RHS 201

D.C.Ellison, Instructor

John C. Calhoun: The Marx of the Master Class

By Richard Hofstadter

It would be well for those interested to reflect whether there now

exists, or ever has existed, a wealthy and civilized community in which

one portion did not live on the labor of another; and whether the form

in which slavery exists in the South is not but one modification of this

universal condition...Let those who are interested remember that labor

is the only source of wealth, and how small a portion of it, in all old

and civilized countries, even the best governed, is left to those by

whose labor wealth is created.



Jackson led through force of personality, not intellect; his successors in the White House were

remarkable for neither, and yielded pre-eminence to Congressional politicians. Of the three greatest,

Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, the last showed the most striking mind. His problem, that of defending

a minority interest in a democracy, offered the toughest challenge to fresh thinking.

As nationalists closely allied with capitalistic interests, Clay and Webster could both use the

ideas of the Founding Fathers as they were transmitted through the Federalist tradition. Clay, content

to leave theoretical elaboration of his "American system" to economists like Mathew Carey and

Hezekiah Niles, never presumed to be a thinker, and his greatest contribution to the political art was

to demonstrate how a Hamiltonian program could gain strength by an admixture of the Jeffersonian

spirit. Webster, who was satisfied, on the whole, to follow the conservative republicanism of the

Fathers, is rightly remembered best as the quasi-official rhapsodist of American nationalism. He felt

no need to attempt a new synthesis for his own time.

Calhoun, representing a conscious minority with special problems, brought new variations into

American political thinking. although his concepts of nullification and the concurrent voice have little

more than antiquarian interest for the twentieth-century mind, he also set forth a system of social

analysis that is worthy of considerable respect. Calhoun was one of a few Americans of his age-

Richard Hildreth and Orestes Brownson were others - who had a keen sense for social structure and

class forces. Before Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto, Calhoun laid down an analysis

of American politics and the sectional struggle which foreshadowed some of the seminal ideas of

Marx's system. A brilliant if narrow dialectician, probably the last American statesman to do any

primary political thinking, he placed the central ideas of "scientific" socialism in an inverted

framework of moral values and produced an arresting defense of reaction, a sort of intellectual Black


Calhoun was born in 1782 into a Scotch-Irish family that had entered the colonies in

Pennsylvania and migrated to the Southern back country in the middle of the century. His paternal

grandmother had been killed by Indians on the frontier in 1760 and his mother's brother, John

Caldwell, after whom he was named, had been murdered by Tories during the Revolution. Patrick

Calhoun, his father, acquired over thirty slaves in an area where slaves were rare, became a prominent

citizen of the South Carolina hinterland and a member of the state legislature, and opposed the federal

Constitution. When John was fourteen, Patrick died. The boy was tutored for a time by his brother-in-law, Moses Waddel, soon to become one of the South's outstanding educators; he graduated from

Yale in 1804, studied law at Tapping Reeve's famous school in Litchfield, and joined the Carolina bar.

Calhoun's warmest attachment during these years, and perhaps all his life, was to an older

woman, Floride Bonneau Calhoun, his father's cousin by marriage. After years of close friendship

and constant correspondence, he married her eighteen-year-old daughter, whose name was also

Floride. It was customary for a bribe to keep control of her own fortune, but the young planter

indelicately insisted that she place her property in his hands. It was so arranged. Besides these

extensive landholdings, the connection brought Calhoun an assured position among gentlefolk of the


In 1808, three years before his marriage and shortly after his admission to the bar, Calhoun

was elected to the south Carolina legislature. In 1810 he was elected to Congress, where he promptly

became a leader among the young "war hawks". When the war with Britain began, he became the

foremost advocate of war appropriations, and for fifteen years he remained the most ardent worker

for national unity and national power. He was for more troops, more funds, for manufactures, federal

roads, a higher tariff, and a new national bank. Impatient with "refined arguments on the

Constitution," he waved all constitutional objections aside. In 1817 he became Secretary of War in

James Monroe's Cabinet and put through an ambitious program of fortifications and administrative

improvement. John Quincy Adams, his colleague in the Cabinet, wrote in his diary that Calhoun was

a man of fair and candid mind, of honorable principles, of clear and quick

understanding, of cool self- possession, of enlarged philosophic views, and

of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional

and factional prejudices more than any other

statesman of this Union with whom I have

ever acted.

Calhoun took a conciliatory view of sectional issues. When the question of slavery first

appeared in the controversy over Missouri, he stood for moderation. "We to the South ought not

to assent easily to the belief that there is a conspiracy either against our property or just weight in the

Union," he wrote to a friend, adding that he favored supporting such measures and men "without a

regard to sections, as are best calculated to advance the general interest." One must agree with

William E. Dodd: Calhoun's whole early life as a public man had been built upon nationalism, and

at heart he remained a Unionist as well as a Southerner. What he wanted was not for the South to

leave the Union, but to dominate it. Even as late as 1838 he cautioned his daughter against the

disunionist school of thought. "Those who make it up, do not think of the difficulty involved in the

word; how many bleeding [pores] must be taken up on passing the knife of separation through a body

politic... We must remember, it is the mist difficult process in the world to make two people of one."

