John C. Calhoun: A Biography by Irving H. Bartlett (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), Pp. 9, 413

Irving H. Bartlett’s John C. Calhoun: A Biography is but one addition to an already extensive historiography on one of the South’s most potent and influential statesmen. Charles M. Wiltse’s John C. Calhoun and Margaret L. Coit’s John C. Calhoun: American Portrait, offer sympathetic portrayals of Calhoun, while John Niven offers a more recent and balanced interpretation of Calhoun in John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union. Historians Gerald Capers and Richard Current have put forth more critical, revisionist interpretations of the South’s political philosopher. Apart from James Henly Thornwell, it is hard to imagine a South Carolinian who so championed the cause of state’s rights and so affected southern perceptions of slavery in the years leading up to America’s bloody civil war. 413 pages in length, it is a concise encapsulation—one need only see Charles M. Wiltse’s three volume John C. Calhoun for a lengthier study—of perhaps the most polarizing figure of the American Sectional Period. But the author’s justification for producing yet another biography on Calhoun lies in his belief that “Calhoun lived in an age of political giants and deserves a place as one of the great leaders and thinkers of that age” (380).

Bartlett traces Calhoun’s entire experience to the backcountry of South Carolina and his father’s Irish heritage, whose death very much complicated and interrupted the young Calhoun’s education (20, 21, 41). Bartlett portrays the young Calhoun as ambitious beyond his years if not a bit manipulative, working familial affairs as to further his own education. According to Bartlett, an upbringing rooted in the South Carolinian, post-Revolutionary backcountry made Calhoun a man “‘fully grown and clothed in armor: a man every inch himself, and able to contend with any other man’” (42). It also sewed seeds that would blossom into Calhoun’s own political philosophy and presented slavery as an institution that, far from being controversial, simply was, and, as a result, appeared seamlessly integrated into everyday life.

Less an intellectual study and more a biography in the traditional sense, Bartlett gives attention to Calhoun’s political career more than his philosophy, per se (the author’s analysis of Calhoun’s belief in slavery appears in sum on pg. 284 but seems reductionist). Politics, Calhoun wrote a friend in 1820, was “not a scramble between eminent men,” but “a science by which the lasting interest of the country may be advanced” (105). The author takes up this theme and forges it into one of the work’s greatest strengths, which is that while displaying Calhoun’s distaste for politics in the abstract, Bartlett illuminates the South Carolinian’s enormous political prowess. This is the great paradox of Calhoun’s life, for “no American of his generation was to have a more intensely political life than Calhoun, and no one was to denounce political ambitions more vehemently” (106). Integral to Calhoun’s distaste for politics, according to the author, was his belief in the ideal gentleman and civil servant—an ideal rooted in republicanism and honor and one which contained “a built-in ambivalence to power” (106). Thus, key to the political career and political thought of Calhoun was the differentiation between the character of the politician and the steadfast immovability of the statesman.

Bartlett offers a lucid, compelling, if somewhat overtly sympathetic portrayal of Calhoun, one easily accessible to a popular audience. Calhoun: A Biography is the product of extensive primary research, and scholars—some as distinguished as John Sproat and Clyde Wilson—left their fingerprints on the work. Themes pertinent to any study of Calhoun (Calhoun’s tenure as Secretary of War, The Election of 1824, the Nullification Crisis, and the Mexican War) make an appearance, offering the reader an insightful and readable account of the eminent politician.

Texas Christian University                                                     Mitchell G. Klingenberg


John C. Calhoun: A Biography. By Irving Bartlett, W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1993.

            John C. Calhoun remains one of the most influential political figures of the Old South. Perhaps more than anyone else, Calhoun represented the affluent planter class intent on preserving slavery. But John Calhoun did more than that, he served as the genius of the Doctrine of Nullification and a politically ambitious, albeit mostly sectional, Democrat. He was the man of iron, the man that other Southerners looked toward to lead them.

            Born on March 18, 1782, he grew up in the rough South Carolina backcountry amid the lawless population that was also often best by Indian raids. His father Patrick Calhoun was a Scotch-Irish immigrant who had come to Virginia with his parents before the Revolution, and eventually decided to settle in South Carolina when his family was driven out of southern Virginia by the British. Patrick became a community leader and Indian fighter who instilled in his eldest son an iron will and respect for morality, along with a hatred for all things British.

            Calhoun determined to make something of himself through education, and he began, in 1800, attending a preparatory school in South Carolina. After his schooling there he attended Yale, and after graduation studied to become a lawyer. He found, however, that he hated the law, and determined to pursue a career in politics. While serving in the South Carolina legislature, he married Ms. Floride Bonneau, and in 1811 Calhoun won election to Congress. With the friction between the United States and Great Britain, Calhoun immediately became a war hawk, advocating armed conflict with the British. During his time as a war hawk, Calhoun developed into a definitely “national” politician through his support of the war effort and even his backing of the tariff of 1816 to protect national manufacturing interests.

