John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina, secretary of war, secretary of state, vice president of the United States--twice--was one of the giants of 19th century American politics. Along with Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Calhoun was hailed as part of the "Great Triumvirate" [1] of senators who set the terms of every important debate of the day--from banks, roads, canals, and tariffs to the two-party system, westward expansion, abolitionism, and slavery in the territories.

Like his fellow triumvirs, Calhoun was acknowledged as one of his age's only legitimate successors to George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson--but ironically, none of the three ever achieved the summit of his hopes, the presidency. The editors of the Edinburgh Review were not the only ones who marveled at this, but they were perhaps the most eloquent on the topic, calling it perfectly infamous that, in America, men, like Milton's fiends, "must make themselves dwarfs, before they can enter the Pandemonium of political life."[2]

The deaths of the triumvirs, starting with Calhoun in 1850 and ending with Clay and Webster in 1852, were felt heavily around the globe--the London Times, for one, opined that something of "antique greatness" had passed from the American scene.[3] Even so the remorseless course of events leading up to the Civil War kept each man's name before the public and subjected each to that public's judgments--none moreso than Calhoun.

Daniel Webster

War made Webster and Clay touchstones for union and liberty. The historian Merrill Peterson notes that Walt Whitman in "Specimen Days," the poet's account of the months he spent nursing Union and Confederate soldiers, seems emblematic. While attending a new amputee, Whitman overheard a conversation between two soldiers--one recently sent up from Charleston to recover from a fever, the other a "veteran" of around 25 years old. The first began describing Calhoun's monument in Charleston, but the second stopped him cold.

"I have seen Calhoun's monument," he said. "That you saw is not the real monument. But I have seen it. It is the desolated, ruined south; nearly the whole generation of young men between seventeen and thirty destroyed or maim'd; all the old families used up--the rich impoverish'd, the plantations cover'd with weeds, the slaves unloos'd and become the masters, and the name of southerner blacken'd with every shame --all that is Calhoun's real monument."[5]

One can speculate that nothing would have exceeded for Calhoun the pain of actually seeing the ruin of the South than that of being called the architect of that ruin. For while he was widely seen and reviled as the disciple of disunion, Calhoun believed himself to be--and a later generation of historians seems to accept him as--a union man. His expression of those pro-union sentiments was quite different from that of others of his day--his fellow triumvirs, for example. But his entire life, Calhoun saw himself as an advocate of the Constitution and a proud heir to the mantle of Thomas Jefferson.

Calhoun's World

To understand the riddle that was John C. Calhoun one must understand a bit more about Calhoun's family--and the place that nurtured that family's hopes, South Carolina during the Revolutionary decades and the first decades of the 19th century. Calhoun's father, Patrick Calhoun, was a frontiersman, a fighter. He fought Indians during the French and Indian War--losing his mother, an uncle and several nieces in the Long Canes Massacre.

Once the Indian threat had been crushed, Calhoun kept on fighting--the hated Tories during the Revolution and the equally hated Charleston aristocracy as the first Upcountry representative in the state assembly. John Calhoun described the elder Calhoun as more Jeffersonian than Jefferson--a staunch strict constructionist, the elder Calhoun opposed the Constitution because it allowed "people other than those of South Carolina to tax the people of South Carolina," thus violating the very revolutionary principles that he had fought for during the war.[6]

Calhoun's sentiments were not unique among his neighbors in the South Carolina Upcountry. But the Upcountry, this stronghold of Jeffersonian republicanism, was to evolve in his son's time into what historian Lacy Ford, among others, has called a hotbed of Southern radicalism. The immediate impetus seems to have been the development of the Upcountry's first--and only--staple crop: cotton. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized the Upcountry economy. Soils proven inhospitable to Lowcountry staples such as rice, indigo, and luxury long-staple cotton were able to grow short-staple cotton--of a type that was nearly worthless until the cotton gin came along--in abundance.