Changes at home converted the reluctant Calhoun from a nationalist to a sectionalist. As the

cotton economy spread, South Carolina became entirely a staple-growing state. Her planters,

working exhausted land, and hard pressed to compete with the fresh soil of the interior, found it

impossible to submit quietly any longer to the exactions of the protective tariff. Before long a fiery

local group of statesmen made it impossible for any politician to stay in business who did not take a

strong stand for sectional interests.

Calhoun, who aspired to be much more than a regional leader, managed for some years to

soft-pedal his swing to a sectional position. His initial strategy was to make an alliance with the

Jackson supporters in the hope that Jackson, himself a Southern planter and an old republican, would

pursue policies favorable to the South and eventually pass the presidency on to Calhoun. Then

Calhoun would cement an alliance between the agrarian South and West against the capitalistic East.

Both in 1824, when Jackson was defeated by the Clay-Adams bargain, and in 1828, when he was

elected, Calhoun was his vice-presidential running mate.

During the campaign of 1828 the exorbitant Tariff of Abominations became law, and Calhoun

wrote his first great document on the sectional question, the Exposition and Protest, the authorship

of which remained secret for some time for political reasons. Denouncing the tariff bitterly, Calhoun

declared: "We are the serfs of the system." After giving an impressive analysis of the costs of the

tariff to the plantation economy, he came to political remedies. "No government based on the naked

principle that the majority ought to govern, however true the maxim in its proper sense, and under

proper restrictions, can preserve its liberty even for a single generation." Only those governments

which provide checks on power, "which limit and restrain within proper bounds the power of the

majority," have had a prolonged and happy existence. Seeking for some constitutional means, short

of secession, of resisting the majority, Calhoun seized upon the idea of state nullification. The powers

of sovereignty, he contended, belonged of right entirely to the several states and were only delegated,

in part, to the federal government. Therefore the right of judging whether measures of policy were

infractions of their rights under the Constitution belonged to the states. When a state convention,

called for the purpose, decided that constitutional rights were violated by any statute, the state had

a right to declare the law null and void within its boundaries and refuse to permit its enforcement

there. Nullification would be binding on both the citizens of the state and the federal government.

The Exposition closed with the hope that Jackson would be elected and would make a practical test

of nullification unnecessary.

Calhoun and the South were soon disappointed with Old Hickory. Personal grievances-among them Jackson's discovery that Calhoun as Secretary of War had wanted to repudiate his free

and easy conduct in the Seminole campaign-caused the general to break with the Carolinian. The

final breach came during the nullification crisis of 1832, when Jackson turned all his wrath upon

South Carolina and incontinently threatened to hang Calhoun. At its close Calhoun, having resigned

from the vice-presidency, sat in the Senate for his state, planning to join the anti-Jackson coalition,

and militant Southerners were thinking about new ways of stemming Northern capital. Calhoun's

trajectory toward the presidency had been forcibly deflected. Henceforth his life became a long

polemical exercise, his career a series of maneuvers to defend the South and propel himself into the

White House. Nourished on ambition and antagonism, he grew harder, more resolute, and more



Charleston was the great cultural center of the Old South, a city with a flavor of its own and an air

of cosmopolitan taste and breeding, and Charleston was the one part of South Carolina for which

Calhoun had no use. He hated the life of ease and relaxation enjoyed by the absentee planters who

were the mainstay of its social and cultural distinction. In 1807, when malaria was ravaging the city,

he wrote to Floride Bonneau Calhoun with ill-disguised relish that every newspaper brought a long

list of deaths. This, he thought, was due far less to the climate of the place than to "the misconduct

of the inhabitants; and may be considered as a curse for their intemperance and debaucheries."

Debaucheries of any kind Calhoun was never accused of. There is no record that he every

read or tried to write poetry, although there is a traditional gibe to the effect that he once began a

poem with "Whereas," and stopped. Once in his life he read a novel-this at the request of a lady who

asked for his judgment on it. A friend, Mary Bates, observed that she "never heard him utter a jest,"

and Daniel Webster in his eulogy said he had never known a man"who wasted less of life in what is

called recreation, or employed less of it in any pursuits not immediately connected with the discharge

of his duty." Duty is the word, for duty was the demonic force in Calhoun. "I hold the duties of life

to the greater than life itself," he once wrote. "...I regard this life very much as a struggle against evil,

and that to him who acts on proper principle, the reward is in the struggle more than in victory itself,

although that greatly enhances it." In adult life to relax and play are in a certain sense to return to the

unrestrained spirits of childhood. There is reason to believe that Calhoun was one of those people

who have had no childhood to return to. This, perhaps, was what Harriet Martineau sensed when

she said that he seemed never to have been born. His political lieutenant, James H. Hammond,

remarked after his death: "Mr. Calhoun had no youth, to our knowledge. He sprang into the arena

like Minerva from the head of Jove, fully grown and clothed in armor: a man every inch himself, and

able to contend with any other man."

For men whom he took seriously, this white-hot intensity was difficult to bear. Senator Dixon

Lewis of Alabama, who weighed four hundred and thirty pounds and found relaxation a natural

necessity, once wrote to Calhoun's friend Richard K. Cralle during an election year:

Calhoun is now my principal associate, and he is too intelligent, too industrious, too intent

on the struggle of politics to suit me except as an occasional companion. There is no

relaxation with him. On the contrary, when I seek relaxation with him, he screws me only

the higher in some sort of excitement.

