Calhoun; American Heretic, Robert Elder, Basic Books, New York, 2021, hb, 640 pp. Leslie Jones reviews a masterful biography
Senator John C Calhoun, that tireless and intrepid champion of slavery, was born in South Carolina in 1782. His father, a wealthy surveyor and slaveowner, hailed originally from Northern Ireland but emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1733. Concerning Calhoun’s Scots-Irish ancestry, author Robert Elder observes that in Ireland, Scottish Presbyterians like Calhoun’s grandfather had to pay a tithe to the established Anglican church but were barred from holding office by the Test Act of 1704. Their second class status made them receptive to the notion that a people had a right to resist, even to change their government, as maintained by sometime Scottish Presbyterian minister Francis Hutcheson, in his Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (1747). By extension, citizens of a colony, such as those of North America, had the right to separate from the mother country if they felt oppressed. Calhoun had evidently imbibed his father’s anti-British and libertarian sentiments. That government was best, according to Patrick Calhoun, “…which allowed the largest amount of individual liberty compatible with social order and tranquillity”.[i]
The British textile industry’s insatiable demand for raw cotton in the 1780’s and 1790’s, driven by the Industrial Revolution, turned cotton into ‘white gold’. Slavery furnished the main d’oeuvre for the expansion of cotton production in the Southern states and ‘scientific racism’ its rationale. The latter, paradoxically, was a consummate product of the Enlightenment. For Linnaeus, black Africans were ‘indolent, negligent’. For Hume, likewise, they were ‘naturally inferior’. Jefferson discerned both physical and behavioural race differences between blacks and whites. He regarded slavery as an evil but concluded that blacks could never be assimilated. “Never yet”, he opined, “could I find a black that had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration”. After his father’s death in 1795, Calhoun helped his mother run the family’s cotton plantation. And although he condemned the transatlantic slave trade, he never questioned the absolute power of every freeman over his negro slaves, as enshrined in the Fundamental Constitution of South Carolina.
Moses Waddel’s Academy provided sons of the backcountry planters of South Carolina, like Calhoun, with the polish of a classical education. Some of Waddel’s students became distinguished lawyers and statesmen. Waddel introduced Calhoun to the ideas of Polybius, who believed that monarchy, aristocracy and democracy “…left unchecked, could devolve into their dark counterparts – tyranny, oligarchy, or anarchy”.[ii] And subsequently, at Yale, Calhoun absorbed “…a creative but conservative strain of Enlightenment thought”, notably, the ideas of Thomas Reid, William Paley and Lord Kames.[iii] Yale’s President Timothy Dwight, like Waddel, was suspicious of democracy and upheld a rational form of Christianity. The example of the ancient Greek polis persuaded Calhoun (and subsequently Friedrich Nietzsche) that slavery is the pre-requisite of democracy and is therefore a positive good. Indeed, in due course, Calhoun supported the abolition of the property and tax qualification in South Carolina. His objective here was to give ordinary whites a stake in the social and political order, in view of “…the presence of a large and potentially rebellious enslaved population…”.[iv]
From early 1836, Calhoun began to reconsider the notion of slavery as a “necessary evil”. His starting point, now, was that all wealth is ultimately derived from labour and that even in countries where the workers were notionally free, “…how small a portion of it…is left to those by whose labour wealth is created”.[v] Arguments against the exploitation of the labour of slaves in the South were therefore applicable to emerging industrial capitalism in the North, with the difference that in the former, the oppression was mitigated by “…the more feeble and flexible will of a master”.[vi] Calhoun trusted that “My character as a master is…unimpeachable”.[vii] Given the intellectual differences between the whites and blacks in the South, and the degraded and savage condition of blacks in Africa, the relationship between the two races “is”, he inferred, “…instead of an evil, a good – a positive good”.[viii] It inhibited the potential disorder arising from the exploitation of labour. The interests of blacks and whites were complementary, in his estimation, as both parties were progressing.
Calhoun’s political philosophy should be separated from its integument, the defence of the sectional and transient interests of the Slaveocracy. This philosophy, in particular the concepts of nullification (or state interposition) and of the concurrent majority, has lasting significance. Elder, accordingly, challenges the comforting opinion that Calhoun was a political dinosaur, “…out of step with the flow of history”.[ix]
In October 1808, Calhoun was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. In the posthumously published Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States (1842), Calhoun depicted the Compromise of 1808, whereby representation therein was balanced between upcountry and low country and between population and property, as a model for the concurrent majority. Each section of the South Carolina state had been given a veto on significant measures, notably on any potentially oppressive legislation. Such legislation, according to Calhoun, “…should be passed by consensus, rather than a majority”.[x] Apropos representatives being bound by the capricious wishes of their constituents, Calhoun could detect no precedent in antiquity. The only expression of the will of the people binding on their representatives was the Constitution. Rather than the numerical majority, he considered that “The Constitution is my letter of instruction”.[xi] Writing to Virginia congressman Robert Garnett, on July 3, 1824, Calhoun described the division of powers between the state and federal governments in the United States Constitution as “the greatest improvement which has been made in the science of government, after the division of power into Legislative, Executive, and judicial”. The Constitution embodied the principle of a concurrent majority, preserving liberty “…by taking the sense of each interest or portion of the Community…”.[xii] The perennial challenge of government, for Calhoun, was to reconcile power with liberty.
In a letter to Virgil Maxcy, dated July 1, 1827, Calhoun discerned “…a great crisis before us”, that of factionalism or sectionalism destroying the Union. The Constitution, framed to protect the interests of the whole, had been “…perverted into an instrument of monopoly and oppression”.[xiii] Witness the Tariff of 1828, passed at the behest of northern industrialists, which made cotton production in South Carolina largely unprofitable. A state veto on federal power was the only remaining remedy for this “despotism” founded on “…national economic and political factions”. [xiv] Slavery itself was potentially endangered by the tyranny of the northern numerical majority. Calhoun conceded that his attachment to “…liberty and the safety of the section where Providence has cast my lot…” was even stronger than his attachment to the Union.[xv] The Address of Southern Delegates in Congress, to their Constituents (1848), largely written by Calhoun, presents an apocalyptic vision of a future in which northern majorities have outlawed slavery in the South, “…holding the white race…in complete subjection” by enfranchising their former slaves.
Thomas Jefferson, in his Resolution to the Kentucky Legislature (1798), characterised the Union as an ongoing compact between sovereign states. He defended nullification, the right of a state to declare a federal law ‘void & of no force’. He also toyed with the notion of secession. John Caldwell Calhoun was arguably his most distinguished disciple. Power, Calhoun once observed, “…can only be resisted by power”. We concur.
[i] Calhoun, cited by Elder, p.20
[ii] Elder, p.31
[iii] Ibid., p.35
[iv] Ibid., p.74
[v] Calhoun, cited Elder, p.336
[vi] Calhoun, Report from the Select Committee on Incendiary Publications, Feb 4 1836, cited Elder p.336
[vii] Calhoun, quoted Elder, p.320
[viii] Calhoun, quoted Elder, p.338
[ix] Elder, p.x1v
[x] Ibid., p.72
[xi] Calhoun, quoted Elder, p.135
[xii] Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, quoted Elder, p.484
[xiii] Calhoun, cited Elder, p.234
[xiv] Elder, p.244
[xv] Elder, p.498