In 1793, for example, the entire state produced only 94,000 pounds of cotton--most of that Lowcountry long-staple. By 1811, however, the Upcountry alone was exporting some 30 million pounds of short-staple cotton.[7] Men whose fathers were pioneers or subsistence farmers were suddenly able to amass fortunes rivaling those of the wealthiest Lowcountry rice barons. Calhoun's father was no exception--Patrick Calhoun owned more than 1,200 acres and 30 slaves when he died in 1796. [8]

For these men, there was no contradiction apparent in being staunch defenders of liberty and slave-holders as well. During Jefferson's presidency, the English diplomat Sir Augustus John Foster explained the conundrum thus. Planters, he wrote, could "profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves."[9]

In other words, as cotton and slaves moved up from the Lowcountry (where, in the three coastal parishes of Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort, African-Americans comprised around 85 percent of the total population[10]), they became signifiers both of the new prosperity and of the promises that the compromises of the Constitution held out to Southerners--that in a slave society, all white men could indeed be equal.

The qualms of an Edward Coles[11] or a Colonel John Laurens[12] aside, Calhoun grew up in this society believing slavery not to be a necessary evil--as Jefferson did--but to be a positive good. Indeed, our collective view of South Carolina's nullifiers and later secessionists is influenced by the accuracy of our hindsight. Calhoun and other South Carolinians, far from seeing themselves as knights in a doomed crusade, believed they were battling from a position of strength.

Convinced that cotton drove the economies of the South, the North, and of Great Britain, these men gave pride of place to the power of commodities rather than to that of capital to generate new markets and develop new markets to fill them. In their eyes, slave labor and staple agriculture were the only means by which wealth could be increased and independent producers protected. Only a handful of visionaries at the time were able to spy the logical fallacies in the planters' arguments and dared to suggest that cotton and slaves, in fact, retarded the South's economic development and made it dangerously dependent and stagnant. [13]

Calhoun was not one of these men. Even his predictions of secession wore wreaths of laurel: It never occurred to him that the South could lose if the matter came to force of arms. And thus, every political battle he fought over the course of his life was devoted tin one way another to a defense of the Southern way of life--Southern distinctiveness, Southern cotton, Southern slavery. At the height of his career, his brilliant logician's mind and fluent pen turned out a seminal series of documents in which the Constitution became a bulwark in this enterprise of defense.

From Nationalist to Nullifier

The Calhoun who is most vivid in American public memory is the Southern dissenter--the gadfly protecting the South's interests against a North and West whose values and economic pursuits appeared, in his eyes, increasingly hostile. But Calhoun's early career was marked by a strong nationalism.

"Young Hercules"

Let us not forget that Calhoun, after several years at that school for South Carolina statesmen, the Willington Academy, was educated at Yale College and Litchfield Law School--both Connecticut schools that were hotbeds of Federalist thinking and activism. Calhoun returned to Abbeville in 1806 a brilliant debater and legal advocate and a man with broad public interests.

When he entered the 12th Congress in 1811, it was as the advocate of a war with Great Britain that could only harm his state's export interests in the short term. Calhoun, after sizing the situation up, chose the nation's long-term best interests and, as a member of the party of War Hawks, gave a series of fiery speeches that earned him the sobriquet "the young Hercules who carried the war on his shoulders."[14]

Calhoun's nationalism became even more pronounced during his tenure as James Monroe's secretary of war. Only too well aware of how close the nation came to defeat in the War of 1812, mostly due to the severe lack of infrastructure--roads, bridges, canals--over which men and materials could be easily moved, Calhoun devoted himself to a program of internal improvements--most of which would benefit other sections of the country long before his native South Carolina. Calhoun even threw early support behind Henry Clay's American System--in which Western corn was to feed the laborers, and Southern cotton the mills, of the Northern industrial machine.

