Honoring John C Calhoun

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Posted : March 19, 2021

Editor’s Note: This speech was delivered before the Senate on March 12, 1910, at the dedication of John C. Calhoun’s statue in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol.

Address of Mr. (Henry Cabot) Lodge, of Massachusetts, United States Senate, 1910

Mr. PRESIDENT: When the senior Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Tillman), whose illness we all deplore, did me the honor to ask me to take part in the ceremonies connected with the reception of the statue of Mr. Calhoun I was very much gratified by his request. In the years which preceded the civil war South Carolina and Massachusetts represented more strongly, more extremely, perhaps, than any other States the opposing principles which were then in conflict. Now, when that period has drifted back into the quiet waters of history it seems particularly appropriate that Massachusetts should share in the recognition which we give to-day to the memory of the great Senator from South Carolina. If I may be pardoned a personal word, it seems also fitting that I should have the privilege of speaking upon this occasion, for my own family were friends and followers in successive generations of Hamilton and Webster and Sumner. I was brought up in the doctrines and beliefs of the great Federalist, the great Whig, and the great Republican. It seems to me, I repeat, not unfitting that one so brought up should have the opportunity to speak here when we commemorate the distinguished statesman who, during the last twenty five years of his life, represented with unrivaled ability those theories of government to which Hamilton, Webster, and Sumner were all opposed.

From 1787 to 1865 the real history of the United States is to be found in the struggle between the forces of separatism and those of nationalism. Other issues and other questions during that period rose and fell, absorbed the attention of the country, and passed out of sight, but the conflict between the nationalist spirit and the separatist spirit never ceased. There might be a lull in the battle, public interest might turn, as it frequently did, to other questions, but the deep-rooted, underlying contest was always there, and finally took possession of every passion and every thought, until it culminated at last in the dread arbitrament of arms. The development of the United States as a nation, in contradistinction to a league of states, falls naturally into four divisions. The first is covered by the administrations of Washington and Adams, when the Government was founded by Washington and organized by Hamilton, and when the broad lines of the policies by which its conduct was to be regulated were laid down. When Washington died, the work of developing the national power passed into the hands of another great Virginian, John Marshall, who, in the cool retirement of the Supreme Court for thirty years, steadily and surely, but almost unnoticed at the moment, converted the Constitution from an experiment in government, tottering upon the edge of the precipice which had engulfed the Confederation, into the charter of a nation. While he was engaged upon this work, to which he brought not only the genius of the lawyer and the jurist, but of the statesman as well, another movement went on outside the court room, which stimulated the national life to a degree only realized in after years, when men began to study the history of the time.

By the Revolution we had separated ourselves from England and established nominally our political independence. But that political independence was only nominal. The colonial spirit still prevailed. During the two hundred years of colonial life our fortunes had been determined by events in Europe. It was no mere metaphor which Pitt employed when he said he would “conquer America upon the plains of Germany,” and the idea embodied in the words of the Great Commoner clung to us even after the adoption of the Constitution, for habits of thought, impalpable as air, are very slow to change. The colonial spirit resisted Washington’s neutrality policy when the French Revolution broke out, and as the years passed was still strong enough to hamper all our movements and force us to drift helplessly upon the stormy seas of the Napoleonic wars. The result was that we were treated by France on one side and by England on the other in a manner which fills an American’s heart with indignation and with shame even to read of it a hundred years afterwards. And then in those days of humiliation there arose a group of young men, chiefly from the South and West, who made up their minds that this condition was unbearable; that they would assert the independence of the United States; that they would secure to her due recognition among the nations; and that rather than have the shameful conditions which then existed continue they would fight. They did not care much with whom they fought, but they intended to vindicate the right of the United States to live as a respected and self-respecting independent nation. Animated by this spirit, they plunged the country into war with England.

