task, the great literary critic John Gardner laid down this rule: No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion. Without the will to judge, as Kershaw recognized, any empathy is suspect, and will be regarded that way. Without compassion, however—without a deep understanding of motives, times, places, losses, sorrows: context, again—the result will never rise above sanctimonious caricature. In fact, without biographies of difficult subjects, it might not be possible to write biographies at all.

John Caldwell Calhoun is one of those difficult subjects, something which the Baylor University historian Robert Elder acknowledges in the title of his new Calhoun biography, Calhoun: American Heretic.1 Born in 1782, at almost the close of the American Revolution, Calhoun was the offspring of that wave of two hundred thousand Scots-Irish immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in the five decades before Independence. The first Calhoun—John’s grandfather—arrived in Pennsylvania in 1733, but like so many of the Scots-Irish, the Calhouns kept on moving. Young Patrick Calhoun—John’s father—settled in the Shenandoah Valley in the late 1740s, but a decade later pushed on to the South Carolina hinterlands, surviving warfare with the Cherokee and eventually acquiring 2,100 acres of land—and sixteen slaves.

South Carolina was, from the very start, a different world from the rest of America. In the 1790 census, its population had the closest to racial parity between white and black (140,000 to 109,000) of any American state, virtually all of the latter enslaved; forty years later, whites were a minority (237,000 to 265,000), and by the eve of the Civil War whites were outnumbered four to three. It was also a state with a dramatic political divide between lowcountry elites, loyal to the Federalist party and clustered around Charleston and the coast, and back-country landowners, tied to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and deeply resentful of the way the lowcountry ruled the legislature by appointing the governor, the state’s federal electors, and almost all the state offices.

Young John Calhoun’s education was a confirmation of all of the back-country’s Jeffersonian predilections: at age thirteen, after his father’s death, he was enrolled in a classical academy run by his Presbyterian brother-in-law, Moses Waddel; then, in 1802, he entered the junior class at Yale College, where he stubbornly clung to the Jeffersonian persuasion despite the Federalism breathed into the Yale atmosphere by the college’s president, the devout and devoutly Jefferson-hating Timothy Dwight. He was “one of the very few, who dared to speak out in College in 1803–04 when Federalism was so prevalent at Yale,” remembered one fellow student; forty years later, another classmate could congratulate Calhoun on being “the same true and undeviating republican, in principle and practice, that you were forty years ago.”

Or so it seemed. Calhoun added another Connecticut year in 1805 by studying law at yet another Federalist stronghold, the Litchfield law school established by Tapping Reeve. (An abiding rumor was that Calhoun had stopped en route in Washington to pay homage to Jefferson, and perhaps to reinforce his Jeffersonianism before facing another blast of Federalism). When he returned to South Carolina in December, 1806, he opened a law practice in Abbeville. But he admitted feeling “a strong aversion to the law,” and soon enough turned to politics. The turn was almost too easy. Elected to the state legislature in October 1808, he waited only two years before successfully running for Congress. He was just twenty-eight years old.

Once there, however, Calhoun found it more difficult to play the true Jeffersonian. Although Jefferson’s political heir, James Madison, still presided over a Jeffersonian-dominated administration, Jefferson’s party was fracturing. One faction, led by the Kentuckian Henry Clay, was chafing at Jeffersonian policies on trade, banking, and tariffs, while a stubborn band of Jeffersonian purists, the Tertium Quids (the “third something,” after the Federalists and the Clay faction), headed by the razor-tongued Virginian, John Randolph, angrily demanded “taxes repealed; the public debt amply provided for, both principal and interest; sinecures abolished . . . public confidence unbounded.” Calhoun found himself drawn almost at once to Clay, and with Clay, he voted for bills to establish a new federal bank, protect manufacturing through tariffs, and fund an ambitious program of government-sponsored infrastructure projects. And he won personal prominence by bearding the raspy John Randolph on the floor of the House. When James Monroe succeeded Madison as president in 1816, Monroe had no hesitations in inviting Calhoun to join his administration as Secretary of War.

The Monroe years, from 1816 to 1824, enjoy the appellation “The Era of Good Feelings.” Calhoun’s tenure at the War Department, however, was not exactly easy going. His staff consisted of just thirty-four clerks and eighteen agents who administered the government’s entire Indian policy, and much of his time was consumed with supervising the not always kindly enforcement of tribal removal treaties. Calhoun had even more grief with the behavior of over-mighty white aggressors, especially the über-popular Andrew Jackson, whom he flatly condemned for his unilateral occupation of Spanish-owned Pensacola.

