chapter  10
17 Pages

The South Carolina jeremiad

Reinterpreting John C. Calhoun’s legacy in the 1850s
WithLawrence T. McDonnell

This chapter looks at the legacy of John C. Calhoun in the 1850s. John C. Calhoun, who died in April 1850, had towered over national politics as Congressman and Senator, Vice President, Secretary of War and of State, the guiding spirit of the South as a unified force in Washington. It argues that the legacy of Calhoun – his actions, speeches, published works and unpublished writings – was a powerful and malign force, steering the South steadily towards self-destruction. Both sides seemed deprived of their strongest potential patron and spent the years to come battling over Calhoun’s ghost. Southern unionists and disunionists both learnt to use the dead Calhoun to advance proximate political goals. Their common ground was a Calhounist version of what Sacvan Bercovitch has called the ‘American Jeremiad’, which insisted on internal unity above all else. But whether towards or away from national disunion, none could rightly say. That deliberate imprecision, which was a pillar of his strength during Calhoun’s life, rooted men in bitterly divided cliques after his death. This chapter argues that by the hour of secession in 1860, it was less Lincoln’s election which drove the radical separatist movement than a determination to resolve the internal contradictions of party and caucus that Calhoun’s political injunctions had fomented. Secession, it turned out, had less to do with achieving disunion from the North than winning a final, lasting union among the various factions within South Carolina. And so the war came.