They did not stop to make proper preparations; their legislation was often as violent as it was ineffective; the war was not a success on land, and was redeemed only by the victory at New Orleans and by the brilliant fighting of our little navy. On the face of the treaty of Ghent it did not appear that we had gained a single one of the points for which we went to war, and yet the war party had really achieved a complete triumph. Through their determination to fight at any cost we were recognized at last as an independent nation, and, what was far more important, we had forever destroyed the colonial idea that the politics and the peace of the United States were to veer hither and thither at the bidding of every breeze which blew from Europe. Such work could not have been done without a vigorous growth of the national spirit and of the national power, and the group of brilliant men who brought on the war were entirely conscious that in carrying out their policy they were stimulating the national—the American-spirit to which they appealed. Chief among the leaders of that group of young men who were responsible for the origin and conduct of the war of 1812 was John C. Calhoun.

As the war, with its influences and results, sank back into the past, domestic questions took possession of the field, and the conflict between the separatist and national forces which had been temporarily obscured forged again to the front, but under deeply altered conditions. When John Marshall died in 1835, his great work done, the cause which he had so long sustained had already entered upon its third period—the period of debate and the task which had fallen from the failing hands of the great Chief Justice was taken up in another field by Daniel Webster, who for twenty years stood forth as the champion of the proposition not that the Constitution could make a nation, but that, as a matter of fact, it had made a nation. Against him was Calhoun, and between the two was Henry Clay. The twenty years of debate which then ensued are known familiarly as the days of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. The names of the Presidents who occupied the White House during most of that time have faded, and the era of debate in the history of the parliamentary struggle between the national and the separatist principles is not associated with them but with the great Senators who made it illustrious. As the century passed its zenith all three died, closely associated in death as they had been in life. The compromise which Clay and Webster defended and of which Calhoun despaired was quickly wrecked in the years which followed, and then came war and the completion of the work begun by Washington, through the life and death of Abraham Lincoln and the sacrifices and the tragedy of four years of civil war.

To have been, as Calhoun was, for forty years a chief figure in that period of conflict and development—first a leader among the able men who asserted the reality of the national independence and established the place of the United States among the nations of the earth, and afterwards the undisputed chief of those who barred the path of the national movement-implies a man of extraordinary powers both of mind and character. He merits not only the high consideration which history accords, but it is also well that we should honor his memory here, and, turning aside from affairs of the moment, should recall him and his work that we may understand what he was and what he meant. He was preeminently a strong man, and strong men, leaders of mankind, who shape public thought and decide public action are very apt to exhibit in a high degree the qualities of the race from which they spring. Calhoun came of a vigorous race and displayed the attributes, both moral and intellectual, which mark that race, with unusual vividness and force….

In the inadequate description which I have attempted of the Scotch character and intellect, slowly forged and welded and shaped by many stern, hard-fighting generations, I think I have set forth the mental and moral qualities of Mr. Calhoun. He had an intellect of great strength, a keen and penetrating mind; he thought deeply and he thought clearly; he was relentless in reasoning and logic; he never retreated from a conclusion to which his reasoning led. And with all this he had the characteristic quality of his race, the “perfervidum ingenium,” the intensity of conviction which burned undimmed until his heart ceased to beat. Thus endowed by nature and equipped with as good an education as could then be obtained in the United States, Mr. Calhoun entered public life at the moment when the American people were smarting under the insults and humiliations heaped upon them by France and England, and were groping about for some issue from their troubles and some vindication of the national honor and independence. CALHOUN and his friends, men like Henry Clay, and like Lowndes and Cheves, from his own State, came in on the wave of popular revolt against the conditions to which the country had been brought. Wavering diplomacy, gunboats on wheels, and even embargoes, which chiefly punished our own commerce, had ceased to appeal to them. They had the great advantage of knowing what they meant to do. They were determined to resist. If necessary, they intended to fight.