Thus it was that, during this period, Calhoun enjoyed immense popularity in every section of the country. Not only did he refuse to place planters' interests first, he sponsored measures intended to benefit men of every condition--merchants, manufacturers, and seamen no less than farmers. He even apologized, when discussing the constitutional compromise that permitted the slave trade to continue until 1808, for the South's support of slavery.[15] Thus it was that Calhoun won this encomium from John Quincy Adams: "He is above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted."[16]

But while Calhoun was making his reputation in Washington as a nationalist, political opinion was undergoing a significant sea change in South Carolina. Early on, it must be noted, many South Carolinians were behind Calhoun's policies. The War of 1812 was popular there, despite the damage it did to the state's exporting interests. But depression came on the heels of war, followed by protective tariffs in 1816 that further affected exports, followed by the crushing blow of the Panic of 1819. Public opinion began to swing decisively against taxes, tariffs, and the general invigoration of the federal government and toward the Radical, strict constructionist position.[17]

When new, even higher tariffs were passed in 1824, followed by the "Tariff of Abominations" in 1828, South Carolinians saw these measures not just as a threat to the state's economy but a flagrant abuse of federal power--looting the South in order to fill the pockets of Northern and Western businessmen[18] The state's retreat to radicalism could not have come at a worse time for Calhoun--who in 1821 through '24 was busy attempting to turn his national standing to good account in his first run for the presidency.

Calhoun at the height of his powers

Calhoun's candidacy revealed him as a man caught between two worlds. He had been shaped by the early republican tradition of campaigning, which held that a man should not seek public office, but wait until called to lead by his fellows, then gracefully accept. Influenced by such a leadership style, it was hardly surprising that Calhoun should advocate the position that the nation's leaders were a natural elite who could best serve the nation's interests by rising above narrow sectional politics.[19]

Unfortunately, Calhoun miscalculated on two fronts. He didn't adequately take account of demise of the caucus system--not to mention the importance of electioneering tactics in attracting votes under new delegate system.[20] Nor did he take note of how rumblings about the tariffs, which masked deeper fears about the future of slavery, were consolidating and even polarizing sectional feeling. [21] Finding himself an object of suspicion even in his home state--which nominated the popular Republican leader William Lowndes for president instead[22]--Calhoun was forced to drop out of the presidential balloting, eventually becoming John Quincy Adams' and then Andrew Jackson's vice president.

Retreat was never easy for Calhoun--especially since it would be 24 long years before he could divest himself of his vain hopes for the presidency. Publicly then, in deference to his advocates in Pennsylvania and the West, he was still a nationalist as late as 1825. In a speech at Augusta, Georgia, for example, he stated, "No one would reprobate more pointedly than myself any concerted action between States, for [self-]interested or sectional objects. I would consider all such concert, as against the spirit of our Constitution."[23]

Privately, however, it appears clear that Calhoun was rethinking his public stand. In the summer of 1827, for example, as agitation began in Pennsylvania for the tariff that was to become the known as the "Tariff of Abominations," Calhoun wrote to his brother-in-law that self-interested protectionists in the West and North were creating a crisis that would "make two out of one nation." He added the hope that the South "would not be provoked beyond strict constitutional remedies." [24]

Musing further that the problem with the Constitution was that "the geographical interests are not sufficiently guarded," Calhoun revealed he was arriving at the point where James Madison, in his contributions to the Federalist Papers, had begun his thinking four decades before.[25] Calhoun's constitutional ruminations bore fruit a little over a year later, when the South Carolina "Exposition" was published--anonymously at first--on December 19, 1828.

Taking as its inspiration Jefferson and Madison's Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Calhoun's "Exposition" elaborated upon the doctrine of "interposition," by which a state has the right to "interpose" state authority between the citizens of the state and the laws of the United States--effectively declaring those laws null and void. Far from advocating secession, the "Exposition" attempted to argue a fair and constitutional way of settling disputes of law between the states and the federal government.[26]

By remaining anonymous, Calhoun seems to have been attempting to buy time both for himself as a future presidential contender and for action by the newly elected Jackson administration. Hope waned rapidly, however. Calhoun, though elected vice president, quickly found himself odd man out in the councils of government. Jackson's "State of the Union" address, in January 1829, offered hope for only gradual reform. When Sens. Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Daniel Webster locked horns a year later--ostensibly over federal land policy, but in reality over the doctrines proposed in the "Exposition"--the stage was set for a pitched battle over the states' rights to "nullify" federal law. [27]

The actors in 1832 were South Carolina's Nullifiers, who after four years of hard campaigning finally elected a legislature pledged to calling a nullifying convention; Andrew Jackson, who after years of denials had finally pledged himself to a second presidential run; and of course, John C. Calhoun, thwarted once again in his presidential hopes by Jackson's decision. But the first shots in the conflict were actually fired several years previously--at the Jefferson Day banquet in April 1830.