Judge Prioleau, when he first met Calhoun, told an inquirer he hoped never to see him again. For

three hours he had been trying to follow Calhoun's dialectic "through heaven and earth," and he was

exhausted with the effort. "I hate a man who makes me think so much... and I hate a man who makes

me feel my own inferiority." Calhoun seldom made himself congenial. He once admitted that he was

almost a stranger five miles from his home, and we can be sure that his political popularity was not

personal, but abstract. Nor is there any reason to believe that he often felt lonesome, except for his

family. He loved an audience, but he did not especially care for company. He enjoyed spending long

hours in solitary thought.

Colleagues in the Senate who were used to the harangues of this tall, gaunt, sickly man with

his traplike mouth and harsh voice, suited, as someone said, to a professor of mathematics, respected

him deeply for his extraordinary mind and his unquestionable integrity, but found him on occasion just

a bit ludicrous. Clay has left a memorable caricature of him -"tall, careworn, with furrowed brow,

haggard and intensely gazing, looking as if he were dissecting the last abstraction which sprung from

metaphysician's brain, and muttering to himself, in half-uttered tones, 'This is indeed a real crisis'."

There is testimony to Calhoun's gentleness and charm, to the winning quality of his very

seriousness at times. "He talked," reports one admirer, "on the most abstruse subjects with the

guileless simplicity of a prattling child." Benjamin F. Perry, a bitter political opponent, testified to

his kindness, but observed: "He liked very much to talk of himself." He saved his charm and

indulgence particularly for women and children, whose world, one imagines, he considered to be a

world entirely apart from the serious things of life. There is a brief and touching picture of him at his

daughter's wedding removing the ornaments of a cake to save them for a little child. It is easy enough

to believe that he never spoke impatiently to any member of his family, for he could always discharge

his aggressions upon a senator. And two of the most effective characterizations have been left by

women: it was Harriet Martineau who called him "the cast iron man who looks as if he had never

been born, and could never be extinguished," and Varina Howell Davis who described him as "a

mental and moral abstraction."

It would be interesting to know what Mrs. John C. Calhoun thought of him. That he was

devoted to her one can readily imagine, but devotion in a man like Calhoun is not an ordinary man's

devotion. When he was thinking of marrying her, he wrote to her mother: "After a careful

examination, I find none but those qualities in her character which are suited to me." In the course

of their exemplary married life she bore him nine children, whom he treated with paternal tenderness.

But there survives a curious letter written to his cherished mother-in-law on the death of his first-born

daughter in her second year of life, which reads in part:

So fixed in sorrow is her distressed mother that every topick of consolation which I attempt

to offer but seems to grieve her the more. It is in vain I tell her it is the lot of humanity; that

almost all parents have suffered equal calamity; that Providence may have intended it in

kindness to her and ourselves, as no one can say what, had she lived, would have been her

condition, whether it would have been happy or miserable; and above all we have the

consolation to know that she is far more happy than she could be here with us. She thinks

only of her dear child; and recalls to her mind every thing that made her interesting, thus

furnishing additional food for her grief.

Here surely is a man who lived by abstractions; it is amazing, and a little pathetic, that he sought to

make his business the management of human affairs.

Calhoun had a touching faith in his ability to catch life in logic. His political reasoning, like

so many phases of his personal life, was a series of syllogisms. Given a premise, he could do

wonders, but at times he showed a fantastic lack of judgment in choosing his premises, and he was

often guilty of terrible logic-chopping. His trust in logic led to an almost insane self-confidence.

"Whether it be too great confidence in my own opinion I cannot say," he once wrote, "but 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 with the force of destiny." "In looking

back," he wrote to Duff Green six years before his death, "I see nothing to regret and little to


That all Calhoun's ability and intensity were focused on making himself President was the

accepted view of his contemporaries, friend and foe, and has not been denied by his friendliest

biographers. But he himself never acknowledged or understood it. "I am no aspirant - never have

been," he declared fervently to the Senate in 1847. "I would not turn on my heel for the Presidency."

On this score he thought himself "the most misunderstood man in the world." A certain relative

purity of motive, however, must be credited to him. He was not primarily an opportunist. He

generally sought to advance himself on the basis of some coherent and well-stated body of principles

in which he actually believed. It was quite in keeping that he could on occasion be devious with

individual men - as he was with Jackson for years - but not with ideas. His scruples about money

were matched only by those of Adams, and might have been held up as an example to Webster. He

supported a large family - seven of the nine children survived to adulthood - on his declining

plantation enterprises, and sincerely professed his indifference to money-making. In 1845 he applied

to Webster's rich Boston patron, Abbott Lawrence, for a loan of thirty thousand dollars, and when

Lawrence replied in language suggesting that for a man of Calhoun's personal eminence he might be

generous beyond the call of commercial duty, Calhoun withdrew his request in a letter of supreme


Calhoun's failure to understand that politics works through people and requires sustained

personal loyalty as well as fidelity to ideas was resented by his followers and partisans. James H.

