Saturday, August 06, 2005

John C. Calhoun

I am just finishing another biography of a political leader from America’s past. John C. Calhoun, by John Niven, is not a book I would recommend despite the fact that John C. Calhoun is perhaps the most interesting political figure of all time. Calhoun was a man who served as Senator and Vice President and was defeated several times running for President. He was the Vice President for John Qunicy Adams, a Republican, and Andrew Jackson, a Democrat. He was elected Senator as a Democrat and an Independent, and served as Secretary of State for President Tyler, a Whig. He truly was a man without a party. He never changed his values, and that made him an outcast from every party he ever joined. Even more interesting is that Calhoun rightly predicted every major disaster in the country from 1814 to the Civil War. He saw every economic downturn, the panics, and the bank trouble all several years ahead of them, but no one ever listened. He saw the split in the Whig party, the split in the Democratic party, and the arrival of a 3rd Party based on ‘Free Soil’ abolitionist ideas. He knew the trouble the Mexican War would cause, and voted against it at every turn. He saw predicted almost to the day the beginning of the Civil War, its cause, its outcome, and the event that would begin it all. He died before that prediction came true. Calhoun was a rare politician of principle, and deserves history’s respect, even though his views on race and slavery were despicable.
With such a great character to work with, how did the author fail to write a good book? The book has two major faults. The writing is not very engaging. It reads more like a textbook than an autobiography. It makes it a little more tedious than it should be. The next major fault is that Calhoun’s personal life, and its implications for the rest of his life are almost ignored. You get glimpse here and there, but 90% of the home life glimpses revolve around financial trouble of him and his children. This leads to a failure to connect with Calhoun personally while reading. He is not humanized by the author for us. It also leaves glaring holes in understanding why Calhoun did what did. How did the fact that Calhoun own slaves affect his overreactions in the Senate? Calhoun ruined his chance to ever be President because he would not force his wife to repay a social call to a woman of ill-repute, who was now married to a high ranking cabinet member and friend of Andrew Jackson. Is this not a good time to examine his love for his wife? The author tells us Calhoun knows the political damage he will take for the social snub, but he actively chooses his wife over politics. I want to know more about that side of John C. Calhoun. The author lets us down quite a bit on that note.
If anyone has a better suggestion for biographies on Mr. Calhoun, please, let me know.