By 1824, Calhoun was ready to make a presidential bid, advertising himself as a moderate who stood “on the great Republican cause, free alike from the charge of Federalism or Radicalism.” He had to settle for the vice-presidency, under John Quincy Adams, and in many respects this marked the climacteric of his political career. Although Adams was opposed to slavery and Calhoun was by now a substantial slave-owner, Calhoun’s relations with Adams had always been cordial. He had been willing to condemn the transatlantic slave trade as an “odious traffic,” and, in the midst of the great controversy in Congress over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1820, Calhoun had agreed that Congress had jurisdiction over legalizing slavery in the Western Territories. It is not inconceivable that he could have even become a leader in the Whig party that Clay formed in 1834 to combat Andrew Jackson and promote a program—an “American System”—for tariffs, banking, and infrastructure. Moving in that direction, he might have (like Clay) espoused some strategy for gradual emancipation and colonization.

Instead, from 1824 onwards, Calhoun was under the pressure of mounting criticism from his South Carolina constituents that he was going soft on slavery, and feeling the intellectual influence of the hard-line Jeffersonian John Taylor of Caroline. Rather than accommodation, Calhoun now swung hard away from Clay. He cast his first vote against tariffs (as vice-president) in 1825, then turned against federal infrastructure funding. When Andrew Jackson evicted John Quincy Adams from the presidency in 1828, Calhoun was picked to remain as vice-president. But he was now deeply committed to resisting federal authority, no matter who was president, and between 1828 and 1832 he directed a political war against federal tariff legislation that asserted South Carolina’s authority to nullify federal laws within its own boundaries. Since tariffs generated 94 percent of the federal government’s revenue, this amounted to a practical veto over all federal authority, and that generated a ferocious backlash from Andrew Jackson, who threatened to march federal troops into South Carolina to enforce federal authority. But it was clear that Calhoun’s real concern was not the tariffs per se, but federal power to touch slavery. Tariffs were only “the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things,” Calhoun wrote in 1830. It was “the peculiar domestic institution of the Southern States” he wanted to protect; tariff nullification was only a skirmish line.

From that moment, Calhoun never had any real hope of the presidency. Having directly challenged Jackson over the tariff, he resigned his vice-presidency. He was triumphantly returned to the Senate to represent South Carolina for the next two decades, but his energies were now poured into political philosophy, and the formulation of an alternative republicanism. Beginning with his Exposition and Protest of December 1828, and running through his Fort Hill Address (1831) and his posthumously published Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, Calhoun developed a new American political theory, built around four principal points.

First, his repudiation of the Declaration of Independence and the natural-law principles it embodies. Calhoun went straight to the root of American political self-understanding by insisting that the Declaration of Independence, by taking inalienable natural rights as its fundamental premise, was an enormous mistake. “There had never been a proposition of such dangerous import, or which had been so misunderstood, or been productive of so much evil” as the notion that “certain inalienable rights” had been conveyed to anyone, much less life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The idea of natural rights was only a “hypothetical truism,” and “nothing can be more unequal than the quantum of liberty assigned to each individual.” Liberty, for instance, is not an inherent right, hard-wired in equal proportions into every individual human nature, but “a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike.” Those people who were “too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it” should not have liberty handed to them.

Second, his advocacy of white racial supremacy. Nothing was more obvious to Calhoun but that Africans were far, far below the bar of such political privileges. “I appeal to facts,” he declared in an 1837 speech. “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually” as it has under American slavery. For that “Central African race,” slavery was not a labor system to which power had assigned them, but “a positive good” which benefited it, and until some sign appeared that “the black race” had moved beyond ignorance, degradation, and viciousness, in slavery it should stay. “I hold [slavery] to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be . . . and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition.”

The real origins of the Revolution were evolutionary, as British colonists used, developed, and asserted traditional English liberties.

Third, his romantic glorification of historical process. Not only were the Declaration and natural law wrong, they were also historically irrelevant. “If we trace it back,” Calhoun declared before the Senate in 1848, “we shall find the proposition” about equality “expressed in the Declaration of Independence” had been “inserted in our Declaration of Independence without any necessity.” The real origins of the Revolution were evolutionary, as British colonists used, developed, and asserted traditional English liberties. “Breach of our chartered privileges, and lawless encroachment on our acknowledged and well-established rights by the parent country, were the real causes—and of themselves sufficient, without resorting to any other, to justify the step . . . in constructing the governments which were substituted in the place of the colonial.” It stood to reason, then, that historical process would not stand still, either, but continue to reveal itself in new developments, in different places, among the relations of different peoples. The Constitution contained more than one “case of mission,” and relied on “slow and successive experience” for “correction and adaptation.” It was only to be expected that “preservation is perpetual creation.” Calhoun was, in that sense, the first living constitutionalist.