A sequel of the Webster-Hayne debates, the banquet was intended as a climax of Carolinians' attempts to win support in the West and South for their cause. Jackson threw down the gauntlet during the toasts. "Our Federal Union: It must be preserved," he said. Calhoun, as vice president, was next. But Calhoun had not yet been revealed as the "Exposition's" author: "The Union: Next to our Liberty the most dear," was his toast.

Andrew Jackson

Calhoun, still harboring hopes for the presidency, held off as long as he could under the conflicting demands of South Carolina Unionists and Nullifiers--not to mention the unremitting hostility of Jackson. Finally, in 1831, Calhoun admitted his authorship of the "Exposition" and committed himself to "nullification" as a constitutional remedy in the "Fort Hill Address." It was the political equivalent of crossing the Rubicon. The vice president was now revealed as a sectionalist, and his leadership got its first test when Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832.

Since all the southern states except Kentucky and Louisiana were opposed to the tariff, South Carolina assumed that it only had to provide the necessary leadership--and their sister states would follow. But the state's Nullifiers had grievously miscalculated--as they quickly learned when they voted to nullify the tariffs of 1828 and '32, sanctioned the raising of an armed force, and vowed to secede from the Union if federal troops tried to force compliance. The Nullifiers also elected Robert Hayne governor while Calhoun resigned from the administration to take Hayne's Senate seat.

This was too much for the rest of the South. The other Southern states tended to agree with South Carolina's Unionists--they just couldn't support nullification as a constitutional remedy. They saw that, while professing to preserve the Union, nullification would effectively break it. In addition, Southerners outside South Carolina found Andrew Jackson--champion of the common man--a much more attractive standard-bearer of Southern identity than Calhoun, the chilly logician. Thus, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama blasted the action as subversive and a heresy. Kentucky used copious quotations from the Constitution to refute the doctrine. And Virginia flatly denied that the 1798 resolutions in any way sanctioned South Carolina's madness.

On the national scene, Jackson's early actions were conciliatory--he gestured toward tariff relief for South Carolina in his "State of the Union" message on December 4. Thus it was that the Proclamation to the People of South Carolina, on December 10, surprised everyone. "[B]e not deceived by names," the message thundered. "Disunion by armed force is treason." And treason, Jackson promised, would be met by force. About a month later, Jackson wrote Joel Poinsett, the leader of the South Carolina Unionists, saying that he could have 10,000-15,000 troops in Charleston "in ten or fifteen days at the farthest." When Calhoun took his seat in the Senate gallery January 4, 1833, it was with the knowledge that Jackson had threatened to have him arrested and hanged for treason.

On January 21, nullification's February 1 effective date was suspended at an informal public meeting in Charleston--partly due to the state's isolation and Jackson's threats, and partly to give Congress a chance to act on a proposed tariff reform, the Verplanck Bill. But negotiations bogged down, and Jackson sought additional powers to collect the tariffs and deal with the army raised by the Nullifiers in a measure that became known as the Force Bill. After weeks of impassioned debate between Calhoun and Webster, spearheading the president's policies, Clay finally offered a compromise that was acceptable to Calhoun.

Henry Clay

Ironically, both the Compromise of 1833 and the Force Bill passed into law around the same time, allowing both sides to claim victory. The crisis ended officially on March 4, when South Carolina repealed the nullification act--then promptly nullified the Force Bill. Two heroes emerged from the crisis. Henry Clay was hailed across the nation as "The Great Compromiser." And in South Carolina, Calhoun became all but unassailable. One of the most popular sayings of the '30s was, that "when Calhoun took snuff, South Carolina sneezed."[28]

Calhoun Against Abolition

The nullification crisis may have cooled after 1833, but the sectional tensions that provoked it still simmered beneath the surface. Slavery, quickly, became the pretext for the next outbreak of hostilities. A bit of background would probably be useful here. 1831 had proven a watershed year for attacks on the South's "peculiar institution". Not only did the volume on outside criticisms intensify with the birth of William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, but Southerners faced a revolt within their ranks as well.