Hammond once complained that the leader was "always buying over enemies and never looks after

friends." Again: "He marches and countermarches all who follow him until after having broken from

the bulk of his followers he breaks from his friends one by one and expends them in breading down

his late associates - so all ends in ruin." Rhett and Hammond both agreed that he was too unyielding

and impersonal to be a great party leader. As Rhett put it, "he understood principles...but he did not

understand how best to control and use...man."

Calhoun, of course, was a slavemaster, and his view of himself in this capacity was what might

be expected: "My character as a master is, I trust, unimpeachable, as I hope it is in all the other

relations of life." He looked upon his relation to his slaves, he asserted, "in the double capacity of

master and guardian." His neighbors testified that he was kind to them, and by the lights of his

section and class there is little reason to doubt it. But the only record of his relation to a slave

suggests that kindness to slaves was a mixed quality in the South. In 1831 a house servant, Aleck,

committed some offense to Mrs. Calhoun for which she promised a severe whipping, and he ran

away. When he was caught in Abbeville a few days later, Calhoun left instructions with a friend:

I wish you would have him lodged in jail for one week, to be fed on bread and water, and to

employ some one for me to give him 30 lashes well laid on at the end of the time... I deem it

necessary to our proper security to prevent the formation of the habit of running away, and

I think it better to punish him before his return home than afterwards.

The case of Aleck and the "thirty lashes well laid on" does more for our understanding of the problem

of majorities and minorities than all Calhoun's dialectics on nullification and the concurrent majority.


In 1788 Patrick Henry, arguing against the federal Constitution, asked: "How can the Southern

members prevent the adoption of the most oppressive mode of taxation in the Southern States, as

there is a majority of the Northern States?" This anxiety about the North's majority ripened like the

flora of the Southern swamplands. As the years went by, the South grew, but the North grew faster.

In 1790, when Calhoun was eight years old, populations North and South were practically equal. By

1850, the year of his death, the North's was 13,527,000, the South's only 9,612,000. This

preponderance was reflected in Congress. Although Southern politicians held a disproportionate

number of executive offices, federal policy continued to favor Northern capital, and Southern wealth

funneled into the pockets of Northern shippers, bankers, and manufacturers. Of course, the greater

part of the drain of Southern resources was the inevitable result of a relationship between a

capitalistic community and an agrarian one that did little of its own shipping, banking, or

manufacturers. But a considerable portion too came from what Southerners considered an "artificial"

governmental intrusion-the protective tariff. It was tariffs, not slavery, that first made the South

militant. Planters were understandably resentful as the wealth of the Southern fields, created by the

hard labor of the men, women, and children they owned, seemed to be slipping away from them. "All

we want to be rich is to let us have what we make," said Calhoun.

Southern leaders began to wonder where all this was going to stop. Given its initial

advantage, what was to prevent the North from using the federal government to increase the span

between the political power of the sections still further, and then, presuming upon the South's

growing weakness, from pushing exploitation to outrageous and unbearable extremes? Humiliated

by their comparative economic backwardness, frightened at its political implications, made uneasy

by the world's condemnation of their "peculiar institution," Southern leaders reacted with the most

intense and exaggerated anxiety to every fluctuation in the balance of sectional power. How to

maintain this balance was Calhoun's central problem, and for twenty-two years his terrible and

unrelenting intensity hung upon it. "The South," he lamented as early as 1831, "... is a fixed and

hopeless minority," and five years later he declared in significant hyperbole on the floor of the Senate:

"We are here but a handful in the midst of an overwhelming majority." In 1833, speaking on the

Force Bill, he saw the South confronted with "a system of hostile legislation...an oppressive and

unequal imposition of taxes...unequal and profuse appropriations...rendering the entire labor and

capital of the weaker interest subordinate to the stronger."

After 1830, when abolitionism began to be heard, the South's revolt was directed increasingly

against this alleged menace. There is little point in debating whether fear of abolition or fear of

further economic exploitation was more important in stimulating Southern militancy and turning the

Southern mind toward secession. The North, if the balance of power turned completely in its favor,

could both reduce the planter class to economic bondage and emancipate its slaves. Southern leaders

therefore concentrated on fighting for the sectional equilibrium without making any artificial

distinctions about their reasons. As Calhoun put it in 1844, "plunder and agitation" were "kindred

and hostile measures." "While the tariff takes from us the proceeds of our labor, abolition strikes at

the labor itself."

Of course, voluntary emancipation was out of the question. To understand the mind of the

Old South it is necessary to realize that emancipation meant not merely the replacement of slave labor

by hired labor, but the loss of white supremacy, the overthrow of the caste system-in brief, the end

of a civilization. Although Calhoun once condemned the slave trade as an "odious traffic," there is

no evidence that he ever shared the Jeffersonian view of slavery, widespread in the South during his

youth, that slavery was a necessary but temporary evil. During a conversation with John Quincy

Adams in 1820 he revealed how implicitly he accepted the caste premises of slavery. Adams spoke

of equality, of the dignity and worth of human life. Calhoun granted that Adams's beliefs were "just

and noble," but added in a matter-of-fact way that in the South they were applied only to white men.