They dragged their party, their reluctant President, and their divided country helplessly after them. The result was the war of 1812. With war came not only the appeal to the national spirit, which was only just waking into life, but the measures without which war can not be carried on. The party which had opposed military and naval forces, public debts, tariffs, banks, and a strong central government now found themselves raising armies, equipping and building a navy, borrowing money, imposing high import duties, sustaining the bank, and developing in all directions the powers of the Government of the United States. The doctrines of strict construction, which had been the idols of the ruling party, looked far less attractive when invoked by New England against their own policies, and the Constitution, which Jefferson set aside, as he thought, to acquire Louisiana, became most elastic in the hands of those who had sought to draw its bands so tightly that the infant nation could hardly move its limbs. Mr. Calhoun, with his mind set on the accomplishment of the great purpose of freeing the United States from foreign aggression, and thus lifting it to its rightful place among the nations of the earth, did not shrink from the conclusions to which his purpose led. His mind was too clear and too rigidly logical to palter with or seek to veil the inevitable results of the policy he supported. As he wished the end, he was too virile, too honest in his mental processes, not to wish the means to that end. The war left a legacy of debts and bankruptcy, and in dealing with these problems it was Calhoun who reported the bill for a new bank of the United States, who sustained the tariff of 1816, defended the policy of protection to manufactures, and advocated a comprehensive scheme of internal improvements….

From the House of Representatives he passed to the Cabinet of President Monroe, where he served from 1817 to 1825 as Secretary of War, showing high capacity as an administrator. He took the department avowedly as a reformer, for the lesson of our unreadiness and our lack of military preparation had been burned into his mind by the bitter experiences of the war of 1812. The army was reduced by Congress during his tenure of office, but organization, discipline, and efficiency were all advanced by his well-directed efforts.

In 1825 Mr. Calhoun was elected Vice-President, and was reelected four years later. In 1832 he resigned the Vice-Presidency to become Senator from South Carolina. His resignation, followed by his acceptance of the Senatorship, marks his public separation from the policies of his earlier years and the formal devotion of his life to the cause of states rights and slavery. The real division had begun some years before he left the Vice-Presidency. His change of attitude culminated in his support of nullification and in his bitter quarrel with Jackson, which was all the more violent because they were of the same race and were both possessed of equal strength of will and intensity of conviction.

I have thus referred to the change in Mr. Calhoun’s position solely because of its historical significance, marking, as it does, the beginning of a new epoch in the great conflict between the contending principles of nationalism and separatism. In his own day he was accused of inconsistency, and the charge was urged and repelled with the heat usual to such disputes. Nothing, as a rule, is more futile or more utterly unimportant than efforts to prove inconsistency. It is a favorite resort in debate, and it may therefore be supposed that it is considered effective in impressing the popular mind. Historically, it is a charge which has little weight unless conditions lend it an importance which is never inherent in the mere fact itself. If no man ever changed his opinions, if no one was open to the teachings of experience, human progress would be arrested and the world would stagnate in an intellectual lethargy. Inconsistency Emerson has declared to be the bugbear of weak minds, and this is entirely true of those who, dreading the accusation, shrink from adopting an opinion or a faith which they believe to be true, but to which they have formerly been opposed. Mr. Calhoun defined inconsistency long before the day when the charge was brought against him with that fine precision of thought which was so characteristic of all his utterances. Men can not go straight forward he said in the House in 1814– “but must regard the obstacles which impede their course. Inconsistency consists in a change of conduct when there is no change of circumstances which justify it.”

Tried by this accurate standard, Mr. Calhoun is as little to be criticised for his change of position as Mr. Webster for his altered attitude in regard to the system of protection. With the new conditions and new circumstances both men changed on important questions of policy, and both were justified from their respective points of view in doing so. That Mr. Calhoun went further than Mr. Webster, changing not only as to a policy but in his views of the Constitution and the structure of government, does not in the least affect the truth of the general proposition. The very measures which he had once fostered and defended had brought into being a situation which he felt with unerring prescience portended the destruction of the fundamental principles in which he believed and of a social and economic system which he thought vital to the safety and prosperity of the people whom he represented. The national force which he had helped to strengthen, the central government which he had so powerfully aided to build up, seemed to him to have become the creation of Frankenstein, a being which threatened to destroy its creators and all he personally held most dear. It was inevitable that he should strive with all his strength to stay the progress of what he thought would bring ruin to the system in which he believed. Once committed to this opinion, he was incapable of finding a halfway house where he could rest in peace or a compromise which he could accept with confidence. His reason carried him to the inevitable end which his inexorable logic demanded, and to that reason and that logic he was loyal with all the loyalty of strong conviction and an honest mind. There is no need to discuss either the soundness or the validity of the opinions he held. That is a question which has long since passed before the tribunal of history. All that concerns us to-day is to recall the manner in which Calhoun carried on his long struggle of twenty-five years in behalf of principles to which he was utterly devoted. He brought to the conflict extraordinary mental and moral qualities, deep conviction, an iron will, a powerful mind, an unsparing logic, and reasoning powers of the highest order. Burr said that anyone who went onto paper with Alexander Hamilton was lost. Anyone who admitted Mr. Calhoun’s premises was lost in like fashion. Once caught in the grasp of that penetrating and relentless intellect, there was no escape. You must go with it to the end.

