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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Book Review - John C. Calhoun: American Portrait

I just finished reading John C. Calhoun: American Portrait by Margaret L. Coit. The book was published in 1950. I bought my copy from a thrift store in Dripping Springs, Texas back in July when we were on vacation. It is an old library copy, paperback with the cover falling off.

They had lots of books in that thrift store, this is the only one I left with. I really don't know why I bought it. The name Calhoun was vaguely familiar. The first paragraph of the book was engaging and I noticed that it was a Pulitzer Prize Winner. Am I ever glad I left that thrift store with this book.

My copy comes in at 532 pages of text. It has a comprehensive bibliography and index.

There is nothing more thrilling than reading a biography that is engaging, compelling, and instructive. This book meets each of those expectations. Only in a very few places did the plot slow down but on the whole Coit does a great job getting and keeping the attention.

You know a book is good if it creates a desire to read more about some of the topics touched on. In fact as I was reading this book I came across a book in a Half Priced Bookstore that dealt with an area that was addressed extensively in Coit's book. I bought the book, The Development Of Southern Sectionalism 1819-1848. This is the same time period that Calhoun lived. I also bought a book on Amazon on the Life of Andrew Jackson as a result of reading this book. I think this is the highest accolades that can be given to a book.

John Calhoun was born in 1782 in South Carolina. He grew up on the frontier in a puritan/Calvinistic environment. He was educated at Yale and went into law. He served as a Congressman from South Carolina. He was elected on a war platform and went to Congress as a war hawk seeing to confront England, thus the war of 1812. He served for years as a Senator from South Carolina. He served as the Secretary of Defense in the cabinet of James Monroe. He served as Vice President in the administration of Andrew Jackson. A post from which he retired because of enmity that developed between Jackson and himself over Jackson's embracing of democratic principles of nationalism instead of staying true to Federal principles. This animosity was encouraged by the meddling of Martin Van Buren. He resigned from the post of Vice President. Went back to South Carolina where one of her Senators resigned so that he could be appointed to fight the high tariffs that were being encouraged by the northern industrialists. He served as Secretary of State in the Tyler administration for the express purpose of seeing Texas annexed to the Union. When the treaty failed to be ratified by the Senate which required a 2/3 vote he instead sought a joint resolution from Congress that would effect the same outcome. He was successful in this effort because a joint resolution only required a majority vote in both the House and the Senate. He had aspirations on several occasions to run for President.

Calhoun was one of three Senators from the time period that were possibly the greatest statesmen the United States had ever produced. Calhoun, Clay, and Webster. Their speeches often filled the Senate gallery with spectators. Although Calhoun often found himself at political odds with both Clay and Webster there was a mutual respect between the three men, particularly Calhoun and Webster.

The book offers some important insights that led to the isolation of the South. The effect of the high tariffs on the South. The encroachment of industrialization overshadowing the agrarian lifestyle of the South. The increasing power of those that had money instead of those that had land. The growing abolitionists movement in the North.

Slavery was not the primary issue in the early 1800's. It became an increasing issue because of other principles and political realities involved. In the 1820's and 30's many Southern Plantation owners recognized and openly spoke of the moral evil of slavery and that it could not be sustained economically. There was talk on the porches about how they could extract themselves from the evils of slavery. In the 1830's there were over 200 abolitionists movements in the South. By the 1840's there were none. The reason is because the abolitionists societies in the North adopted the stance that slavery should be outlawed irregardless of consequences. Immediate emancipation was the only solution in their minds. This drove the Southern Plantation owners into the unsavoury position of defending the indefensible.

It was Calhoun who reasoned out the doctrine of nullification. That is that any State had the authority to nullify any legislation that was contrary to their interest. They could only nullify it for themselves and no other State. Calhoun developed this political philosophy in relation to the high tariffs that were being enacted by Congress to the detriment of the South. There were many people who took exception to the doctrine of nullification. In South Carolina in the early 1830's their legislature voted to nullify the tariff acts of Congress in relation to themselves. There was fighting in the streets of Charleston between those who embraced the doctrine of nullification and those who opposed it. Andrew Jackson wrote to the governor of South Carolina stating he could have thousands of troops there in a few day and a thousand more a few days following that. The nation was on the verge of civil war in the early 1830's and slavery had little if anything to do with it. High tariff's were the issue.

Of course from the doctrine of nullification came the potential for secession. Though Calhoun never called for secession for if he had it would have happened 10 or 15 years before it did. There were plenty of people clamouring for it in the South particularly in South Carolina. Calhoun actually spent the latter part of his years in the Senate trying to diffuse the desire of those who were clamouring for secession. At the same time he argued for the right of secession and even went so far as to call for a southern convention in the late 1840's. His view of succession was that it was the only leverage the South (minority) had left to gain concessions from the North (majority). He believed, as it turns out wrongly, that if the South could bring pressure to bear through the threat of secession then the North would make concessions. The abolitionists in the North were in no mood for any concessions to the South and talk of secession only hardened them in their resolve. The gulf was becoming greater.

Calhoun wanted union but not at the expense of the minorities (south) interest. Secession he saw as a tool to extract a compromise. At the end of his life he realized the inevitable. Although he died eleven years before Sumter he saw it coming. He despised it but came to believe that nothing could avert it, and was glad he would not be alive to see it.

I would agree with the basic principles of Calhoun's political philosophy while I may disagree with his application of it at times. His defense and participation in slavery is absolutely appalling when looked at from the 21st century. Lesson: Be careful about being backed into defending the indefensible! History does not judge those who do kindly!

This is a great and engaging biography. It will give a much needed broader perspective on the many issues culminating in our national calamity.

This is a book I highly recommend if you have an interest in American History, Civil War, politics, or government.

Rating *****

You can purchase the book here.
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