A cartoon from the Liberator

When Nat Turner's rebellion in Southhampton, Virginia, produced two days of panic and claimed the lives of 59 whites, representatives from western Virginia mounted a direct challenge to the plantocracy, proposing gradual emancipation and colonization of the enslaved population.[29] The attempt ended in utter rout for the western insurgents, largely because slavery had, through generations of assertion by planters, become central to intellectual and political notions of Southern "liberty" while dissent, equally, had come to mean treason. Whatever private doubts individuals may have had about the institution, public declaration of those doubts after 1831 constituted political suicide.[30] Indeed, even the formulation of such doubts was to become increasingly problematic--a state of affairs for which Calhoun, more than any other Southerner, could claim credit.

By 1835, antislavery petitions and papers were circulating through the mails across the South. At the same time, abolitionists had begun a petition campaign to end slavery in the District of Columbia. Calhoun--who had long maintained, "There cannot be a durable republican government without slavery"[31]--took aim at the abolitionists' activities. The immediate impetus for action came on September 9, when a citizen's meeting in Pendleton, Calhoun's home village, adopted resolutions condemning abolitionists and appointing a vigilance committee to stop their incendiary pamphlets from circulating. The city of Charleston went even further--abolitionist petitions were impounded there by order of the postmaster general.[32]

President Jackson, meanwhile, proposed authorizing the Post Office to suppress circulation of abolitionist literature in the slave states. But Calhoun rejected the proposal as an infringement on states' rights. Instead, he proposed a bill that would have punished postmasters for receiving, forwarding, or delivering any mail that the laws of the state prohibited. The bill was roundly criticized on all fronts. Southern sympathizers feared making martyrs of the abolitionists, while senators of all stripes feared the impact on the First Amendment. The bill also opened up sticky territory by making the laws of the states the laws of Congress, fundamentally changing the character of the government. Lastly, the bill appeared to array the United States on the side of slavery.[33] Not surprisingly, Calhoun's effort failed to pass.

Cotton cultivation in the 1840s

The battle over abolition in the District of Columbia was longer-lived, staggering on into 1836 and spilling into the presidential electioneering. Calhoun's great fear was that the bill might establish a fatal precedent--giving the federal government an unconstitutional authority to intervene in slavery. When his own presidential hopes fizzled, Calhoun sought assurances from Martin Van Buren and the Democrats that Southern interests would be protected if the Van Buren ticket won.

Among Southerners, however, Calhoun's methods sparked considerable dissent. "Sir," said Sen. John R. King (Ga.) of Calhoun's efforts, "if Southern senators were actually in the pay of ... Nassau Street [the New York address of the American Anti-Slavery Society], they could not more effectively cooperate in the views and administer to the wishes of the enemies of peace and quiet in our country."[34] The thinking among men like King was that Calhoun's attacks would make the abolitionists appear in a new guise--no longer just enemies of slavery, but defenders of civil liberty.

Indeed, one South Carolinian went so far as to bolt the ranks. Henry Laurens Pinckney, chairman of the House committee considering the petition issue, came up with a compromise: receiving the abolition petitions, then tabling them. Known as the "Pinckney gag," the measure destroyed Pinckney's career. For his temerity in defying Calhoun, Pinckney was denounced as a traitor, drummed out of the States Rights Party, and defeated in his campaign for re-election.[35]

The Pinckney "purge" decisively acted to mute opposition to Calhoun in his home state by consolidating the senator's faction. [36] Indeed, the "cast-iron man" had succeeding in creating something very close to a "solid South Carolina." His hope in the latter years of his career would be that he could duplicate the feat across his home region, unifying the entire South behind his vision and his leadership.

It was to remain a forlorn hope. Outside the borders of South Carolina, much of the South failed to warm to Calhoun. He had prominent supporters, among them R.M.T. Hunter of Virginia, Dixon H. Lewis of Alabama, and John A. Quitman of Mississippi[37], but personally many found the man chilly and remote. In addition, the number and virulence of his political and personal feuds was also legendary. [38]

Opposition persisted even after Calhoun delivered on most of his promises to defend the South. His alliance with the Democrats--while denounced by Southern Whigs, many of them men of the first rank throughout the South[39]--bore a bumper crop. Van Buren and the Democrats passed a series of pro-South resolutions, banned the abolition petitions, and yielded to Southern demands with an alacrity that alarmed the party's Northern wing.[40] Time and again in his later years, however, Calhoun seemed to misstep--or simply to be out of step--with the rest of the South and its sympathizers. There are countless examples, but three, in particular, will be instructive.