Slavery, he said, was "the best guarantee to equality among the whites. It produced an unvarying

level among them...did not even admit of inequalities, by which one white man could domineer over


Calhoun was the first Southern statesman of primary eminence to say openly in Congress what

almost all the white South had come to feel. Slavery, he affirmed in the Senate in 1837, "is, instead

of an evil, a good - a positive good." By this he did not mean to imply that slavery was always better

than free labor relations, but simply that it was the best relation between blacks and whites. Slavery

had done much for the Negro, he argued. "In few countries so much is left to the share of the

laborer, and so little exacted from him, or...more kind attention paid to him in sickness of infirmities

of age." His condition is greatly superior to that of poorhouse inmates in the more civilized portions

of Europe. As for the political aspect of slavery, "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 institutions."

The South thought of emancipation as an apocalyptic catastrophe. In a manifesto prepared

in 1849 Calhoun portrayed a series of devices by which he thought abolitionists would gradually

undermine slavery until at last the North could "monopolize all the territories," add a sufficient

number of states to give her three fourths of the whole, and then pass an emancipation amendment.

The disaster would not stop with this. Since the two races "cannot live together in peace, or

harmony, or to their mutual advantage, except in their present relation," one r the other must

dominate. After emancipation the ex-slaves would be raised "to a political and social equality with

their former owners, by giving them the right of voting and holding public offices under the Federal

Government." They would become political associates of their Northern friends, acting with them

uniformly, "holding the white race at the South in complete subjection." The blacks and the profilgate

whites that might unite with them would become the principal recipients of federal offices and

patronage and would "be raised above the whites of the South in the political and social scale." The

only resort of the former master race would be to abandon the homes of its ancestors and leave the

country to the Negroes.

Faced with such peril, the South should be content with nothing less than the most extreme

militancy, stand firm, meet the enemy on the frontier, rather than wait till she grew weaker. Anything

less than decisive victory was unthinkable. "What! acknowledged inferiority! The surrender of life

is nothing to sinking down into acknowledged inferiority!"

It was one of Calhoun's merits that in spite if his saturation in the lore of constitutional

argument he was not satisfied with a purely formal or constitutional interpretation of the sectional

controversy, but went beyond it to translate the balance of sections into a balance of classes.

Although he did not have a complete theory of history, he saw class struggle and exploitation in every

epoch of human development. He was sure that "there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized

society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other."

It would not be too difficult "to trace out the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized

communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been

allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share to the non-producing classes."

Concerning one such device he had no doubts; the tariff was a certain means of making "the poor

poorer and the rich richer." As early as 1828 he wrote of the tariff system in his Exposition and


After we [the planters] are exhausted, the contest will be between the capitalist and operatives

[workers]; for into these two classes it must, ultimately, divide society. the issue of the

struggle here must be the same as it has been in Europe. Under the operation of the system,

wages must sink more rapidly than the prices of the necessaries of life, till the operatives will

be reduced to the lowest point, --when the portion of the products of their labor left to them,

will be barely sufficient to preserve existence.

In his Disquisition on Government Calhoun predicted that as the community develops in

wealth and population, "the difference between the rich and poor will become more strongly marked,"

and the proportion of "ignorant and dependent" people will increase. Then "the tendency to conflict

between them will become stronger; and, as the poor and dependent become more numerous in

proportion there will be, in governments of the numerical majority, no want of leaders among the

wealthy and ambitious, to excite and direct them in their efforts to obtain the control."

Such arguments were not merely for public consumption. In 1831 a friend recorded a

conversation in which Calhoun "spoke of the tendency of Capital to destroy and absorb the property

of society and produce a collision between itself and operatives." "The capitalist owns the

instruments of labor," Calhoun once told Albert Brisbane, "and he seeks to draw out of labor all the

profits, leaving the laborer to shift for himself in age and disease." In 1837 he wrote to Hammond

that he had had "no conception that the lower class had made such great progress to equality and

independence" as Hammond had reported. "Modern society seems to me to be rushing to some new

and untried condition." "What I dread," he confessed to his daughter Anna in 1846, "is that progress

in political science falls far short of progress in that which relates to matter, and which may lead to

convulsions and revolutions, that may retard, or even arrest the former." During the peak of the

Jacksonian bank war he wrote to his son James that the views of many people in the North were

inclining toward Southern conceptions. They feared not only Jackson's power, but "the needy and

corrupt in their own section. They begin to feel what I have long foreseen, that they have more to

fear from their own people than we from our slaves."

In such characteristic utterances there is discernible a rough parallel to several ideas that were

later elaborated and refined by Marx: the idea of pervasive exploitation and class struggle in history;

a labor theory of value and of a surplus appropriated by the capitalists; the concentration of capital

under capitalistic production; the fall of working-class conditions to the level of subsistence; the

growing revolt of the laboring class against the capitalists; the prediction of social revolution. The

difference was that Calhoun proposed that no revolution should be allowed to take place. To

forestall it he suggested consistently - over a period of years - what Richard Current has called

"planter-capitalist collaboration against the class enemy>" In such a collaboration the South, with

its superior social stability, had much to offer as a conservative force. In return, the conservative

elements in the North should be willing to hold down abolitionist agitation; and they would do well

to realize that an overthrow of slavery in the South would prepare the ground for social revolution

in the North.

