John C. Calhoun was the last great American statesman. A statesman must be something of a prophet—one who has an historical perspective and says what he believes to be true and in the best long-range interest of the people, whether it is popular or not. A politician, which is all we have now, says and does whatever he thinks will get or keep him in power, and his historical perspective is limited to the next opinion poll or brown bag full of unmarked bills.
Calhoun's mind and his devotion to the American experiment were equal to that of the great men of the founding generation. He had an advantage over the founders in that he had 40 years of experience near the top of the federal government and, thus, a view of how things had worked under the Constitution. Calhoun early discerned, predicted, and warned of the tendency of the United States toward a regime of bankers and imperial overreach.
His core understanding of society and government was displayed in his A Disquisition on Government, which he worked on in the last months of his life and regarded as his bequest to posterity.
In the Disquisition, Calhoun begins, as anyone should, with human nature. Rousseau had said that men are born free and are everywhere in chains. Calhoun’s first task is to free us from such nonsense. This is not because he wants to establish racial inequality or to defend slavery, but because...