When Real Historians Understood Calhoun

A review of Correspondence of John C. Calhoun, Vol II. (Washington, 1900) edited by J. Franklin Jameson.

It is a fitting crown to Professor Jameson’s efforts in promoting the estab­lishment and successful career of the manuscripts commission and a most substantial proof of the material services rendered to the advancement of the study of history in the United States by the Historical Association by which the expense of supporting the commission has been borne.

By Professor Jameson’s unflagging zeal, seconded by the friendly cooperation of the owners of Calhoun papers, some 800 letters from Cal­houn were collected, of which something over 500 have been printed. When one is reminded that hardly more than a score of his personal let­ters were in print before, some idea of the positive increase of our knowl­edge of his personality will be gained. This autobiographical material is richly supplemented by the publication of nearly 200 hitherto unprinted letters from friends, admirers and political followers. These letters are abundant, beginning with the summer of 1843, and more than half of them relate to the eighteen months from June, 1843, to December, 1845. On the other hand, this class of material is totally lacking for the inter­esting decade of the thirties. Similarly, Calhoun’s own letters are most numerous from 1840 onward. In the earlier period there are considera­ble gaps, such as from Nov., 1815, to Oct., 1817 ; from Jan., 1829, to March, 1830; and others of several months. In this period, also, the number of letters at certain political junctures of great interest is small. There is little on the war of 1812 or on the Missouri Compromise; there is one reference to the Holy Alliance, but nothing on Monroe’s historic message. No light is thrown on the presidential crisis in 1825, and the gaps in the correspondence in 1832-1833 leave our knowledge of the nullification struggle much as it was before. On the other hand, the Texas question and the political issues consequent upon it and upon the Mexican war receive a flood of light.

It is only with the rise of the Texas question and the increasing divergence of interests and views between the new democracy of the North and the surviving original republicanism of the South that the slavery question looms portentous in Calhoun’s mind. Earlier the in­equity of protectionism and its baleful political consequences are his main concern.

It will be impossible in the limits of a review to select much from these letters for discussion and therefore I shall limit myself to some general comment and to noting a few items of special information. As revealed by himself, Calhoun stands out preeminently as the conserva­tive. He is not the radical, not the aggressive leader of the slavery in­terest but the steadfast champion of the republicanism of 1798. The delicate balance of powers and functions established by the Constitution he believed to be America’s most valuable contribution to politics, and when time revealed that to the finely adjusted balance between the states and the Federal government there must be added an equally ad­justed balance between the sections, Calhoun’s life work as a conserver was clear. Only by preserving this last balance could the painfully con­structed equipoise of states and central government be maintained or the wise allotment of powers and functions to the different organs of govern­ment be secured from derangement.

If the tariff laws enriched the North at the expense of the South and diminished the profits of agriculture to increase those of manufacturing, the inevitable result would be the more rapid growth of the North and the gain of the Northern element in the House of Representatives, thus upsetting the balance between the sections, and, in Congress, between the House and the Senate.

Fidelity to the Union as originally framed under the Constitution de­manded the preservation of its balances without which it could not be maintained. If the North extended westward the South must expand likewise. The annexation of Texas consequently is necessary to the maintenance of the Union. To oppose such restoration of the original equipoise of the sections was in reality to refuse to abide by or to rein­state the original conditions of the Union. Hence the Texas question is a test of Northern fidelity to the constitutional past. If Texas cannot be annexed, the Union is in effect and ought to be in fact dissolved. Simi­larly, the demand for the Wilmot Proviso or the refusal to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific constitute Northern aggression, for they aim to defeat the restoration of the original balance of the sec­tions. Calhoun could see safety only in pari passu growth, and for the more populous section to stand upon its strength and to block the effort to recover the pre-established balance was morally to renounce the funda­mental conditions of the Union as originally framed and to force its dis­solution. But pari passu growth was impossible and the effort to preserve the balance of the sections proved a Sisyphean task.

Turning now from the general to the particular it may be noted that Calhoun in an interview in 1831 (p. 305) declared that his tariff speech in 1816 was “done at the request of Ingham suddenly and without prep­aration;” that in 1838 (p. 422) he affirmed that nullification had over­thrown Clay’s American system, in other words, was a success; that in 1840 (p. 468) he declared the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and Madison’s Report to the Virginia Legislature to contain “far deeper and more correct views” of our system of government than the Federalist; that in 1842 (p. 528) he prophesied “should conventions to nominate the presidential candidates become the settled practice . . . the neces­sary consequence will be, that the great central non slave holding states will control the election, to the exclusion of the rest of the Union, and especially the South.” This would upset the balance of the government for : “It is, in fact, only when the executive power is under the influ­ence or control of the less populous states and sections, that there is any balance in the system.” (p. 539). In 1844 he wrote (p. 616): “I do not know a state or city, which requires to have its politicks elevated to higher standard than Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. In none is the contrast greater between the individual character of its people and that of its government.”

The anonymous Life of Calhoun published in 1843 by Harper we learn, was mainly the work of R. M. T. Hunter (p. 524). The letters of Calhoun’s supporters abound in striking comment on current politics and leaders and admirably supplement his own in the presentation of the aims and ideals of which he was the champion.

Professor Jameson has performed his task as editor, as was to be ex­pected, in the spirit of broad historical scholarship and with a fullness of knowledge that make one regret at times the modest parsimony of illus­trative or explanatory comment. In only one case was a probable error detected where on p. 599, Calhoun’s remark, July 2, 1844: “I see Brownson’s Quarterly has a short, but very good article on the subject,” is annotated by “”The Texas Question, Democratic Review, April 1844, p. 423.” The note should have been, I feel sure: “Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July, 1844, pp. 402-407.” Brownson severed his connection with the Democratic Review at the time he established his Quarterly, January, 1844.

Professor Jameson takes leave of his labors with the remark that “his modest task has been to provide materials with which others may elaborate the fabric of American political history or the biography of Calhoun.” A new biography of Calhoun is a great desideratum and one rises from the study of this volume and especially from the editor’s intro­duction with the conviction that Professor Jameson is preeminently the man to write it. He has made the subject his own and he possesses in a high degree the qualities of mind to do justice to all sides and to lift his subject out of the realm of controversy.

This review was originally published in the Vol. 7 No. 2 1902 edition of The American Historical Review.

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