There is and always has been [he said in the Senate] in an advanced stage of wealth and

civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South

exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains

why it is that the political condition of the slaver-holding states has been so much more stable

and quiet than that of the North... The experience of the next generation will fully test how

vastly more favorable our condition of society is to that of other sections for free and stable

institutions, provided we are not disturbed by the interference of others, or shall...resist

promptly and successfully such interference.

On January 9, 1838 Calhoun explained further why it was impossible in the South for the

conflict "between labor and capital" to take place, "which makes it so difficult to establish and

maintain free institutions in all wealthy and highly civilized nations where such institutions as ours do

not exist." It was because the Southern states were an aggregate of communities, not of individuals.

"Every plantation is a little community, with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the

united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative." In the Southern

states labor and capital are "equally represented and perfectly harmonized." In the Union as a whole,

the South, accordingly, becomes

the balance of the system; the great conservative power, which prevents other portions, less

fortunately constituted, from rushing into conflict. In this tendency to conflict in the North,

between labor and capital, which is constantly on the increase, the weight of the South has

been and ever will be found on the conservative side; against the aggression of one or the

other side, whichever may tend to disturb the equilibrium of our political system.

In 1836 Calhoun had pointed out to "the sober and considerate" Northerners

who have a deep stake in the existing institutions of the country that the assaults which are

now directed against the institutions of the Southern States may be very easily directed

against whose which uphold their own property and security. A very slight modification of

the arguments used against the institutions [of the South] would make them equally effectual

against the institutions of the North, including banking, in which so vast an amount of its

property and capital is invested.

In 1847 he again reminded Northern conservatives how much interest they had "in upholding

and preserving the equilibrium of the slaveholding states." "Let gentlemen then be warned that while

warring on us, they are warring on themselves." Two years later he added that the North, without

the South, "would have no central point of union, to bind its various and conflicting interests

together; and would... be subject to all the agitations and conflicts growing out of the divisions of

wealth and poverty." All these warnings were merely the consequence of a longstanding conviction

which Calhoun had expressed to Josiah Quincy that "the interests of the gentlemen of the North and

of the South are identical." The Carolinian had no serious expectation that his appeals and

predictions would change Northern conservatives into the arms of the planters, but as he confessed

to Duff Green in 1835, whether the intelligence of the North would see the situation, "in time to save

themselves and the institutions of the Country God only knows."

Calhoun had an ingenious solution for the sectional problem: in return for the South's services

as a balance wheel against labor agitation, the solid elements in the North should join her in a

common front against all agitation of the slavery issue. His program for the tariff problem was best

expressed in a letter to Abbott Lawrence in 1845: Northern manufacturers should join the planters

in producing for the export market. At best it would be impossible for manufacturers to attain

prosperity in the home market alone; "the great point is to get possession of the foreign market," and

for that the high-duty tariff is nothing but an obstruction. The North should emulate English

manufacturers by lowering duties, importing cheap raw materials, and competing aggressively for

foreign trade. "When that is accomplished all conflict between the planter and the manufacturer

would cease."


During the last seven years of Calhoun's life the sectional conflict centered more and more on the

acquisition of new territory and its division between slave and free society. Nullification had failed

or lack of unity within the South. The alliance with the West was unstable and uncertain. The

proposed alliance with Northern capital Calhoun could not bring about. Hence the problem of

defense turned increasingly upon the attempt to acquire new slavery in Texas, Mexico, and the vast

area wrested from Mexico by war, and keeping the North from taking the West for free labor.

Calhoun's interest in Texas was defensive in intent, but exorbitantly aggressive in form. Great

Britain, eager for a new market and an independent source of cotton, was encouraging Texas to

remain independent by offering financial aid and protection. During 1843, when Lord Brougham and

Lord Aberdeen both openly confessed Britain's intent to foster abolition along with national

independence in Texas, Calhoun, then Secretary of State, stepped forward in alarm to link the

annexation issue with a thoroughgoing defense of slavery. Southerners feared that another refuge

for fugitive slaves and the example of an independent, free-labor cotton-producing country on their

border would be a grave menace to their social structure. Britain, Calhoun frankly told the British

Minister, was trying to destroy in Texas an institution "essential to the peace, safety, and prosperity

of the United States"! In 1844 he published an interpretation of Britain's motives. Having freed the

slaves in her own colonial empire, he charged, she had lost ground in world production of tropical

products, including cotton, had endangered the investment in her empire, and had reduced it to far

poorer condition than such areas as the Southern United States and Brazil, where slavery survived.

Britain, in her effort "to regain and keep a superiority in tropical cultivation, commerce, and

influence," was desperately trying to "cripple or destroy the productions of her successful rivals" by

undermining their superior labor system.

Ardent as he had been for annexation of Texas, Calhoun was frightened during the war with

Mexico by sentiment in the South for conquest and annexation of all Mexico. If Mexico were taken,

he feared that the necessity of controlling her would give the executive tremendous powers and vast

patronage, bring about precisely the centralization of federal power that he so feared, and finally

destroy the constitutional system. He predicted that conflict between North and South over

disposition of the acquired territory might easily disrupt the Union. "Mexico is for us the forbidden

fruit; the penalty of eating it would be to subject our institutions to political death."

