“A republic, if you can keep it.”
More often than not, historians of antebellum American politics lose their perspective, and perhaps their good sense, when they encounter John C. Calhoun. The other great men in the political history of the United States during that era-John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk-are of flesh, blood, and bone. But Calhoun remains larger than life, and less than human.
Historians acknowledge the acuity of Calhoun's intellect, while maintaining that his powerful mind was sacrificed to political ambition and corrupted in defense of slavery. Calhoun, they contend, was austere and humorless, with no interests save his work; capable of abstract political reasoning but never of practical statesmanship. Some obscure failing made it impossible for him to grasp the complexities of human nature. In consequence, he became lost in the rough-and-tumble world of Jacksonian politics. The reserve that characterized Calhoun's temperament, manners, and conduct made him appear coldly intimidating to some of his contemporaries, and leaves him barely comprehensible to most of us.
Clyde N. Wilson's Essential Calhoun: Selections from Writings, Speeches, and Letters goes a long way toward correcting these caricatures, misconceptions,...