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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Caldwell Calhoun (1782–1850)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Peterfield Trent (1862–1939)
JOHN C. CALHOUN’S importance as a statesman has naturally stood in the way of his recognition as a writer, and in like manner his reputation as an orator has overshadowed his just claims to be considered our most original political thinker. The six volumes of his collected works, which unfortunately do not embrace his still inaccessible private correspondence, are certainly not exhilarating or attractive reading; but they are unique in the literature of America, if not of the world, as models of passionless logical analysis. Whether passionless logical analysis is ever an essential quality of true literature, is a matter on which opinions will differ; but until the question is settled in the negative, Calhoun’s claims to be considered a writer of marked force and originality cannot be ignored. It is true that circumstances have invalidated much of his political teaching, and that it was always negative and destructive rather than positive and constructive; it is true also that much of the interest attaching to his works is historical rather than literary in character: but when all allowances are made, it will be found that the ‘Disquisition on Government’ must still be regarded as the most remarkable political treatise our country has produced, and that the position of its author as the head of a school of political thought is commanding, and in a way unassailable.  1
  The precise character of Calhoun’s political philosophy, the keynote of which was the necessity and means of defending the rights of minorities, cannot be understood without a brief glance at his political career. His birth in 1782 just after the Revolution, and in South Carolina, gave him the opportunity to share in the victory that the West and the far South won over the Virginians, headed by Madison. His training at Yale gave a nationalistic bias to his early career, and determined that search for the via media between consolidation and anarchy which resulted in the doctrine of nullification. His service in Congress and as Secretary of War under Monroe gave him a practical training in affairs that was not without influence in qualifying his tendency to indulge in doctrinaire speculation. His service as Vice-President afforded the leisure and his break with Jackson the occasion, for his close study of the Constitution, to discover how the South might preserve slavery and yet continue in the Union. Finally, his position as a non-aristocratic leader of a body of aristocrats, and his Scotch-Irish birth and training, gave a peculiar strenuousness to his support of slavery, which is of course the corner-stone of his political philosophy; and determined his reliance upon logic rather than upon an appeal to the passions as the best means of inculcating his teaching and of establishing his policy. His political treatises, ‘A Discourse on Government’ and ‘On the Constitution and Government of the United States,’ written just before his death in 1850; his pamphlets like the ‘South Carolina Exposition’ and the ‘Address to the People of South Carolina’; and the great speeches delivered in the Senate from 1832 to the end of his term, especially those in which he defended against Webster the doctrine of nullification, could have emanated only from an up-country South-Carolinian who had inherited the mantle of Jefferson, and had sat at the feet of John Taylor of Carolina and of John Randolph of Roanoke. Calhoun was, then, the logical outcome of his environment and his training; he was the fearless and honest representative of his people and section; and he was the master from whom rash disciples like Jefferson Davis broke away, when they found that logical analysis of the Constitution was a poor prop for slavery against the rising tide of civilization.  2
  As a thinker Calhoun is remarkable for great powers of analysis and exposition. As a writer he is chiefly noted for the even dignity and general serviceableness of his style. He writes well, but rather like a logician than like an inspired orator. He has not the stateliness of Webster, and is devoid of the power of arousing enthusiasm. The splendor of Burke’s imagination is utterly beyond him, as is also the epigrammatic brilliance of John Randolph,—from whom, however, he took not a few lessons in constitutional interpretation. Indeed, it must be confessed that for all his clearness and subtlety of intellect as a thinker, Calhoun is as a writer distinctly heavy. In this as in many other respects he reminds us of the Romans, to whom he was continually referring. Like them he is conspicuous for strength of practical intellect; like them he is lacking in sublimity, charm, and nobility. It follows then that Calhoun will rarely be resorted to as a model of eloquence, but that he will continue to be read both on account of the substantial additions he made to political philosophy, and of the interesting exposition he gave of theories and ideas once potent in the nation’s history.  3
  Notwithstanding the bitterness of accusation brought against him, he was not a traitor nor a man given over to selfish ambition, as Dr. von Holst, his most competent biographer and critic, has clearly shown. Calhoun believed both in slavery and in the Union, and tried to maintain a balance between the two, because he thought that only in this way could his section maintain its prestige or even its existence. He failed, as any other man would have done; and we find him, like Cassandra, a prophet whom we cannot love. But he did prophesy truly as to the fate of the South; and in the course of his strenuous labors to divert the ruin he saw impending, he gave to the world the most masterly analysis of the rights of the minority and of the best methods of securing them that has yet come from the pen of a publicist.  4

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