**Weekend Reading: Why couldn't any of the awful people whining and sniveling about Yale's renaming of Calhoun College read--or reprint--this?
Sidney Blumenthal John C. Calhoun: "On his deathbed, Andrew Jackson, reflecting on the dramatic episodes of his presidency, expressed his greatest regret...
...It was that he had not had John C. Calhoun hung for treason. “My country,” he said, “would have sustained me in the act, and his fate would have been a warning to traitors in all time to come.” Jackson had once considered him a friend, just as Henry Clay regarded him as a political comrade-in-arms and John Quincy Adams thought of him as an intellectual companion, but they each independently came to the same conclusion that he was a brooding Mephistophelian figure of rancor, vengeance, and dark designs driven by a thwarted and raging mania to be president.
In an egalitarian age Calhoun was the most nuanced class-conscious politician of his generation. He was once the most promising, the golden young man of American politics, and the most liberal nationalist from the South. He regarded himself the best man above all other leading men, whom he felt were beneath him. His spectacular rise imbued him with a belief in his own inevitable destiny. To the extent that others stood in his way they were squalid representatives of a corrupt system. Party politics was for them “a game,” in which “those who are engaged in it but act a part,” speak “not from honest conviction,” but only “as the means of deluding the people, and through that delusion to acquire power.” But he practiced the same tactics, if less adroitly, pretending he did not.
His judgment of many of the gamesters he encountered was not wrong, but what truly unsettled him were the raucous uncertainty of popular democracy and his own uncertainty in handling it. His fall from grace was as stunning as his ascent, but the consequences were far more alarming. After Calhoun failed to attain the presidency in his initial sputtering attempts, his politics turned to intricate plots to undermine everyone else and somehow edge himself on top, provoking national crisis after crisis over the decades. He justified his actions through ever elaborate variations on the theme that majority rule must be stymied in the name of sovereign states’ rights, a projection of his sovereign self, a party unto himself, a majority of one. He wore his austerity and isolation as emblems of his tragic nobility.
Among intimate friends and colleagues he was said to be charming, and he was unfailingly polite to those like Senate pages he met in his official roles. “It was only his equals and rivals, Clay, Jackson, Crawford, and the rest, who hated him; and they did hate him most cordially,” wrote Jackson’s biographer James Parton. After his traumatic conflict with Jackson he retreated into glowering condescension. He was calm, composed, and contemptuous. For a politician he strangely combined intellectual formidability with an almost complete inability to read human nature. He could only have been sustained in the hothouse political culture of oligarchic South Carolina.
He was worshipped as fervently as he was hated. His aristocratic disdain made him “a Demi-God” to his followers, “my Statesman,” as one wrote. “No vice, no folly, no frailty has soiled his nature.” He was beyond “the sordid intrigue of partisanship.” Only “the weak, the dull, and the unfeeling alone are insensible to its instincts.” Though he had ambition, “the ephemeral glories of the Presidency can add no luster to his virtue, no honor to his name.” Behind his steely veneer he seethed with a sense of having been wronged by a conspiracy of lesser lights. He assumed the self-sacrificing air of a knight for a just lost cause.
On the Senate floor his severe debating style was withering, and his Senate colleagues raptly listened, but he lacked the slightest capacity to move an audience of ordinary folk. His punishing orations were declaimed with precise mechanical order, emphasized with hand-chopping motions, utterly devoid of any gesture to the popular mind. He would never lower himself. His speeches and writings gave the impression of airtight logic that upon close inspection were often not logical arguments at all. They were a series of assertions that he demanded must be accepted on the imprimatur of his own implacable authority. His tone was dogmatic, relentless, and opaque, “arid as a desert, no pretensions to genuine eloquence,” observed Rufus Choate, the renowned lawyer and senator from Massachusetts.
There is no recorded case of his wit.
“Mr. Calhoun,” recalled Harriet Martineau, the celebrated English writer, upon meeting him:
the cast-iron man, who looks as if he had never been born, and never could be extinguished.... It is at first extremely interesting to hear Mr. Calhoun talk; and there is a never-failing evidence of power in all he says and does, which commands intellectual reverence: but the admiration is too soon turned into regret—into absolute melancholy. It is impossible to resist the conviction that all this force can be at best but useless, and is but too likely to be very mischievous.
His mind has long lost all power of communicating with any other. I know no man who lives in such utter intellectual solitude. He meets men and harangues them, by the fire-side, as in the Senate... he either passes by what you say, or twists it into a suitability with what is in his head, and begins to lecture again.... There is no hope that an intellect so cast in narrow theories will accommodate itself to varying circumstances: and there is every danger that it will break up all that it can, in order to remould the materials in its own way....