Fourth, his critique of the North’s commercial society. The offense of Clay’s “American System” of tariffs, banking, and federal infrastructure was not solely a matter of federal authority; a greater offense lay in how Clay’s program benefited commerce, trade, and free labor at the expense of Jeffersonian agriculturalists. The “manufacturing interest” was primed to “rear up a moneyed aristocracy” in America, Calhoun warned, and though Americans might at that moment see freedom and slavery as the primary national problem, dividing “the manufacturing States” and “the Agricultural States,” Calhoun (like Malthus, Ricardo, and ultimately Marx) foresaw that “the time will come when it will produce the same results between the several classes” and “the contest will be between the capitalists and operatives.” The plantation system, by contrast, preserved what Calhoun imagined was a humane balance between labor, capital, and the environment. Every “plantation is a little community of itself,” Calhoun believed, where generous-minded white men cared for contented and grateful black slaves in a quasi-medieval idyll. “Property in our slaves,” he argued, “is but wages purchased in advance including the support and supplies of the laborers, which is usually very liberal.” And “it ought to be a principle of morals and patriotism,” he wrote to Edmund Ruffin in 1835, “that no gain is legitimate that does not leave the land as productive as it was before it was taken.”

Calhoun (like Malthus, Ricardo, and ultimately Marx) foresaw that “the time will come” when “the contest will be between the capitalists and operatives.”

Calhoun did not, however, underestimate the determination or the numbers in the anti-slavery movement, especially after the shock of the Missouri statehood controversy in 1820. Northern free-labor political power was growing, and it would only be a matter of time before anti-slavery majorities wrested control of the federal government out of the hands of Southerners and destroyed his little slave communities. To preserve them, Calhoun bent his political energies to a reconstruction of the Constitution which would insert guarantees for minority identity rights into the legal system. “What was this body but a community of states, united for the purpose of maintaining their separate institutions?” Calhoun asked. To keep it that way, he argued in 1828, states should possess a veto over federal legislation, in the form of state nullification. When that possibility withered in the teeth of Andrew Jackson’s unforgiving rage, Calhoun proposed as an alternative the doctrine of “concurrent majorities,” which required the assent of a majority of the states, as states, to federal law and not simply assent by the general population as represented in the House of Representatives. “Government of the people is the government of the whole community,” not merely the “government of the absolute majority.”

Calhoun did not live to see the full flowering of his philosophy. He contracted the scourge of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis, probably in 1845, and died of it on March 31, 1850, even as he was conducting a stubborn campaign to open the Western Territories to slavery and defeat Henry Clay’s effort to strike a compromise to contain slavery’s spread. Calhoun’s admirers in South Carolina raised funds to erect a monument to him in Charleston; it was still unfinished when South Carolinians opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and began the Civil War.

Calhoun stands today, as he did in his own time, as the premier defender of white racial supremacy, of slavery as a legitimate labor system, of the triumph of minority factionalism, and ultimately as the intellectual spark to disunion and civil war. He was the anti-Washington, and, for that matter, the anti-Madison and the anti-Lincoln, of American history. When the Supreme Court, in the notorious Slaughterhouse Cases judgment in 1873, successfully crippled the Fourteenth Amendment’s extension “of the common rights of American citizens under the protection of the National Government,” Justice Stephen Field’s dissenting opinion stigmatized that conclusion as “the opinion of Mr. Calhoun and the class represented by him.” Henry Wilson’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power (1875) pinned “the dissolution of the Union” on the “wrong position” in which Calhoun had “placed the South.” Calhoun’s first major biographer, Herman von Holst, condemned him in 1882 as “interested in nothing outside slavery,” whose defense he raised to the level of “abstraction, as a principle.” W. E. B. Du Bois denounced Calhoun in Calhoun’s own home state of South Carolina in 1946 as one of those “men whose names must ever be besmirched by the fact that they fought against freedom and democracy in a land which was founded upon democracy and freedom. . . . This class of men must yield to the writing in the stars.” And the late Harry Jaffa, defending to the last syllable the reputation of Abraham Lincoln, fingered Calhoun’s writings as “a landmark in the transition from individual rights to group rights” and a repudiation of “constitutionalism and the rule of law.” Calhoun was, for Jaffa, “reminiscent of Hegel” in seeing that human history is the product of “not human art or reason but human passion.”

The most recent turn around Calhoun’s memory has been iconoclastic. In 2017, Yale University renamed the residential college it had called Calhoun College eighty-four years before; this past summer, Clemson University removed Calhoun’s name from its honors college; in June 2020, the Charleston City Council voted to remove the statue of Calhoun which stood on a pedestal in Marion Square as a gesture toward “racial conciliation and for unity in this city”; and Fort Wayne, Indiana, is at this moment debating renaming Calhoun Street as a “constant symbol of an oppressive past.”