First, let us consider the twin towers of Calhoun's political theory: the Disquisition on Government and the Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. Calhoun labored for years on them; they are indeed one of the reasons he's still taken seriously by scholars of the Constitution. But they seemed impractical in the extreme to his contemporaries--"metaphysical", or "logical but impractical," his peers dubbed them with a sneer. Indeed, very few Southerners felt Calhoun's urgency that the South needed some form of permanent defense against the rapacious North and West. And as for his remedy--a new constitution enshrining not one, but two, chief executives, one elected from each section, each armed with veto power over the other--no one, inside or outside Calhoun's section, took that idea seriously at all.[41]

But neither the Disquisition nor the Discourse were published in Calhoun's lifetime. Let us consider another example, a classic case of what some of his peers called Calhoun's habit of overreaching himself: his handling of the annexation of Texas. Calhoun initially appeared to be in a position to lead on this matter. Annexation was overwhelmingly popular across the South and Calhoun, preparing to fill the term of deceased Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur in the Tyler administration, had a clean opportunity to shepherd the negotiations already under way before Congress.

But Calhoun was unable to resist the lure of a national--indeed, an international--audience. Determined to push for maximum concessions from the North and the British, he wrote a letter to Sir Richard Pakenham, the British minister, that explicitly linked the desirability of annexation to the desirability of slavery. The letter bristled with bogus statistics--census data that purportedly proved the ratio of deaf, dumb, retarded, and insane African-Americans was twice as high in free states, that African-Americans had achieved intelligence, morality, and civilization only in slave states. The only thing Calhoun managed to do was sabotage national support for the treaty. It sunk without a trace after the Pakenham Letter became public and Clay and Webster criticized it as well. [42] Hardly surprisingly, the Polk administration declined Calhoun's services when its turn came to play the national stage just a few months after the Pakenham debacle.

James Polk

Finally, there is the example of Calhoun's stand on Mexico. The senator had the sincerest of reasons for opposing the war with Mexico. Part of Polk's expansion program, which also included Oregon, California, the Southwest, and the Rio Grande boundary for Texas, Calhoun saw Mexico as "forbidden fruit"--and he was deeply fearful that eating it, and nearly doubling the nation's size, would turn the balance of power in the Senate forever against the South. He was, as it happened, entirely correct. But few in the South heeded his voice. The war was extremely popular in the South and the West. And with every speech Calhoun made, advocating a defensive strategy or opposing troop raising efforts, his standing sunk. Considered at one time a serious candidate for president, Calhoun couldn't rally even his staunchest allies for the 1848 election. Indeed, it was a war hero, General Zachary Taylor, who won.[43]

Zachary Taylor

By the time the real crisis came, Calhoun had suffered the fate of "the boy who cried wolf." No one would listen. The Mexican War won, the nation's leaders were attempting to decide the fate of the vast territories which had become part of the United States. After long wrangling, the Wilmot Proviso, barring slavery from the territories won from Mexico had passed. Now the immediate threat was Taylor's plan to admit California to the Union as a free state--a move that would have upset the balance of power between slave and free states beyond redress. Effectively the move would invalidate the Missouri Compromise by preventing the extension of the 36�30� line to the Pacific.

To Calhoun, the need for action seemed clear, but there were complicating factors. For one, the South was recovering from long years of depression and entering what was to be a decade-long boom,[44] and many Southerners were little interested in Cassandra Calhoun's predictions of disaster. Also, a new generation of leaders, such as Benton and Houston, had risen to power in border states. They exercised independent judgment on matters such as the Oregon Bill. And when chastised by the South's senior statesman, they did not fear to call him "Catiline"[45] and charge him with disloyalty to the Union.

