According to the modern historical establishment, John C. Calhoun is the ultimate American villain. These esteemed historians think lofty assessments from previous decades failed to account for his glaring inconsistencies in regard to federal power, his advocacy for American imperialism, or his well-known defense of slavery and racism. Historians may have been critical of Calhoun’s advancement of the “positive good” of slavery–Samuel Flagg Bemis famously labeled Calhoun the infamous “Defender of Slavery”–but to the modern social justice warrior turned historian they did not do enough to condemn Calhoun as the fork-tailed godfather of all social evil in the United States. After all, one of the political heroes of the left, John F. Kennedy, had the gall to classify Calhoun as one of the most important Senators in American history. Maybe Kennedy was more honest than we thought. He wasn’t afraid to be seen with a Confederate Battle Flag.
Calhoun as the statesman certainly deserves our admiration. His positions on issues such as banking, federalism, republicanism, taxes, trade, and foreign policy offer the modern political class countless examples to emulate, if they would only listen. His “deep devotion to the Constitution” was apparent in virtually every public act, from his time in the Congress to his role as Vice-President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War. There was no more accomplished public figure than Calhoun during his career, not even the two other members of the “Great Triumvirate,” Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. When Calhoun died in 1850, they both regarded him as the most formidable and august member of the United States Senate.
This commitment to the Constitution of the founders also forced him to run afoul of both major political parties. Calhoun was an independent’s independent. No better example exists than his penchant for denouncing the inconsistencies of the Democrats during the Andrew Jackson administration. In 1834, Calhoun admonished his fellow Democrats for supporting the illegal acts of King Andrew, and then implored them to “halt in their support of the despotic and slavish doctrines, which we hear daily advanced, before a return of the reviving spirit of liberty shall overwhelm them, with those who are leading them, to their ruin.” This was Calhoun the republican, always suspicious of unconstitutional power and willing to forgo his own acclaim to uphold the principles of ’76 and ’98.
Purists in the Old Republican faction did not trust Calhoun, and early in Congressional career he advanced bills that were constitutionally dubious, including the famous Bonus Bill of 1817. Calhoun, however, maintained that his support for the “national republican” agenda including the Tariff of 1816 was done in the spirit of Union, the true meaning of the “general welfare.” Whereas Northern politicians supported “nationalism” when it suited them and sectionalism when it didn’t, Calhoun understood that the Union needed to benefit and burden all equally. The War of 1812 sapped the Northern economy, and Calhoun wisely thought that to maintain sectional harmony, the South needed to toss them a bone. As Calhoun later pointed out in his famous speech on the “Compromise of 1850,” the South had been continually plundered by the North, so his effort to find sectional harmony speaks volumes about the man. Calhoun always insisted that he was a Union man, but his Union was that of the founding generation, one that respected the political, cultural, and social differences of the sections and states and avoided legislation designed to bring one faction to the fore. Calhoun’s infamous “sectionalism” was always a reaction to Northern sectionalism disguised as nationalism.
Calhoun’s political philosophy centered on a belief in true separation of powers, not just between the three branches of the general government, but between the four pillars of the American political order: the federal executive, the federal congress, the federal judiciary, and the States. Take away the fourth pillar, and the entire house crumbles. His sagacity in this regard put him in a league of his own politically. To Calhoun, “State’s rights” was not an exercise in mere political sophistry or an expedient reaction to Northern attempts to seize the reins of power; he believed in its core principles. He wrote in 1834 that “We may rest assured, that it is only the elevated and commanding position of State[‘]s rights, that the contest against Executive usurpation can be permanently and successfully maintained….State rights and State remedies the only effectual barrier against usurpation; let them be prostrated, and in the place of an elective Chief Magistrate, we shall speedily have a Military Despot.”
He penned these words after placing the blame for executive overreach at the feet of Congress. Calhoun argued that Congress had created the elected monarchy when it broke its constitutional shackles and wrested power from the States. “I hold it then,” he wrote,” as a fundamental law of the system, that whatever power Congress may take from the States, will enure, not to its advantage, but to that of the Executive.” This held true because the executive was uniquely positioned, due to its “patronage” and “influence” to use the breakdown in federalism to seize control of the government and trample the Constitution. “For the cause of all this, we must look to the acts of Congress–to that system of legislation, that drew into the vortex of this Government, the control over the entire industry and wealth of the country–that poured millions into its treasury beyond its legitimate wants, to be wasted in the most profuse & extravagant manner, on objects not authorized by the Constitution.” He echoed this position in 1841: “The Constitutional power of the President never was or could be formidable, unless it was accompanied by a Congress which was prepared to corrupt the Constitution.”
Every president since has used Congressional waste to his advantage. Money fosters both loyalty and corruption, what Alexander Hamilton called the most beneficial component of the British constitution, a component he wanted to foist on the American political system. The office seeker and rent seeker sells his soul to the general government and in the process becomes the paid bulldog of the general authority, the American version of the “courtier” who owes his life to his federal overlord. He is thus an unquestioned sycophant of federal power. Calhoun saw this long before anyone blew the whistle on the “imperial presidency” and its seductive allure of patronage and power.
