By Robert Elder
Coming so soon after a neoconfederate mob rampaged through the Capitol, a respectful biography of the ideological father of the Confederacy may feel as welcome as an exhumed corpse. But the young historian Robert Elder has given us just that in “Calhoun” — an illuminating account of the life of the notorious white supremacist as well as his complex afterlife in American political culture.
John C. Calhoun was a zealous defender of slavery. His name has lately been stripped from a residential college at Yale (his alma mater) and from a lake in Minnesota named in his honor when he was secretary of war. His monument in Charleston — a glowering bronze figure in a cloak spread like eagle wings atop an obelisk — has been removed to an undisclosed location, as if in a witness protection program.
Already in his own day many people would have sent Calhoun into oblivion. But others who loathed his commitments nevertheless held his intellect in high regard. John Stuart Mill, who knew no “doctrine more damnable” than the idea that “one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind,” considered him “a speculative political thinker superior to any who has appeared in American politics since the authors of the Federalist.” Herman Melville, who regarded slavery as a “sin … foul as the crater-pool of hell,” took Calhoun as a model for Captain Ahab, a dark and wild genius whose defiance (“I’d strike the sun if it insulted me”) makes everyone around him seem small. Even some passionate abolitionists predicted that Calhoun’s posthumous reputation would be “without that element of contempt and loathing which must mingle with the memory of his Northern imitators and tools.”
Born in the South Carolina backcountry in 1782 and educated in New England, he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1811, where the Virginian John Randolph sized him up as a combination of “cold unfeeling Yankee manner with the bitter and acrimonious irritability of the South.” Outraged by British impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, he banged the drum for war, declaring that “the liberty of our sailors and their redemption from slavery” were at stake. Twenty years later in the Senate, he denounced a federal import tariff as a punitive tax on Southern planters and a subsidy for Northern manufacturers. When President Andrew Jackson proposed a “force bill” to compel South Carolina to comply, Calhoun replied that a nation united by force is no different from “the bond between master and slave; a union of exaction on one side, and of unqualified obedience on the other.” Like many before him — including slaveholders among the founders — he saw no contradiction between using slavery as a damning metaphor and sustaining it as a defensible practice.