In 1846 the introduction of the Wilmont Proviso, which banned slavery from all territory to

be taken from Mexico, excited the South as nothing had before. Calhoun felt that it involved a matter

of abstract right upon which no compromise should be considered, even though it was unlikely that

slavery would go into the territories in question. In December he told President Polk that he "did not

desire to extend slavery," that it would "probably never exist" in California and New Mexico. Still

he would vote against any treaty that included the Wilmont Proviso, because "it would involve a


Calhoun became obsessed with the North's tendency to "monopolize" the territories for free

labor. In 1847, when Iowa had entered the Union and Wisconsin was ready for statehood, he

expressed his fear that the territories would yield twelve or fifteen more free states. The South was

fast losing that parity in the Senate which was its final strong-hold of equality in the federal

government. In March of that year he called for a united Southern party to force a showdown on

Southern rights. In his last great speech, which was read to the Senate for him because he was dying,

he declared with finality that the balance of power had already been lost. The South no longer had

"any adequate means of protecting itself against...encroachment and oppression." Reviewing the

growth of Northern preponderance, the exploitation of the South, and the progressive disintegration

of the moral bonds of Union, Calhoun warned that the nation could be saved only by conceding to

the South an equal right in the newly acquired Western territory and amending the Constitution to

restore to her the power of self-protection that she had had before the sectional balance was


An amendment to the Constitution would be a guarantee of equality to the South. Calhoun

demanded that this guarantee should take the form of the concurrent majority, which was the king

pin in his political system. All through his sectional phase Calhoun had been preaching for the

concurrent majority. He expressed it as early as 1833 in his speech on the Force Bill and last

formulated it in the Disquisition on Government, published after his death. Government by numerical

majorities, he always insisted, was inherently unstable; he proposed to replace it with what he called

government by the whole community - that is, a government that would organically represent both

majority and minority. Society should not be governed by counting heads but by considering the

great economic interests, the geographical and functional units, of the nation. In order to prevent the

plunder of a minority interest by a majority interest, each must be given an appropriate organ in the

constitutional structure which would provide it with "either a concurrent voice in making and

executing the laws or a veto on their execution." Only by such a device can the "different interests,

orders, classes, or portions" of the community be protected, "and all conflict and struggle between

them prevented."

Time had persuaded Calhoun that a dual executive would be the best means of employing the

concurrent majority in the United States. The nation should have two presidents, each representing

one of the two great sections, each having a veto power over acts of Congress. No measure could

pass that did not win the approval of the political agents of both sections. The quality between

sections that had existed at the beginning of the government would thus be restored.

Calhoun's analysis of American political tensions certainly ranks among the most impressive

intellectual achievements of American statesmen. Far in advance of the event, he forecast an alliance

between Northern conservatives and Southern reactionaries, which has become one of the most

formidable aspects of American politics. The South, its caste system essentially intact, has proved

to be for an entire century more resistant to change than the North, its influence steadily exerted to

retard serious reform and to curb the power of Northern labor. Caste prejudice and political

conservatism have made the South a major stronghold of American capitalism.

But prescient and ingenious as Calhoun was, he made critical miscalculations for the sectional

struggle of his own time. He had a remarkable sense for the direction of social evolution, but failed

to measure its velocity. His fatal mistake was to conclude that the conflict between labor and capital

would come to a head before the conflict between capital and Southern planter. Marx out of

optimism and Calhoun out of pessimism both overestimated the revolutionary capacities of the

working class. It was far easier to reconcile the Northern masses to the profit system than Calhoun

would ever admit. He failed to see that the expanding Northern free society, by offering broad

opportunities to the lower and middle classes, provided itself with a precious safety valve for popular

discontents. He also failed to see that the very restlessness which he considered the North's weakness

was also a secret of its strength. "The main spring to progress," he realized, "is the desire of

individuals to better their condition," but he could not admit how much more intensely free society

stimulated that essential desire in its working population than his cherished slave system with its

"thirty lashes well laid on."

Calhoun, in brief, failed to appreciate the staying power of capitalism. At the very time when

it was swinging into its period of most hectic growth he spike as though it had already gone into

decline. The stirring of the Jackson era particularly misled him; mass discontent, which gained further

opportunities for the common man in business and politics, and thus did so much in the long run to

strengthen capitalism, he misread as the beginning of a revolutionary upsurge. Calhoun was, after

all, an intense reactionary, and to the reactionary ear every whispered criticism of the elite classes has

always sounded like the opening shot of an uprising.

Calhoun's social analysis lacked the rough pragmatic resemblance to immediate reality that

any analysis must have if it is to be translated into successful political strategy. He never did find a

large capitalist group in the North that would see the situation as he did. Although he joined the

Whig Party for a few years after his disappointment with Jackson, a long-term alliance with such firm

spokesmen of capitalist tariff economics as Clay and Webster was unthinkable. Under the Van Buren

administration he returned to the Democratic fold on the subtreasury issue, and there he remained.

During the late thirties, while he was still appealing to Northern conservatives to join hands with the

planters, he admitted that the Whig Party, the party most attractive to Northern capital, was more

difficult than the Democrats on both the tariff and abolition.

Ironically, for a long time Northern labor was ideologically closer than Northern capital to the

planters. The workers had little sympathy for abolitionism, but responded with interest when

Southern politicians unleashed periodic assaults on Northern wage slavery. When Francis W.