Calhoun’s aggressive politics were wholly defensive, nurtured from his vulnerabilities personal and political. He stood on the principles with which he became thoroughly identified only after his setbacks, searching for firm ground after losing his balance.... Once considered among the nation’s most liberal men, he became the leader of “the Carolina doctrine” only after he succumbed to it. But irony was as alien to him as humor. Calhoun the young champion of nationalism became Calhoun the forefather of secession.
After his transformation from one thing into its opposite he proclaimed he was guided by enduring principles: the United States was not a nation-state but a loose confederation of states, each of which had primacy over the federal government that could be dissolved on a moment’s notice; democracy was a menace to order; security and freedom belonged only to the privileged few who deserved it; and slavery was the true basis of enlightened civilization, morality, and liberty. He believed in driven racial theories, too, that “blood in their veins” explained the level of civilization of a people, that Anglo-Saxon whites were superior, while “impure races” and “mixed blood equally ignorant and unfit for liberty,” and that it was “a great mistake in supposing all people are capable of self-government.” He insisted his constitutional doctrine was the one true original interpretation of a perversely distorted document plagued by the “general welfare” clause, but his static view yielded an audacious novelty, adducing nullification from checks and balances. He was for preserving the Union only by means that if adopted would destroy it. Those who disagreed were always unprincipled, though he had once held their very principles. He came to despise everything he once stood for. He would embrace the poisonous notions of Jefferson’s harshest enemy, John Randolph, who had once been Calhoun’s nemesis before he had become the prisoner of his curdled ambition.
Henry Clay openly ridiculed him in a Senate speech in 1841 as “tall, careworn, with furrowed brow, haggard, and intensely gazing, looking as if he were dissecting the last and newest abstraction which sprung from metaphysician’s brain, and muttering to himself, in half-uttered sounds, ‘This is indeed a real crisis!’ ” “A man of infinite address in his intercourse with individuals, but utterly without tact when he comes to deal with men in masses,” wrote Beverley Tucker, the Virginia jurist and early proponent of secession, whose distinguished family of anti-Jefferson Southern nationalists was closely linked with Calhoun and who had worried about his liberal tendencies. Tucker described Calhoun as a self-defeating character, “eager for public favor, he always finds out the most unpopular side of every question,” changing his positions to demonstrate his “consistency,” yet “always setting his face against the wind.” He was, lamented Tucker, “the most unskilled leader of a party that ever wielded a truncheon.” “Mr. Calhoun was pure of all vices but the vice of ambition which grew stronger by the virtues that restrained him from other indulgencies,” wrote William J. Grayson, his political ally, a congressman from South Carolina....
Mr. Calhoun indeed had a youth, to the full knowledge of his contemporaries, and their experience informed their understanding of the “cast-iron man” as a dangerous changeling....
Calhoun arrived in Washington on the crest of a political tidal wave.... Calhoun’s maiden speech was a missile hurled at the administration’s most hostile and influential antagonist, John Randolph of Roanoke, who patronized the new men with the sobriquet of “war hawks” and had dominated the floor of the House through his eloquence and sharp wit. “Sir,” replied Calhoun, “I only know of one principle to make a nation great, to produce in this country not the form but real spirit of Union.” For challenging Randolph, Thomas Ritchie in the Richmond Enquirer hailed Calhoun as “one of the master-spirits who stamp their names upon the age in which they live.”
Working hand in glove with Clay, Calhoun outmaneuvered Randolph time and again, ultimately compelling his unnatural silence through a point of order. Then Calhoun reported from his committee a call for “an immediate appeal to arms.” With Clay, he led in passing the declaration of war, making his “national reputation,” according to Thomas Hart Benton, who as senator from Missouri and member of Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet would become one of his fiercest enemies.
In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Calhoun stood in the front rank of the new nationalists that had dispersed war opponents North and South, Old Federalists and Old Republicans, and superseded the politics rooted in the conflict between the parties of Jefferson and John Adams. The war made Calhoun and shaped his views. He was enthusiastically in favor of an activist, well-funded government devoted to unifying the country through the most liberal policies. He was for a national bank, a splendid navy, a permanent professional army, federally financed internal improvements of all kinds from canals to “great permanent roads,” and, above all, the tariff. The war had created a barrier to foreign imports that had generated burgeoning domestic manufacturing. Calhoun wanted a tariff, an external tax, to provide a constant and increasing flow of revenues to finance the growing government, and to protect and build up nascent American industry.
