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John C. Calhoun


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Calhoun has three claims to fame. One stems from his prominence as an American politician between 1811 and 1850. During that period he was, successively, an important member of the House of Representatives (1811–17), Secretary of War (1817–25), Vice‐President of the United States (1825–32), senator for South Carolina (1832–44), Secretary of State (1844–5) and, yet again, senator for South Carolina (1845–50). In his lifetime his reputation as a politician was mixed. He was variously described as a patriot, a nationalist, an apologist for the slave‐owning South, ‘first amongst second rate men’, an opportunist, and the destroyer of the Union. What is clear is that for the last twenty years of his life he was one of the leaders of the Old South in its attempts to defend its interests in the Union.

As a political theorist his claim to fame rests largely on three works, The South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828), A Disquisition on Government, and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States (both published after his death in 1850). The Exposition presents the case for state nullification of federal laws, the Discourse is a states' right tract incorporating ideas for a plural executive, and the Disquisition presses the case for a ruling concurrent majority, that is, one rooted not in numbers but in interests, each of which possesses a ‘mutual negative’. These ideas were all attempts to avoid the South's secession. The problem was that although presented in a scholarly fashion they all suffered from the same crucial weakness—their success depended on acceptance by Northern politicians. For a theorist obsessed with power this was, to say the least, a significant weakness.

Calhoun's final claim to fame rests on the analytical problems he bequeathed to politicians and theorists who followed him. One of these is the role of pressure groups. The other, and more important problem, is how, short of secession, the interests of territorial minorities can be defended in wider Unions. Calhoun never resolved these problems, but neither has anyone else. In short, Calhoun remains important because of the problems which defeated him.


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