This makes the task Professor Elder sets for himself in American Heretic a steep one, for while he fully recognizes that “to many Calhoun seems to represent the antithesis of the American idea of equality, inclusion, and popular democracy” and “was to some even in his own lifetime, a heretic,” Elder cannot entirely escape the seduction, even at the distance of a century and a half, of Calhoun’s commanding persona and the singular consistency of his political logic. “There are dangers inherent in the ritual of proclaiming heretics,” Elder insists, “who often go to the stake to expiate the anxieties of those who watch them burn.” Whether this sympathy is best applied to Calhoun, or to the abolitionists beaten and murdered by pro-slavery mobs, or to the fugitives hunted down and condemned by kangaroo courts under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 is a question Elder does not answer, but it is the kind of problem posed by all biographies of difficult subjects.

Elder’s caution in dealing out judgment is mirrored in his detailed lope across the landscape of Calhoun’s life. American Heretic, at 656 pages, dwarfs all the major studies of Calhoun in the last fifty years (Irving Bartlett’s 1994 John C. Calhoun: A Biography weighs in at 416 pages, John Niven’s 1988 John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography at 367 pages). Mercifully, it rarely drags, even though much of it is devoted to a fastidious walk through the development of Calhoun’s political ideas. Unhappily, that also makes for a certain flatness, especially when Elder deals with the moments in Calhoun’s career which coruscate with dramatic collision. The famous Jefferson’s Birthday dinner of 1830, when Calhoun hoped Andrew Jackson would join in a carefully orchestrated round of toasts that would signal Jackson’s cooperation in nullifying the tariff, is passed by in two bland paragraphs. This reflects Elder’s doubts that Jackson’s surprise toast—“Our Union, it must be preserved”—really represented some symbolic rending of the Democratic temple’s veil. But it’s also symptomatic of Elder’s low-key approach to anything that threatens to become exciting. It’s true that there has been significant debate over the actual importance of the dinner and the toasts; yet the moment itself was theatrical enough to deserve more from Elder (as indeed it has from H. W. Brands in Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, Robert Remini’s Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom, and even in my old high-school favorite, Paul Wellman’s The House Divides).

Congenial as Elder’s style is, the book is not without the occasional pothole. James Somerset, the focus of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s famous judgment against slavery in the British Empire, was not “a Virginia slave,” but was from Boston; the oft-quoted dictum of “the Mississippi legislature” in 1818 which denounced slavery as “condemned by reason and the laws of nature” was actually the judgment of the state supreme court in Harry v. Decker & Hopkins; the description of a British bombardment of Alexandria in 1813 is confused with a subsequent description of the British occupation of Washington in 1814. And then there are a number of annoying stylistic tics—the use of “on account of” as a substitute for “because” and the peculiar failure to set out Calhoun’s birth date (March 18) and death date (March 31). Still, Elder has the decency of compassion and never underestimates or burlesques Calhoun. He is frank about Calhoun’s family troubles (especially with his sons), about Calhoun’s confusion in dealing with unruly slaves who failed to obey the script for little communities, and about his mismanaged finances that, by the 1840s, “were in a magnificent shambles,” as Calhoun robbed Peter to pay Paul by borrowing “money simply to pay the interest and payments on his other debts.”

If there is a singular flaw in American Heretic, it is the failure to place Calhoun in any larger context than antebellum politics or the demotion of his reputation after the grim Civil War years. Elder briefly notes that Calhoun enjoyed a minor resurgence of respect in the last decades of the twentieth century among political theorists in the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, where concern for minority rights were major issues. But he misses an opportunity to draw an important historical connection between Calhoun and Edmund Burke, for if Calhoun cannot exactly be called the American Hegel, he almost certainly deserves to be thought of as the American Burke. This oversight is all the more odd since Calhoun himself lauded Burke as the “greatest of political philosophers” and the “greatest of modern statesmen.” In the same way that Burke understood the British constitution to be a collaboration of centuries of experience unique to the British peoples, Calhoun applauded the Constitution as a product of historical incident, malleable to historical change. Like Burke, he had no use for any transcendent or universal political principles; and just as Burke imagined the British Empire as “the aggregate of many states under one common head,” Calhoun believed that “so far from the Constitution being the work of the American people collectively, no such political body, either now, or ever did exist.” But Calhoun was wrong about the American people and the American Union, and wrong about the intentions and vision of the Founders, and one suspects that his mistakes throw a doubtful shadow backwards onto Burke, too. Alas, that it cost us a civil war and 750,000 American lives to learn this.

1 Calhoun: American Heretic, by Robert Elder; Basic Books, 656 pages, $35.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 15
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