For Calhoun, prosperity and activist government went hand in hand. He warned against “sectional feeling,” and in a speech arguing for protectionism against Randolph he declared, “The liberty and the union of the country were inseparably united.” Protectionism was nothing less than “the duty of this country,” “a means of defense,” and above “the claims of manufacturers” a question of “general principles.” It was nothing less than a matter of “the security and permanent prosperity of our country.” The tariff’s greater purpose was “calculated to bind together more closely our widely spread republic,” and to “outweigh any political objections that be urged against the system.”
In his last major speech as a member of the House, he delivered his summation against the strict construction of the Constitution that:
“urged that the Congress can only apply the public money in execution of the enumerated power. I am no advocate for refined arguments on the Constitution. The instrument was not intended as a thesis for the logician to exercise his ingenuity on....
President James Monroe appointed Calhoun, at the age of thirty-five, the secretary of war.... The department was a shambles. As much as anyone could manage, Calhoun transformed it. He used his position to advocate the construction of extensive public works in the name of national defense, the full system of internal improvements. John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s secretary of state, not only admired Calhoun but also regarded him an intellectual companion. “Calhoun,” he wrote in his diaries in 1821, “is a man of fair and candid mind, of honorable principles, of clear and quick understanding, of cool self-possession, of enlarged philosophical views, and of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted....
Calhoun launched his own newspaper, the Washington Republican, subsidizing it and hiring one of his former War Department clerks as editor. In 1823, it published a series of articles signed “A.B.” accusing Crawford of malfeasance in the Treasury Department. An outraged Crawford demanded a congressional investigation to clear his name. The inquiry into the “A.B. plot” exposed the identity of its author—Ninian Edwards, the first territorial governor of Illinois. Newly appointed as minister to Mexico, he resigned in disgrace.
Crawford struck back at Calhoun in South Carolina. In this wrinkle of the campaign can be located the origins of Calhoun’s metamorphosis, “from a protectionist to a free trader, from a liberal to a conservative, from a liberal constructionist to a strict constructionist, from a progressionist to an obstructionist,” according to the historian David Franklin Houston. When support for Crawford was joined to opposition to the tariff passed in 1824 a new conservatism was synthesized. Calhoun’s local enemies, remnants of Old Republicanism, who hated him as the embodiment of liberal nationalism, forged a movement around the new cause. The tariff, it was said, was a violation of states’ rights, a mockery of the strict construction of the Constitution, and a tyrannical imposition of federal authority....
Calhoun made public statements as late as 1825 in favor of internal improvements and for the tariff, but he was already shifting. He had not backed Adams for president, instead slyly suggesting he had achieved the office corruptly. “I am with the people, and will remain so,” Calhoun wrote, drawing an invidious comparison between himself and the deal-making Clay. Calhoun saw the drift to Jackson, felt the undercurrent in South Carolina running against him, and understood that the means of Adams’s election would be lethal to his presidency. Adams and Clay, his former friends, stood in his way. He could not patiently bide his time, just as he could not wait to run in 1824. He chafed at the vice presidency, calling it “a post of dignified inaction.” Now he hated Clay, hated him with visceral intensity, hated his charm, his ambition frustrating his own ambition, and would hate his policies, which he had previously advocated.
As vice president, Calhoun deviously pulled strings on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to try to thwart Clay’s confirmation as secretary of state. Then he sought to damage Adams and his administration from within. “Mr. Clay governs the President,” he explained. “The latter is in his power. He has thought proper to consider me as his rival.” So he was the victim justified in retaliation. Calhoun began a sub rosa courtship of Randolph. “The VP has actually made love to me,” Randolph boasted in a letter on February 27, 1826. He was referring in particular to Calhoun’s connivance in embarrassing Adams and Clay in the appointment of representatives to a conference with Latin American republics, which Adams considered the proper advancement of the Monroe Doctrine that he had framed as secretary of state. Randolph smeared the conference as a covert attempt to promote emancipation in league with Chile and Haiti, which had abolished slavery, and spread innuendo that the U.S. delegates would have sex with black and mulatto diplomats....