            From 1817-1824 Calhoun served as Secretary of War under President James Monroe. Calhoun strove for discipline and efficiency in the army and looked down on the behavior of maverick officers such as Andrew Jackson in his invasion of Florida. Bartlett maintains that Calhoun tried to defer to Jackson, but in the end would not be intimidated by him. Calhoun viewed Jackson as a “power-grabber,” and this apparently initiated the first bad blood between Jackson and Calhoun. In 1824 Calhoun won election as vice president, and successfully navigated the turbulent presidency of John Q. Adams. Calhoun then adroitly maneuvered himself into position on the side of the invincible Andrew Jackson, again as vice president.  

            The Tariff of 1824 began to drive Calhoun out of his traditional nationalist stance and more into line with his constituents in South Carolina. Calhoun began opposing the rising federal tariffs and served as the architect of the nullification in South Carolina of the “tariff of abominations,” the tariff of 1828. From that point on Calhoun entered a political duel with Andrew Jackson that resulted in a split between the two that split the Democratic Party between nationalists and strict-constructionist states righters’ like Calhoun. In 1831 Calhoun, after breaking with Jackson, openly took the banner of the nullifiers in South Carolina, effectually committing political suicide twice, though Calhoun viewed it as sticking to his principles.

            After resigning from the vice-presidency Calhoun won election to the United States Senate from South Carolina, where he served on and off for the rest of his life. Calhoun’s years in the Senate became devoted to a defense of slavery and South Carolina sectionalism. Under President Polk he briefly served as Secretary of State for the purpose of bringing Texas into the Union. After some initial stumbles, Calhoun succeeded in seeing Texas annexed to the United States. After the election of Van Buren, Calhoun returned to the Senate, where he continued to fight for slavery and South Carolina. Finally, on March 30, 1850, Calhoun died at the age of sixty-eight.

            Bartlett’s evaluates Calhoun, stating that “Although he provided a powerful rationalization for secession, Calhoun’s contributions to the Union in the early years of the Republic were not surpassed by any other leader of his generation, and in his later years, he showed little sympathy to Carolina hotheads who wanted to fight the nullification battle all over again…He was no selfless knight in shining armor….” (pp. 380) In the end, the author portrays Calhoun’s life as a mixed bag in which he eventually strove to tear down the very nation he started out to build up.

John R. Lundberg

Texas Christian University


John C. Calhoun: A Biography. By Irving H.  Bartlett. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.

Many historians have written great biographies of some of the most important and colorful people in American history.  Irving H. Bartlett’s book, John C. Calhoun, is a good example of a bad biography.  Though Bartlett writes clearly the narrative of Calhoun’s life, he does not provide a thesis.  If there is a thesis, it is to tell the story of Calhoun’s life without any in-depth analysis of his beliefs or contribution to history.  In the book, Bartlett examines Calhoun’s life from birth to maturity, and his political career.

Born in 1782, Calhoun did not have much of a childhood.  His father died while he was young and Calhoun had to assume his father’s role as head of the plantation and family.  After receiving an education at Yale and reading law with some of the most prominent lawyers in the nation, young Calhoun became a Representative for South Carolina.  In his first term, he quickly emerged as a national leader with his firm support for going to war with England.  During his second term, James Monroe nominated him to his cabinet as Secretary of the Army.  While Secretary of the Army, an incident between him and Andrew Jackson started a conflict, which became larger later in their lives.

Since he rose through the political ranks so quickly, Calhoun soon yearned for the presidency in the elections of 1824.  He did not receive the nomination and had to settle to be vice president for the next twelve years.  While vice president, he took advantage of his position as the presiding officer of the Senate to control debates and input his beliefs.  In addition, during this time he formulated ideas of nullification and embroiled himself in a constant conflict with Jackson over politics but still stemming from the earlier conflict.  When his stay as vice president ended and his hopes of being president went again unfulfilled, he began his strong defense for slavery.  This not only further cemented his image as leader of the South but also ended any further dreams of becoming president.  Calhoun never again served as vice president but remained as a senator.  For a brief time he served as Secretary of State under John Tyler and succeeded in his attempts to resolve the Oregon crisis peacefully with the British.  For the rest of his career, which lasted until his death in 1850, Calhoun continued to defend slavery and consolidate his power in the South.  In the end, Calhoun succeeded in all three interests of his life: a Southern politician, planter, and father.

A major criticism of the book is its lack of a thesis.  This not only makes the book unfocused, but also detracts from the significance of Calhoun’s life.  Many good biographies show how the subject fits into the larger picture or how his beliefs affected society as a whole.  Bartlett could have done this easily by examining, in depth, some aspects of his life, like his belief in his theory of concurrent majority or how his life exemplified the culture of the South.  In the book, Bartlett devotes only a handful of pages to explain Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majority, almost the same amount he used to examine the Peggy Eaton affair.  This philosophy and other aspects of Calhoun’s life deserved more attention.

Though the book had this flaw, it did have several good aspects that contributed to the story.  A good aspect is that Bartlett paid some attention to dispelling some myths about Calhoun’s life, for instance that he was the father of Abraham Lincoln.  Another admirable quality that appeared is that he presented Calhoun in the context of the times that he lived.  An example of this is explaining that it was not uncommon in those times to believe that slavery was a just institution, since it was integral to their society.  Overall, the book told a good story, but did little to contribute to the historiography of American history.  Though it lacks a thesis, I would use this book in an undergraduate class because it provides some good facts to introduce a young mind to one of the most influential Southern politicians in American history.

