Robert Elder’s Calhoun: American Heretic

91bezN9GWCLWhen you grow up in South Carolina, you know the name John C. Calhoun even if you do not know much about the man himself. As Robert Elder has aptly demonstrated in his enthralling book, Calhoun: American Heretic, there was a time when the name of Calhoun was known by most of the rest of the country as well.

This is one of the best biographies I have ever read. It is well written, very informative, has good pacing, does an amazing job of telling Calhoun’s story while also showing how his ideas impacted and continue to impact the country, is filled with fascinating anecdotes, and paints a careful and even-handed picture of post-Revolutionary/ante-bellum America.

Calhoun is depicted in Elder’s work as a brilliant political theoretician and tactician who yet bound himself so thoroughly to the defense of chattel slavery as a positive good (as opposed to a necessary evil—the attempted more moderate approach of others in the South) that it led him into staggering blind spots and hypocrisy and played no small part in our nation’s most bloody conflict. His hypocrisy can be seen in his defense of slavery in the South while simultaneously proclaiming America a land of unmatched liberty and freedom and while simultaneously fighting against both British interference in American life and Northern interference in Southern life. Note, for instance, how fascinating the following is in light of the fact that it came from the mouth of an ideological defender and practitioner of slavery:

But the heart of Calhoun’s speech was his accusation that the British had been trying for decades to establish what he called a “universal monopoly” over the nations of the Western Hemisphere…Calhoun denounced the “despondent and slavish belief” that “we must submit…and hug our chains,” or that forbearance in the face of naked aggression was a virtue. “It is more easy to maintain than to wrest back usurped rights,” he declared, and there was no excuse or remedy for the moral failure of submission. “Wrongs submitted to produce contrary effects in the oppressor and oppressed. Oppression strengthens and prepares for new oppression; submission debases to farther submission. The first wrong, by the universal law of our nature, is most easily resisted…Let that be submitted to; let the consequent debasement and loss of national honor be felt, and nothing but the grinding hand of oppression can force to resistance. I know not which to pronounce most guilty; the nation that inflicts the wrong, or that which quietly submits to it.” (pp. 115-116)

I read this and thought, “Yes, indeed, it is a terrible thing to submit to chains and to slavery, is it not, Calhoun?” But he would not have seen the point of such a statement or the suggestion that his argument against British interference should have rightly undercut his own defense of slavery, were he truly consistent.

Of course, as Elder points out, none of this was hypocritical to Calhoun because in his system slaves were property, after all. So Calhoun (again, in his system and operating from his premises) could say that America was a land of unfettered and unmatched freedom while personally owning numerous slaves because slaves were, to Calhoun, not mentally/ethically/morally/spiritually/intellectually capable of participating in the project of freedom which was the purview of white America. (This was, Elder explains, the paternalistic defense of slavery common in South Carolina as opposed to the bluntly industrial approach that developed in Mississippi in these years.) To Calhoun, then, slaves were not being deprived of something. They were rather being given the best and most they could handle by—as Calhoun saw it: good and caring masters. Of course, Calhoun’s premises were poison, which throws off the whole trajectory of his program, but Elder is right: Calhoun had so framed the issue that he could tell himself he was not being inconsistent in the slightest. Calhoun was ideologically wedded to slavery as a legitimate and beneficial institution, and he was wedded to this until his death a decade before the start of the Civil War.

Elder’s discussion of Calhoun’s religious ideas was likewise fascinating. Calhoun rejected evangelical Christianity, a kind of Christianity often associated with fomenting disquiet and even rebellion among the slaves when it was preached and embraced, as Elder demonstrates:

Then, in July, a supposed plot in Camden sent ripples of fear throughout the entire state and led to the execution of five alleged insurrectionaries. Instead of connecting this resistance to South America, many observers, including the editor of the Camden Gazette, blamed the spread of evangelical Christianity among the slaves for the uprisings, all the while publishing glowing reports of Bolívar’s antislavery proclamations. In early 1817 Calhoun shared with his fellow white southerners a tendency to see the South American revolutions as a hemispheric triumph of republicanism rather than a threat to slavery, but the ground underneath him was shifting. (pp. 136-137)

No, evangelicalism and revivalism were not for Calhoun. Here is a good summary of Calhoun’s approach:

He never experienced the dramatic conversions that many of his classmates at Yale underwent or that Floride prayed her children would, but in his letters to Floride he frequently acknowledged God, though in an impersonal sense that contrasted with but was sensitive to Floride’s evangelical fervor. On one occasion, after relating news of the good health of their South Carolina friends, he wrote, “How thankful we ought to be to the author of all good for this high favor.” Floride clearly worried about his religious condition, and in one letter he assured her that he was not offended by her concern for the state of his soul. “I receive with gratitude your friendly advice and anxious solicitude for my welfare on the all important subject of religion,” he wrote. But he also quickly changed the subject. His daughter Anna, his closest confidant, later recalled that her father never talked about his personal beliefs in her presence, although she insisted that he read the Bible “constantly & earnestly” and was always interested in religion. Calhoun would always be drawn to the more rational forms of Christianity that he associated with the progress of human knowledge, but he was never hostile to the evangelical Christianity that surrounded him his entire life. He was simply, and completely, without the particular spectrum of emotions in which evangelicals like Floride expressed themselves. (pp. 46-47)

Specifically, Calhoun eventually moved into Unitarianism.

Calhoun’s gravitation toward Unitarianism seems to have been the natural result of his temperament, his devotion to reason, and his embrace of progress. Unitarians, it was said, embraced the unity of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston, and indeed they were mostly New Englanders like John Quincy Adams. It was a rational and optimistic faith that appealed to Americans, including Calhoun, who believed they were living in a unique epoch of human history marked by freedom, toleration, and progress in all areas of human understanding. Some of the first advocates of women’s rights in England, including Mary Wollstonecraft, were Unitarians, and in the years ahead the denomination would include several of America’s foremost abolitionists, such as Theodore Parker and Julia Ward Howe. In 1820 Calhoun seems to have agreed with the Unitarian belief that the dawn of an era in which reason should govern everything, including religion, was upon them. When First Unitarian Church held its first service in the new building in 1822, the Reverend Robert Little proclaimed, “Shall it be said that we have left no useful memorial behind us?… Forbid it, Gracious Father! These walls will, I trust, bear witness that our lives have not been altogether useless to mankind. Some I hope may be better and wiser for our exertions in the cause of truth.” Little’s sermon harmonized easily with Calhoun’s personal motto: “The duties of life are greater than life itself.”

If Calhoun ever attended services at First Unitarian, he was likely alone. Floride continued to attend the Episcopal Church, and in later years Calhoun usually accompanied her. Even if his religious sympathies were with the Unitarians, his political instincts kept him from proclaiming them too loudly. That would not do in South Carolina. With a fervent evangelical, a proper Episcopalian, and a Unitarian-leaning lapsed Presbyterian all living under one roof, dinner conversations at the Calhoun house in Washington during these years may have been almost as lively as the debates over Missouri and the tariff in Congress. (pp. 186-187)

Politically, Elder shows how the evolving situation in the states and the growth and spread of abolitionist sentiments in the years leading up to the Civil War led Calhoun to develop and argue for his idea of “the concurrent majority, the idea that significant interests in a society should have the power to protect themselves through a legislative veto, and that important legislation should be passed by consensus, rather than a majority.” (p. 72) Elder does a great job showing why Calhoun adhered to this idea, how he developed it and argued for it, and how this notion played no small part in laying the political groundwork for the Civil War.

Even so, Calhoun had and continues to have his admirers. In his own day, this admiration could reach truly frightening proportions, to wit:

Some in the audience certainly listened to the argument, but others only came to see the famous man. One newspaper editor who said little about the content of Calhoun’s speech could not forget his “eye—restless, watchful, and penetrating, it seemed to reach into a man’s very soul at a glance.” Another Alabamian who saw Calhoun proclaimed that, like the biblical Simeon, he could now die in peace having seen his “God.” (p. 385)

Oh my!

All of this is fascinating and, at times, unsettling stuff, and Elder unpacks it masterfully. I also very much appreciated Elder’s concluding thoughts about the meaning of Calhoun and his life and mindset for our own day.

I really cannot recommend this biography highly enough. It is a wonderfully insightful and unflinching look at a truly interesting and, in my opinion, ultimately tragic figure. Just a couple of months ago I heard on talk radio in North Little Rock a host of a show arguing for Calhoun’s notion of the concurrent majority. The ghost of Calhoun is still haunts sections of American political life. This book will help you understand why.

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