Calhoun allied himself with Jackson, who had declared before running in 1828 he would only serve one term. By electing Jackson he would make himself his successor. “Here, then, was Mr. Calhoun’s short road to the Presidency,” wrote the well-informed journalist Nathan Sargent. To promote a Jackson-Calhoun ticket and tear down Adams and Clay, Calhoun helped create a new newspaper in the capital, the United States Telegraph. Founding a newspaper took money. “Very true,” said Calhoun, “but if the play is worth the candle, buy the candle. If not, let us give up the play.” Its editor was Duff Green, a native Kentuckian, St. Louis editor, and speculator. He was married to Ninian Edwards’s sister and his daughter would marry Calhoun’s son. Calhoun was always his master’s voice....
After the passage of a new tariff in 1828 during the election year, denounced as the “Tariff of Abominations” in South Carolina, the leading men of the state privately came to Calhoun to ask him to write a report to the legislature laying out the constitutional grounds for opposition. Calhoun agreed, but insisted on keeping his authorship secret. In the South Carolina Exposition and Protest Calhoun expounded the novel doctrine of nullification, to be known as “the Carolina doctrine.” The state, according to Calhoun, had the power of “interposition” to overrule “unconstitutional” federal policy. Abandoning his liberal interpretation of the Constitution and embracing the rigid shibboleths of strict construction, he went even further in his rejection of majority rule:
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, ever preserved its liberty, even for a single generation. The history of all has been the same, injustice, violence and anarchy, succeeded by the government of one, or a few, under which the people seek refuge, from the more oppressive despotism of the majority.... Constitutional government and the government of a majority are utterly incompatible.
Now he had undergone his transformation, but he was still unready to reveal himself. His Exposition, unsigned, was adopted by the legislature, which ordered four thousand copies printed. South Carolina was not the Cartesian image of Calhoun: he thought, therefore it was. Rather it was South Carolina that moved Calhoun, even when his movement was invisible. Calhoun’s defenders retrospectively argued that he had supported Jackson out of principle in order to win a tariff reduction, while they claimed the Jacksonians used him out of expediency to silence the South and “to lend respectability to what conservatives held to be an uneducated rabble,” according to Calhoun’s exculpatory biographer Charles M. Wiltse.
For their part the Jacksonians held him in suspicion from the start. “The truth is,” wrote Major William B. Lewis, Jackson’s longtime military aide and political confidant:
that many of General Jackson’s friends believed that the support of him by the friends of Mr. Calhoun was, from the first, a secondary consideration with them. That they were using his popularity and strength with which to break down Adams and Clay; and then at the close of the General’s first term, to set him aside (Adams and Clay having been previously put out of the way), and elevate Mr. Calhoun to the presidency....
Calhoun’s self-destruction started even before Jackson’s inauguration.... His hubris began with hauteur. Jackson’s beloved wife, Rachel, died shortly after the election, on December 22, 1828. During the campaign the couple had been smeared in newspapers claiming they had committed bigamy while Rachel was still married to another man. Jackson blamed Clay and Adams for publication of the innuendo, threatened a “day of retribution,” and after her death from a weak heart held his political enemies responsible.
Eleven days later, on January 1, 1829, John Eaton married Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake, a union on which Jackson bestowed his blessing. Peggy was the attractive, flirty daughter of an innkeeper in Washington. Her first husband, John Timberlake, had been an alcoholic naval purser who ran up a large debt. Senator Eaton, a widower, boarded at the inn. He helped pay off Timberlake’s debt and secured him a posting to the Mediterranean, where he died. It was rumored he had committed suicide, possibly because of his wife’s illicit affair with Eaton. The wedding took place less than a year after his death.
While Jackson was considering his cabinet, Floride Calhoun decided that as the vice president’s wife and leader of society in Washington the adulterous tavern keeper’s daughter was unfit to be received. Calhoun approved of her staunch defense of “the purity and dignity of the female character.” Following her lead the proper ladies of the capital shunned the fallen woman, marking her with an invisible scarlet letter, and organized her exclusion from respectable company. The battles raged from parties, balls, and even to embassy invitations. The Dutch ambassador, swayed by the ladies’ brigade, blackballed Mrs. Eaton, while the British ambassador made a point of escorting her.
Behind this snobbery lay political calculation. Pressure mounted on Jackson not to appoint Eaton to the cabinet. The “public opinion” of Washington, according to Margaret Bayard Smith:
will not allow of Genl. Eton holding a place which would bring his wife into society—(for this is the difficulty). Every one acknowledges Genl. Eton’s talents and virtues—but his late unfortunate connection is an obstacle to his receiving a place of honour.
