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DJ 'Calhoun' Review: The Nullifier's Mixed Legacy

· 02/05/2021 11:15
Calhoun: American Heretic By Robert Elder Basic, 640 pages, $35By Jonathan Horn

Gone are the days when someone could win a debate by claiming to be on the side of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. The new rules for winning require accusing one's opponent of being on the side of the Great Nullifier, John C. Calhoun, best remembered for his defense of slavery and his argument for the right of states to veto federal laws.

When the New York Times published "The 1619 Project" on the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves landing in Virginia, one of its essays labeled modern Republicans as Calhoun's ideological successors. Not to be outdone, a report last month from the 1776 Commission, which Donald Trump formed as president partly in response to "The 1619 Project, " argued that Calhoun's true heirs are the adherents of identity politics -- that is, today's Democrats.

Lost in such an exchange is the sort of serious analysis that Robert Elder, a history professor at Baylor University, provides in "Calhoun: American Heretic," a timely and thought-provoking biography of the South Carolina statesman whose doctrines and debates set the stage for the Civil War. In the course of his chronicle, Mr. Elder traces how Calhoun's thinking continues to influence American society today and shows how academic scholarship has moved ever closer to accepting Calhoun's once shocking ideas about the role of slavery in American history.

Even many fellow Southerners recoiled upon first hearing Calhoun's claim that slavery had created the surest conditions for equality among whites; slavery, he said, had produced an "unvarying level among them" -- or, more precisely, above blacks forced to toil. "I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South . . . forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions," Calhoun said in an 1837 Senate speech holding up slavery as a "positive good."

A stunned Virginia senator responded that the first three slaveholding presidents -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- didn't view slavery as the bedrock of the republic they had created. But, as Mr. Elder concedes, the argument is gaining ground. Indeed, it is now widely contended -- not least among historians -- that slavery "had to a significant degree underwritten the equality, prosperity, and progress of white Americans."

Born in 1782 in the South Carolina backcountry, Calhoun, along with his Scotch-Irish forebears, often goes missing from Mr. Elder's early pages, which focus on laying the context for slavery in America. As for the young Calhoun, a eulogist would famously say: "Mr. Calhoun had no youth to our knowledge. He sprung into the arena like Minerva from the head of Jove, fully grown and clothed in armor."

Calhoun surely appeared that way in 1811, when he strode into the U.S. House as one of the leaders of the so-called War Hawks, who would drive their country into battle with Britain the next year. More than 6 feet tall, with glowing dark eyes, the 29-year-old freshman set about challenging the House's most abrasive member, John Randolph of Virginia, prominent for his opposition to going to war. Political allies hailed Calhoun as Hercules. Randolph described his adversary as a new political species, mixing elements of the frontier, the North and the South.

There was some truth to the remark. Calhoun grew up in what he remembered as a "rude frontier state," where slaves toiled in fields not long removed from Indian fighting; he went to school at elite New England institutions, including Yale; and he married an heiress whose riches descended from the rice fields of the South Carolina low country.

What this background produced politically, at first, was a nationalist determined to remedy the weaknesses that the War of 1812 had revealed in the young republic, whose broken finances had impaired its ability to fight and even resulted in a government default. Although describing himself as a disciple of Thomas Jefferson, Calhoun supported a legislative agenda that would have pleased Alexander Hamilton. The creation of a new national bank owed a good deal to Calhoun; so did a protective tariff that benefited the young manufacturers taking root in the North. "Let us conquer space," Calhoun said in support of building roads and canals that would tie the country's sections together. Calhoun's infrastructure bill made it to President Madison, who vetoed it as unconstitutional in March 1817 on his last full day in office. For Calhoun, the rebuke "stung," says Mr. Elder.

From the new president, James Monroe, came the offer to serve as secretary of war. Calhoun saw the appointment as a chance to refute people whom he had heard describe his talents as "more metaphysical than practical," and he made the most of it, making the unwieldy War Department markedly more efficient. "When Abraham Lincoln went to war with the Confederacy he did so with a War Department largely of Calhoun's making," writes Mr. Elder, who has a knack for punctuating key points with one liners: "The South would have Calhoun's arguments, but the North would have his war machine."

