John C. Calhoun: A Biography

Front Cover
W.W. Norton & Company, 1993 - Legislators - 413 pages
In this important and highly readable biography of John C. Calhoun, Irving Bartlett sees a man almost unique in American history, a lifelong politician who was also a profound political philosopher. Born on the South Carolina frontier, Calhoun grew up in a postrevolutionary culture which valued both African slavery and the republican ideology of the Founding Fathers. He was orphaned in his teens and, with almost no formal education, suddenly became a man. In less than ten years he had become a Yale graduate, a lawyer, a former state legislator, and a congressman-elect prepared to help James Madison lead the country into the War of 1812. As a congressman and later as James Monroe's secretary of war Calhoun articulated the nationalism of the new nation as cogently as any other American leader. Calhoun was ambitious beyond his years. He was an unsuccessful candidate in the disputed presidential election of 1824 but was easily elected vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Determined to avoid the obscurity of that office, Calhoun managed to get into monumental public disputes with both presidents and resigned in the last days of Jackson's first administration to become senator from South Carolina and champion his state's right to nullify the Tariff of 1832. Along with his famous contemporaries Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Calhoun dominated the Senate of the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. Serving briefly as secretary of state in the beleaguered Tyler administration, he played a key role in the annexation of Texas and created a furor on both sides of the Atlantic with his strident defense of American slavery and his denunciation of what he perceived as thepseudophilanthropy of British abolitionism. Returning to the Senate, he acted as peacemaker in helping avoid a near war with Britain over the Oregon boundary dispute, and he persistently opposed the popular Mexican War. Long before his death in 1850 Calhoun had become known as the cast-iron leader of the South, who never curried to popular opinion, spurned party loyalty, and defended slavery and states' rights with a vigor and intelligence that even leading abolitionists had to respect. In this major new biography Irving Bartlett goes behind the cast-iron image to explain the cultural and psychological forces that shaped Calhoun's political career and thought; he maintains that however wrong Calhoun was about slavery, many of his ideas still speak to us today.

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