The campaign against Mrs. Eaton through the drawing rooms of Lafayette Square incited Jackson to a wrathful rage. He regarded the spite against her the extension of the smear of his wife. By defending Peggy he sought posthumous vindication for Rachel. He defiantly named Eaton to the cabinet, announced Mrs. Eaton “chaste as a virgin,” and wrote voluminous letters to notable people around Washington, especially certain clergymen who were supporting the ladies’ boycott, pleading her case and citing his late wife as the final authority on Mrs. Eaton’s innocence. At first, Jackson blamed Clay and “satellites of Clay” for “the Eaton malaria.” Then, after three cabinet members’ families most closely associated with the Calhouns refused to accept Mrs. Eaton socially even after Jackson ordered them to open their French doors to her, he concluded the source of the trouble was Calhoun.
Martin Van Buren, a widower, nimbly befriended and championed Mrs. Eaton, winning the heart of the president. With Van Buren’s strategic civility the cabinet was irreconcilably split and paralyzed through Jackson’s first year. “Calhoun heads the moral party, Van Buren that of the frail sisterhood,” observed John Quincy Adams, “and he is notoriously engaged in canvassing for the Presidency by paying his court to Mrs. Eaton.” This was more than frivolous “petticoat politics,” a comedy of manners. For Jackson the affair was nothing less than raw class conflict, the scorn of elites intended to demean him, and through the scandal to attempt a political coup. Sex dominated the gossip, but the true subject was power.
The “persecution” of the Eatons, Jackson wrote in a letter on November 24, 1829:
was founded in political views, looking to the future. Jealousy arose that Eaton might not be a willing instrument to those particular views, that his popularity was growing and it was necessary to put him out of the Cabinet and destroy him regardless what injury it might do me or my administration.
His feeling toward Calhoun turned rancid. On December 31, 1829, Jackson wrote a friend about Calhoun:
You know the confidence I once had in that gentleman. I, however, of him desire not to speak; but I have a right to believe that most of the troubles, vexations, and difficulties I have had to encounter, since my arrival in this city, have been occasioned by his friends.
In the same letter he designated Van Buren as his “well qualified” successor, but his anointment remained secret.
In January 1830 Calhoun sent out Senator Hayne of South Carolina, whom he had proposed for secretary of state, to use the issue of federal control of public lands to make the complete case for “the Carolina doctrine”: for sovereign states’ rights and nullification, against “consolidation” and “despotism,” and a defense of slavery in the name of “freedom.” Hayne quoted John Randolph, Edmund Burke, and Shakespeare in flourishes of erudition.
Daniel Webster rose to answer for the national idea, and to rebut each and every one of Hayne’s and Calhoun’s propositions. In his first reply, Webster mischievously went out of his way to praise Calhoun by name as the author of early federal internal improvements. Then looking directly at the vice president perched at the podium, Webster artfully took issue with Hayne’s interpretation of Shakespeare, citing Macbeth to allude to Calhoun’s betrayals of Adams and Jackson. “Those who murdered Banquo, what did they win by it?” asked Webster:
Substantial good? Permanent power? Or disappointment, rather, and sore mortification,—dust and ashes, the common fate of vaulting ambition overleaping itself? Did not even-handed justice erelong commend the poisoned chalice to their own lips? Did they not soon find that for another they had lo ‘filed their mind,’ that their ambition, though apparently for the moment successful, had but put a barren scepter in their grasp?
Then, in his second reply, Webster struck down “the South Carolina doctrine” that the states were sovereign with thunderous phrases. “It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.”
By now Jackson firmly believed Calhoun was trying to usurp his place. Major Smith, Jackson’s close adviser and member of his Kitchen Cabinet, arranged in March 1830 for members of the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York to sign letters urging him to seek a second term, “as the most effectual, if not the only means of defeating the machinations of Mr. Calhoun and his friends, who were resolved on forcing General Jackson from the presidential chair after one term,” according to Smith. Jackson was scheduled to appear at the gala event of Democrats in the capital, the Jefferson Day dinner on April 13. Van Buren convinced him that it was premeditated to lend support to “the Carolina doctrine” and advance Calhoun’s shadow candidacy for president, an elaborate trap to exploit Jackson’s presence against himself. Nearly two dozen toasts were delivered to the eternal memory of Jefferson followed by tributes to states’ rights, each accompanied by trumpeting from the Marine Band, when Jackson at last stood to offer his toast.
He raised his glass and gazed sternly at Calhoun as though standing at ten paces. “Our Federal Union—it must be preserved.” All fell silent. Calhoun promptly stood to reply to Jackson. “The Union—next to our liberty most dear.” He had lost the duel....