The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XV. Publicists and Orators, 1800–1850.

§ 13. John C. Calhoun.

With the possible exception of Marshall and Webster, 3  John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) was the most important statesman and writer on public affairs in the forty years preceding 1850. A South Carolinian, he belonged by birth, not to the lowland planter class, but to the men of the up-country. At an early day his father purchased a slave, not a usual possession for an up-country man, and when John Calhoun grew to manhood he married a distant cousin of social standing and with some means, and thus the young man was connected with the social aristocracy and the slave-owning interests of the state. These simple facts stand out prominently in any effort to understand him in his development, because he became the learned and devoted advocate of the slave interests and defended, with his logic and his power in debate, the economical and social régime of the South. In 1811 he entered Congress, and was at once one of the leaders among the new young men, who were out of patience with the dallying methods of the older Jeffersonian politicians. For some years he was an ardent nationalist; possibly it is too much to say that he committed himself by votes or speeches to an interpretation of the Constitution radically opposed to state sovereignty; but in these earlier days we find in his spirit no traces of sectionalism or of any narrow particularism. In the latter part of the decade between 1820 and 1830, overcome by the unrest in his state and moved, it would seem, by its economic difficulties, he succumbed to the pressure of his surroundings and became the leader in formulating doctrines which South Carolina put forth to the world to defend itself against the tariff—shrewdly reasoned and highly elaborated doctrines of state sovereignty, the basis of nullification and secession.   16

Note 3. For whom see Book II, Chap. XVI. [ back ]