Indeed, this time the charge had some merit. After squelching several years previously the Bluffton movement, an independent disunionist movement in South Carolina, Calhoun had come to be the hidden hand behind a group of men determined to defeat Taylor's purposes in California. Keeping a profile so low that not even a South Carolina congressman sent to observe knew the senator's role, Calhoun, through deputies at a bipartisan caucus in Mississippi, did at last succeed in fostering a Southern convention to take place in Nashville in June of 1850. But the victory proved to be hollow. [46]

Matters were simply too pressing to wait until June. Both New Mexico and Deseret (Utah, with its thriving Mormon population) cried out for territorial governments. There was still a nasty boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico, not to mention festering issues like the Fugitive Slave Bill and the threat of emancipation in the District of Columbia. Taylor's policy seemed inadequate to deal with the morass; Calhoun seemed to offer only the specter of disunion. So once again, as in the Missouri Compromise debates and the Nullification crisis, Henry Clay stepped forward as the champion of Union.

From the moment he proposed his compromise resolutions on January 29, 1850, the frail 73-year-old Clay commanded the debate. Extremists howled that Clay offered too many concessions to the North, or to the South. But by pointing out the obvious--that slavery could not be extended to the Western territories both for reasons of climate and of law--and by giving assurances to the South on the Fugitive Slave Bill and slavery in the District, Clay showed that it was indeed possible to steer a middle course between free-soilers and disunionists.

An aging Calhoun

To Calhoun, however, the middle way was anathema. Sickly and weak from his final illness, wrapped in a black cloak against the cold, Calhoun had to allow to James Mason of Virginia read his reply to Clay on March 4. The speech attacked both the Taylor and Clay plans and offered only a cryptic reference to a constitutional amendment "which will restore to the South in substance the power she possessed of protecting herself, before the equilibrium between the sections was destroyed."[47]

Ironically, the speech had the effect of driving every wavering Southerner into the Unionist camp. By seeming to prepare the Union's shroud, Calhoun only started a stampede. Even supporters like Mississippi's "Hangman" Henry Foote bolted, saying in a speech the very next day that the South needed no constitutional amendment, that Calhoun hadn't consulted and didn't speak for the South. When Webster, who also had been wavering, came out strongly in favor of compromise on March 7, the disunion movement of 1850 was, to all intents and purposes, dead.

Nor did Calhoun live to see the denouement. He passed just a few weeks later, on March 31, at the age of 68. In the months after the eulogies had died down, the nation got back down to business. The Nashville Convention came and went--with barely a whimper of disunion. And after much wrangling, the Compromise of 1850 passed. While endorsing the Fugitive Slave Bill and pledging noninterference in the District, California was admitted as a free state, ending decades of parity between slave and free states; the Missouri Compromise line was not extended to the Pacific; the people of Utah and New Mexico were allowed to make up their own minds about slavery.

Calhoun would have found it a fatal defeat. But after the initial setback in the West, the South ran off an impressive string of victories by playing the politics of disunion. The Gadsden Purchase, the Ostend Manifesto, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott Decision, the tariff reduction of 1857, Buchanan's repeal of the homestead act in 1859--all were important victories for the South.[48]

But Cassandra Calhoun had the last word after all. As he told Mason, shortly before he died in 1850: < p>

The Union is doomed to dissolution, there is no mistaking the signs. I am satisfied in my judgment even were the questions which now agitate Congress settled to the satisfaction and the concurrence of the Southern States, it would not avert, or materially delay, the catastrophe. I fix its probable occurrence within twelve years or three presidential terms. You and others of your age, will probably live to see it; I shall not. The mode by which it will be is not so clear; it may be brought about in a manner that none now foresee. But the probability is it will explode in a Presidential election. [49]

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1. The reference was of fairly wide currency after the three arrayed themselves in opposition to Andrew Jackson--who, using the terms of this metaphor, would have played the part of Marius, the victorious general whose ambition endangered Republican Rome. The best known treatment of the roles played by the three men is Merrill D. Peterson's The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987).