How did a staunch nationalist come to transform himself into the author of a theory that brought the country to the brink of disunion as early as three decades before the Civil War? John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, the back-to-back presidents under whom Calhoun served as vice president, would have pointed to his ambition. Everyone who met Calhoun could see the immensity of it. But there was more to it than that.

Calhoun grasped that he could no longer retain support in his home state without modifying his views, especially toward protectionism. The cotton planters of South Carolina believed that new iterations of the tariff had caused their economic woes by forcing them, for the benefit of Northern manufacturers, to pay more for goods. The tariff was also, in their view, the harbinger of a day when the North might use its power to legislate against slavery.

According to Mr. Elder's analysis, Calhoun's shift in outlook was less a reversal than a course correction. Defending the country in the wake of the War of 1812 had required a nationalist agenda; doing so in the face of a tariff that South Carolinians couldn't abide required finding a way for the South to check the excesses of majority rule -- that is, of the North's dominance -- without checking out of the Union. The state veto, Calhoun believed, was such a way.

Among those who had previously considered a state veto was Calhoun's hero, Jefferson. But it remained ill-defined until 1828, when Calhoun wrote an unsigned report explaining the idea for South Carolina's legislature. In an article he wrote for newspapers a few years later, he finally put his own name to a doctrine that has become known as the theory of "nullification." Calhoun's conclusion, Mr. Elder writes, "flowed with an irresistible logic" from his premise that the Constitution was a compact among the states, which possessed the right to judge when the federal government exercised powers not given to it. South Carolina put the theory to the test in 1832, when the legislature called a state convention that nullified the federal tariff as unconstitutional.

A biographer intent on a livelier narrative might devote more space than Mr. Elder does to the events leading up to this moment and the tension that followed from it. Calhoun's decision to resign the vice presidency for a seat in the Senate, where he eventually negotiated a compromise that averted civil war, receives exactly one sentence. But what interests Mr. Elder is ideas, and Calhoun's ideas were pointing him toward the fateful path he would follow: "What I think I see, I see with so much apparent clearness, as not to leave me a choice to pursue any other course, which has always given me the impression, that I acted under the force of destiny."

The nullification crisis was the climax of Calhoun's dramatic political life but not the apex of his power. Ahead lay, among much else, his fiercest debates over slavery. Mr. Elder shows that he had begun to assemble the pieces of his "positive good" argument as far back as 1820, during his tenure as secretary of war. Back then, however, he believed that the greatest danger came not from Northern abolitionists but from Southern slaveholders, who might let a fear for the security of their "property" weaken their attachment to the Union. Talk of disunion could become self-fulfilling, which is the word Mr. Elder uses to describe Calhoun's later prophecies. In a speech that an emaciated Calhoun asked a colleague to read on his behalf weeks before his death in March 1850, he warned that the Union would collapse unless the more rapidly growing North granted concessions that would restore sectional balance with the South.

In writings published after his death, Calhoun said more about one particular concession he had begun to consider: a constitutional amendment that would transform the executive branch by giving each region of the country its own president and, thus, its own veto. In such a way, he believed, the U.S. would achieve the true aim of constitutional government: rule not by the numerical majority, which he believed would always result in one group wielding power to the detriment of another, but by the "concurrent majority," an arrangement that would require the consent of all groups.

That Calhoun had the protection of slaveholders in mind has not stopped his theory from resurfacing in other contexts, as Mr. Elder tells us, from power-sharing proposals in post-apartheid South Africa to the peace process in Northern Ireland. In what Mr. Elder calls the "most fascinating twist," traces of Calhoun's arguments have even appeared in proposals for "exactly the opposite of what he wanted" -- that is, special protections for racial minorities.

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February 05, 2021 11:15 ET (16:15 GMT)

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