Pickens, one of Calhoun's own lieutenants, rose in the House in the fall of 1837 to point out that the

planters stood in relation to Northern capital "precisely in the same situation as the laborer of the

North" and that they were "the only class of capitalist...which, as a class, are identified with the

laborers of the country," Ely Moore, a labor spokesman, endorsed his position. And eight years after

Calhoun's death, when James H. Hammond lashed out in a famous speech against "wage slavery,"

he received many letters of thanks from Northern workers for exposing their condition. Calhoun

himself, organizing his presidential drive between 1842 and 1844, found strong support among many

members of the former left wing of Northern democracy. Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, ardent democrat and

historian of the Locofocos, wrote to him from New York City that "the radical portion of the

Democratic party here, to whom free suffrage is dear and sacred, is the very portion most favorable

to you." Calhoun had not long before expected this sort of man to frighten the capitalists into the

arms of the planters!

The essence of Calhoun's mistake as a practical statesman was that he tried to achieve a static

solution for a dynamic situation. The North, stimulated by invention and industry and strengthened

by a tide of immigration, was growing in population and wealth, filling the West, and building

railroads that bound East and West together. No concurrent majority, nor any other principle

embodied in a parchment, could stem the tide that was measured every ten years in the census returns.

William H. Seward touched upon the South's central weakness in his speech of March 11, 1850, when

he observed that what the Southerners wanted was "a political equilibrium. Every political

equilibrium requires a physical equilibrium to rest upon, and is valueless without it." In the face of

all realities, the Southerners kept demanding that equality of territory and approximate equality of

populations be maintained. "And this," taunted Seward, "must be perpetual!"

Moreover, the Calhoun dialectic was so starkly reactionary in its implications that it became

self-defeating. There was disaster even for the South in the premise that every civilized society must

be built upon a submerged and exploited labor force - what Hammond called a "mud-sill" class. If

there must always be a submerged and exploited class at the base of society, and if the Southern

slaves, as such a class, were better off than Northern free workers, and if slavery was the safest and

most durable base on which to found political institutions, then there seemed to be no reason why all

workers, white or black, industrial or agrarian, should not be slave rather than free. Calhoun shrank

from this conclusion, but some Southerners did not. George Fitzhugh won himself quite a reputation

in the fifties arguing along these lines. The fact that some Southerners, however few, followed

Fitzhugh was an excellent one for Northern politicians to use to rouse freemen, especially those who

were indifferent to the moral aspects of slavery, to take a stand against the spread of the institution.

Calhoun could see and expound very plausibly every weakness of Northern society, but his

position forced him to close his eyes to the vulnerability of the South. Strong as he was on logical

coherence, he had not the most elementary moral consistency. Here it is hard to follow those who,

like Professor Wiltse, find in him "the supreme champion of minority rights and interests everywhere."

It is true that Calhoun superbly formulated the problem of the relation between majorities and

minorities, and his work at this point may have the permanent significance for political theory that is

often ascribed to it. But how can the same value be assigned to his practical solutions? Not in the

slightest was he concerned with minority rights as they are chiefly of interest to the modern liberal

mind - the rights of dissenters to express unorthodox opinions, of the individual conscience against

the State, least of all of ethnic minorities. At bottom he was not interested in any minority that was

not a propertied minority. The concurrent majority itself was a device without relevance to the

protection of dissent, but designed specifically to protect a vested interest of considerable power.

Even within the South Calhoun had not the slightest desire to protect intellectual minorities, critics,

and dissenters. Professor Clement Eaton, in his Freedom of Thought in the Old South, places him

first among those politicians who "created stereotypes in the minds of the Southern people that

produced intolerance." Finally, it was minority privileges rather than rights that he really proposed

to protect. He wanted to give to the minority not merely a proportionate but an equal voice with the

majority in determining public policy. He would have found incomprehensible the statement of

William H. Roane, of Virginia, that he had "never thought that [minorities] had any other Right than

that of freely, peaceably, & legally converting themselves into a majority whenever they can." This

elementary right Calhoun was prompt to deny to any minority, North or South, that disagreed with

him on any vital question. In fact, his first great speeches on the slavery question were prompted by

his attempt to deny the right of petition to a minority.

Calhoun was a minority spokesman in a democracy, a particularist in an age of nationalism,

a slaveholder in an age of advancing liberties, and an agrarian in a furiously capitalistic country. Quite

understandably he developed a certain perversity of mind. It became his peculiar faculty, the faculty

of a brilliant but highly abstract and isolated intellect, to see things that other men never dreamt of

and to deny what was under his nose, to forecast with uncanny insight several major trends of the

future and remain all but oblivious of the actualities of the present. His weakness was to be

inhumanly schematic and logical, which is only to say that he thought as he lived. His mind, in a

sense, was too masterful -- it imposed itself upon realities. The great human, emotional, moral

complexities of the world escaped him because he had no private training for them, had not even the

talent for friendship, in which he might have been schooled. It was easier for him to imagine, for

example, that the South had produced upon its slave base a better culture than the North because he

had no culture himself, only a quick and muscular mode of thought. It may stand as a token of

Calhoun's place in the South's history that when he did find culture there, at Charleston, he wished

a plague on it.