On The Villainy Of John C. Calhoun

It is easy to think of John C. Calhoun as a villain.  As is the case with other historical villains that I have discussed here [1], there are a wide variety of facets to the villainy of John C. Calhoun, and it will not be possible to talk about them with the sort of detail that the subject matter deserves.  Even so, it is unfortunately the case that John C. Calhoun is the sort of villain who ends up being the teacher and model even for those who would hate him on other grounds.  Indeed, he is the sort of villain that we would do well to study not so that we can view him with contempt, but rather that we may be aware of the grounds of his wickedness that we may ourselves be vulnerable to adopting in pursuit of our own goals and interests as he was himself guilty of doing in order to pervert the society in which he was a part and who he corrupted with a view of states’ rights that led to the Civil War.

Calhoun as a person and as a thinker is not a sympathetic man.  His most famous works are a series of political works which seek to defend a minority population (the antebellum South) that was itself best known then and know for its own oppression of a minority population, namely its slaves.  His works, like the Disquisition on Government, are examples of rigorous deductive reasoning from flawed premises, which makes the works doubly tedious in being both rigorous and dense on the one hand and simultaneously flawed because of his mistaken premises.  If he seems to me to be the patron saint of flawed Calvinist political philosophy, it is because of both the traits of being rigorously logical in one sense and defective on the other side that tends to mitigate the value of the rigor.  His views on the nullification of federal power and the defense of states’ rights by seeking a concurrent majority that prohibits the passage of any laws that do not have broad consensus remains of value today as a talking point for those minorities who do not respect the rights of minorities they temporarily outnumber but who want to have their opinion respected when they happen to be in the minority.

Calhoun ended up being a two-term Vice President for both John Quincy Adams and the first term of Andrew Jackson who was flexible enough to appeal to both Democrats and Whigs in the formation period of the second party system, which is testament to a certain lack of political principles.  And the fact that he came off as inferior in virtue to both Adams and Jackson–Adams with regards to slavery and Jackson with regards to Unionism–is demonstrative of how close he managed to get to the presidency despite his flaws.  Among all the people of the antebellum period, it is Calhoun that is probably most responsible for putting it in the mind of other Southerners that they had a right and even perhaps a duty to rebel against the United States when their peculiar institution was at threat.  If other Southerners were less rash and hasty about nullifying federal law when it did not suit his state’s interest than he was, they certainly were deceived by his rhetoric to a point where the Civil War became an inevitability because of the South’s refusal to accept any restraint of its desire to spread slavery for their own power and profit.

Yet if Calhoun was merely a slaveowner who is to be viewed as unsympathetic merely because of the culture he sought to support, he would not be particularly worth talking about today except as a historical villain.  Unfortunately, a great many people who would hate and abhor Calhoun as an apostle of disunion and slavery themselves are the disciples of Calhoun in their prickly self-righteousness against being viewed as immoral.  Let us not forget that for decades before the Civil War it was the belief that slavery was itself an evil that motivated people in the South to view Calhoun as a defender of their honor and dignity.  And the same thin-skinned desire to reduce the liberty of moral voices who speak out against social evils is present in our own day by those who support abortion and immorality and are hostile to any sort of speech that calls their immoral beliefs and behavior for what it is that amounts to among the greatest threats to our own freedom and well-being as a society.  A society that hates God and cannot bear to be called to repentance for its national sins is a society that is marching towards a time when God will bring justice upon that wicked and rebellious land.  Such was the case for Calhoun’s antebellum South in the middle of the 19th century, and such is the case for the United States at present.  A great many people are Calhoun’s disciples and do not even realize it.  That is villainy that deserves to studied and pondered.

[1] See, for example:



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On The Villainy Of John C. Calhoun

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Disquisition On Government And Selections From The Discourse | Edge Induced Cohesion

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