Charles Grear

John C. Calhoun: A Biography. By Irving H. Bartlett. (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, c. 1993, Pp. 1, 413, ISBN 0-393-03476-3)

 Irving Bartlett’s John C. Calhoun: A Biography recounts the life of the prominent southern statesman and proslavery defender in a relatively positive light.  Like many biographers, Bartlett falls into a love affair with his subject and tends to explain or apologize for many of Calhoun’s character traits and political failures.  The biography notes the early years of Calhoun, but focuses on his political career (roughly 1810-1850).  The book offers numerous quotes, correspondence and writings of the subject and the author also provides extensive endnotes to round out this well researched book.

 Chapter one, two and three relate the early life and career of Calhoun.  From backwoods planter to prominent War Hawk, the author draws on what evidence exists to provide insight into the early influences of Calhoun.  Problems arise when the author surmises and assumes characteristics, which lost or destroyed records can not prove.  That said the author does this more in an attempt to place Calhoun in context than to prove a particular thesis. Calhoun’s father influenced him even though he died when Calhoun was only thirteen.  His father instilled in him the idea of decentralized government and a particular hatred for the British.  Another interesting influence on Calhoun, which many recent historians have noted about proslavery advocates, was his education in the North (Yale University).  While Calhoun was trained as a lawyer, he truly loved politics.  As he emerged from college and a short stint as a lawyer, Calhoun’s political character traits solidified and he became noted for his tenacity, stubbornness, intellect and inflexibility in his beliefs.  These traits won him respect but later would hurt his political ambitions to win the Presidency.

 The rest of the book (chapters four through twenty) deals almost exclusively with his political career with minor forays into his personal homelife.  John C. Calhoun served in the South Carolina legislature, as Secretary of War, briefly as Secretary of State, in the United States Senate and was elected Vice-President twice.  During his forty years in public life, Calhoun aspired to become President and his political decisions often reflected that desire.  His sectional and proslavery stance often earned him enemies and while he allied himself with Andrew Jackson occasionally, they had a turbulent relationship.  The ups and downs of Calhoun’s relationship with Jackson resulted from several misunderstandings and the author often sides with Calhoun.  In fact, Bartlett criticizes Jackson and defends Calhoun in every conflict involving the two men.

 Calhoun proved politically gifted and managed to distance himself from John Quincy Adams and later allied himself with Jackson in serving both men as Vice-President.  His alienation from Jackson heightened with the Nullification Crisis much to the disappointment of Calhoun.  This conflict over the enforcement of the Tariff of Abominations caused a rift between Calhoun and Jackson that never healed and effectively ended Calhoun’s chances for the Presidency.  Calhoun’s support of the legislative compromise raised his political clout, but never to the presidential level.

 After the nullification crisis and with the beginning of the abolitionist movement the John C. Calhoun became the Senate’s new proslavery and anti-Jackson voice.  As he began his new career in the Senate, Calhoun attempted to protect slavery, states rights and any chance he thought he had at the Presidency.  His leadership in Congress helped stop the postal campaign and he helped restrict the petition rights of northern abolitionists.

 In Chapter fourteen and fifteen the author examines the homelife and plantation of Calhoun.  He was a fairly rich planter with some 1300 acres.  The author notes the benign paternalism with which he managed his slaves.  The author consistently attempts to paint Calhoun the slaveowner in as good a light as he can.  He claims that Calhoun defended slavery not from fear of losing them but from the position of moral certainty of the natural state of slavery.  This combined with his magnanimous fair treatment of his slaves offers the best light the author can shed on Calhoun the slaveowner.

 Calhoun in the 1840s advocated the annexation of Texas but warned further annexation may cause costly and detrimental wars.  His peaceful stance paid dividends with the British concerning the Oregon territory, but proved politically suicidal when he advocated a peaceful stance with respect to Mexico.  The only positive political move Calhoun made during the Mexican-American War was his resistance to the Wilmot Proviso; otherwise his peaceful stance during the war hurt him tremendously politically.  Bartlett praises Calhoun’s peace stance in a vain attempt to show him in a positive light.  Calhoun’s political career and his life end during the Compromise of 1850, in which Calhoun adamantly supported the preservation of the status quo in congress concerning slavery.  Again the author notes the political characteristics of Calhoun and even his enemies begrudging respect for him.

 Like most biographies the author takes the reader through the subjects life chronologically.  The author’s proof of the influences of his family and early years on his proslavery adamancy seem a bit weak, but not unfounded.  Bartlett’s work does offer a benefit to readers who do not want to learn of Calhoun’s early life and instead merely want to know what his political thoughts were on certain issues.  One aspect of Calhoun’s political career that the author does criticize concerns Calhoun’s almost delusionary aspirations for the office of the President of the United States.  That said, within the categories of the many Calhoun biographies, John C. Calhoun: A Biography by Irving Bartlett definitely takes a pro-Calhoun stance.
Texas Christian University
Scott Cowin