2. Calvin Colter, The Life and Times of Henry Clay (New York: 1846), I, 36.

3. Peterson 494.

4. Ladies Calhoun Monument Association, A History of the Calhoun Monument at Charleston, S.C. (Charleston: 1888), 4.

5. Walt Whitman, "Specimen Days," in Whitman: Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1982), 773.

6. Gerald Capers, John C. Calhoun--Opportunist: A Reappraisal (Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1968), 4.

7. Lacy K. Ford, The Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800-1860 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988), 7.

8. Ford 8.

9. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery--American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975), 380.

10. Ford 123.

11. Edward Coles of Virginia wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1814 seeking assistance in his personal crusade against slavery. Coles, who planned to move to Illinois with all his slaves and there free them, sought Jefferson's endorsement to persuade other planters to follow his example. Jefferson demurred, urging Coles to "reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition"--advice which the young man ignored. In Paul Finkelman, "Jefferson and Slavery: 'Treason Against the Hopes of the World'": Peter Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 209-10.

12. Colonel John Laurens, a contemporary of Jefferson's and member of one of the oldest and most aristocratic families in Charleston, jeopardized his political career and his social standing by advocating all-black regiments that would be manumitted after the Revolutionary War. Laurens died before his scheme could be put into effect, but his father, Henry Laurens, followed the son's wishes and manumitted his slaves. In Finkelman 187.

13. Ford 3-4.

14. Capers 35.

15. Capers 43.

16. C. F. Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams (Philadelphia: 1874-7), V, 361.

17. Ford 117.

18. William Freehling, Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 106-22.

19. Theodore Marmor, The Career of John C. Calhoun: Politician, Social Critic, Political Philosopher (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1988), 66.

20. Marmor 61.

21. Marmor 66.

22. Capers 83-4.

23. Niles' Weekly Register XXXIII (1825), 267.

24. To James E. Calhoun, Aug. 26, 1827.

25. Capers 107.

26. Ross M. Lence, ed., Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), 311.

27. In this section, I have relied on descriptions and analyses of the nullification crisis in Peterson, Capers, and Ford.

28. Ford 146.

29. Peterson 257.

30. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 182-83.

31. Peterson 257.

32. Peterson 258.

33. Peterson 259.

34. Register of Debates, 24th Cong., 1st Sess., 805.

35. Peterson 262.

36. Ford 155-57.

37. Capers 196.

38. We have seen the harshness of Calhoun's party discipline within South Carolina. In addition to Pinckney, he hounded William C. Preston and Stephen D. Miller from the House of Representatives and even excommunicated his faithful lieutenant Francis Pickens for criticizing Calhoun's stand on the Mexican War. Outside of South Carolina, Calhoun formed alliances with then systematically alienated Adams, Clay, Webster, Jackson, and Polk. His enemies among the younger generation of Southern and border state politicians included Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Sam Houston of Texas. In Capers 214-15 and Peterson 425 and 452.

39. When Jackson's and later Van Buren's Democrats favored policies that appealed to the working masses--attacking banks, for example, as the monopoly of the rich--they, in effect, pushed the majority of planters, manufacturers, merchants, and bankers, South and North, into the arms of the Whigs. Capers 171. As the party's philosophy developed under the leadership of Clay and Webster, it eventually came to stand for a strong national bank, federally financed internal improvements, and protective tariffs. Ford 154.

40. Eventually, that Northern wing would stampede to the newly formed Republican Party. Capers 253.

41. Peterson 409-13. Capers 245-48.

42. Peterson 346-48.

43. Capers 232-34.

44. Ford 215.

45. Actually, Thomas Hart Benton said he could not be "so unjust to the brave Roman conspirator as to compare the cowardly American plotter to him." William M. Meigs, Life of Thomas Hart Benton (Philadelphia, 1904), 496-97.

46. The discussion of the Compromise of 1850 is taken from Peterson 449-476.

47. Calhoun did not specify what he meant, but Merrill Peterson suspects that he was speaking of the dual executive discussed in the as-yet-unpublished Discourse. Peterson 461. Quote appears in John C. Calhoun, Works of John C. Calhoun IV, Richard K. Cralle, ed. (Columbia, SC: 1851), 542-73.

48. Capers 253-54.

49. Virginia Mason, The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James Murray Mason (Roanoke, Va., 1903), 72-73.