Calhoun contended that his political positions flowed in a direct line from the Founders. “I have done nothing,” he wrote in 1824, “in which I have not been supported by the examples of the political fathers of the Republican [s]chool. My acts are all covered by the acts of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.” Calhoun thought that the federal balance between the States and the general government “is the only portion [of the Constitution] that is novel and peculiar.” Like Jefferson, Calhoun argued that the distribution of power allowed for the reconciliation of freedom and safety for the American States, “But it is not only in the abstract, that I admire the distribution of power between the general government and the States. I approve of the actual distribution of the two powers, which is made by our Constitution.”
The cogency in his philosophy is remarkable. The Calhoun in this 1824 letter mirrored the Calhoun on his deathbed in 1850. Calhoun predictably defended federalism and “state rights” during the nullification “crisis” of the 1830s, but his thoughts on the issue did not dissipate once that conflict cooled. He wrote in 1844, “But I wish all of my friends to understand, that my adherence to the great conservative doctrine of State interposition, and confidence in its efficiency when properly called into action was never stronger than at present. I entertain no doubt that the salvation of our Union and the permanency of our free institutions depend on it….As much as I value our Union and our glorious Federal system, in the same degree do I value State interposition, as the only means by which they can be preserved.” Notice that Calhoun called nullification or State interposition “the great conservative doctrine.” This would be considered political heresy several years ago, but Calhoun was correct. Nullification was the political tradition of the founding generation, from the Stamp Act Crisis through the early nineteenth century. It was a commitment to local self-government and federalism that set apart the American colonists from their brethren in Parliament. The Empire could regulate foreign trade and organize a defense of the colonies, but the colonists themselves had full legislative authority in all other matters. That tradition carried forward into the federal republic, from Jefferson’s declaration by the “free and independent states” of North America to the Articles of Confederation and the “more perfect union” established by the Constitution for the United States. Calhoun held the American political tradition to be that of Jefferson, not Hamilton.
Calhoun extended both his suspicion of executive power and his admiration for the founding generation to American foreign policy. Calhoun was hawkish on war with Great Britain in 1812, but only because he saw no other means to resist what had become oppressive violations of American honor. The British provided hostile Indian tribes with guns, impressed American sailors, and thumbed their nose at treaty restrictions on their continued presence on the frontier. Calhoun saw no other choice but armed conflict. But he did not rush headlong into war. In 1811, Calhoun cautioned that “War, in this country, ought never to be resorted to but when it is clearly justifiable and necessary; so much so, as not to require the aid of logic to convince our reason nor the ardor of eloquence to inflame our passions.” In the same speech before the House of Representatives, he warned the United States to avoid “A bullying menacing system” for “in expense it is almost as considerable as war–it excites contempt abroad, an destroys confidence here.”
He adhered to this position well into the 1840s, even during the War with Mexico in 1846. In an 1841 speech in the Senate, Calhoun opined that “our true policy, in connection with foreign relations, is neither to do nor to suffer wrong, not only because the principle is right of itself, but because it is, in its application to us, wise and politic, as well as right.” He succinctly declared that “Peace is pre-eminently our policy. Our road to greatness lies not over the ruins of others, but in the quiet and peaceful development of our immeasurably great internal resources….” This was no neoconservative “national greatness” imperial sophistry. “War,” Calhoun said, “so from accelerating, can but retard our march to greatness.” Just five years later, Calhoun worried that the War with Mexico would create a “precedent…pregnant with evil,” namely the ability of the president “to bring about a state of things, in which Congress shall be forced, without deliberation, or reflection, to declare war, however, opposed to its conviction of justice or expediency. In a word, it divest Congress virtually of the war making power, & transfers it to the President, and even to the commanders on the frontier.” That Calhoun was prophetic in this regard is an understatement. Virtually every war from 1861 to the modern age has been imposed upon the American public in this manner. We need to look no farther in the past than George Quincy (W) Bush or Lyndon Johnson for examples of Calhoun’s prophecy, but the laundry list of executive war making abuse includes virtually every president from Abraham Lincoln to the present. Only a few avoided the siren song of imperial and military glory for the United States.
We cannot grasp Calhoun’s felicity to principle without understanding his sense of duty. That, perhaps more than anything else, is Calhoun’s lesson for future generations. Compare what Calhoun wrote in 1811 to a letter he jotted to his daughter in 1848 just two years before his death. 1811: “All know, that in the short time I have been in publick service, I have ever stood obstinate against all local, party, or factious interest. That, I often advocated unpopular questions, from a belief of their utility….I love just renown; but, to me undeserved popularity has no charms.” 1848: “Far higher motives [than success] impel me; a sense of duty; to do our best for our country, & leave the rest to Providence….Indeed, I regard this life very much as a struggle ag[ai]nst evil, & that to him, who acts on proper principle, the reward is in the struggle, more than in victory itself….So strong is my faith in this belief…that no appreciation of my efforts, either by the present, or after times, is necessary to sustain me in struggling to do my duty in resisting wrong, especially where our country is concerned….” Nothing had changed in thirty years.
This classical republicanism, a sense of duty, sustained the founding generation in their darkest days in the struggle for independence just as it sustained Calhoun in his solitary defense of federalism during the difficult decades of the 1830s and 1840s. As he wrote to the New England scholar Orestes Brownson in 1841, “…it is ever better to be defeated in a good cause, than not to make the effort to maintain it….” Such is the case with the South, and such is the case with Calhoun’s reputation. If Kennedy could see the value in Calhoun’s life and political thought, there should be a glimmer of hope that modern America could come to its senses and return Calhoun to a place of respect.