A Child of the Revolution

In his engaging biography of John C. Calhoun, Irving H. Bartlett reminds us that American political culture and the men who made it were not always as decadent and corrupt as they are today. Yet Bartlett's book is not a partisan manifesto. He is respectful of Calhoun but not always sympathetic to his views, aspirations, and achievements.

One of Bartlett's most important and original contributions is to show that Calhoun was not sui generis but was, instead, the product of his culture. Calhoun was born into the conservative but volatile society of the South Carolina backcountry in 1782. His father, Patrick Calhoun, although he died when John was a boy of 13, exercised a remarkable influence on his son's temperament and worldview. A stern Scots-Irish Presbyterian, Patrick Calhoun taught his children that life is a perpetual struggle against evil. He also instilled in them an abiding love of liberty and an unqualified hatred of tyranny. For Patrick Calhoun, the obligations to God, family, neighborhood, and country defined the parameters of private and public life. John C. Calhoun fully absorbed his father's convictions, preferring throughout his life study, toil, and duty to frivolity, idleness, and self-indulgence.

Bartlett traces Calhoun's public life as a backcountry lawyer, state legislator, congressman, Vice President, senator, and Cabinet official. In examining Calhoun's private life,...

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