He fought his fight with unbending courage, asking no quarter and giving none. He finched from no conclusion; he faced every result without change or concession. He had no fear of the opponents who met him in debate. He felt assured in his own heart that he could hold his own against all comers. But he must have known, for he was not a man who ever suffered from self-deception, that the enemies whom he could not overcome were beyond the range of argument and debate. The unconquerable foes were the powerful and silent forces of the time of which the great uprising of 1848 in behalf of political liberty was but a manifestation. The world of civilized man was demanding a larger freedom, and slavery, economically unsound, was a survival and an anachronism. Even more formidable was the movement for national unity, which was world wide. It was stirring in Germany and was in active life in Italy. The principle of separatism, of particularism, was at war with the spirit of the time. The stars in their courses fought against Sisera, and Calhoun, with his keen perceptions, must have known in his heart that he was defending his cause against hopeless odds. But he never blenched and his gallant spirit never failed or yielded. When the crisis of 1850 came, Clay brought forward his last and most famous compromise, which was supported by Webster. The two Whig leaders were filled with dread as they contemplated the perils which at that moment menaced the Union and were ready to go far on the road of concession. Calhoun, then nearing his death, had no faith in the compromise. He saw with that clearness of vision which nothing could dim that in the existing state of public thought, in the presence of the aspirations for freedom and national unity which then filled the minds of men throughout the world of western civilization, no compromise such as Clay proposed could possibly endure. He had his own plan, which he left as a legacy to his country. But his proposition was no compromise. It settled the question. It divided the country under the forms of law and made the National Government only a government in name. The solution was complete, but it was impossible. Clay’s compromise, as everyone knows, was adopted. There was a brief lull, and then the mighty forces of the age swept it aside and pressed forward in their inevitable conflict.

I think Calhoun understood all this, which is so plain now and was so hidden then, better than either of his great opponents. If they realized the situation as he did, they at all events did not admit it. Clay, with the sanguine courage which always characterized him, with the invincible hopefulness which never deserted him, gave his last years to his supreme effort to turn aside the menace of the time by a measure of mutual concession. Webster sustained Clay, but with far less buoyancy of spirit or of hope. Thus, just sixty years ago, they all stood together for the last time, these three men who gave their names to an epoch in our history and who typified in themselves the tendencies of the time. Before two years more had passed they had all three gone, and the curtain had fallen on that act of the great drama in which they had played the leading parts. It is a moment in our history which has always seemed to me to possess an irresistible attraction. Not merely are the printed records, the speeches that were then made, and the memoirs then written of absorbing interest, but the men themselves not only filled but looked their parts, which is far from common in the case of actors in the never-ending drama of humanity. They all look in their portraits as imagination tells us they should look, and I share the faith of Carlyle in the evidence of portraiture. Over the vigorous, angular, and far from handsome features of Henry Clay is spread that air of serenity and of cheerfulness which was one among the many qualities which so drew to him the fervent affection of thousands of men. We can realize, as we look, the fascination which attracted people to him, the charm which enabled him, as one of his admirers said: “To cast off his friends as the huntsman his pack….”

For he knew when he pleased he could whistle them back. A gallant soul, an inspiring leader, a dashing, winning, impulsive nature, brilliant talents—I think one can see them all there in the face of Henry Clay. Turn to the latest portraits of Webster and Calhoun, and you pass into another world. They are two of the most remarkable heads, two of the most striking, most compelling faces in the long annals of portraiture. They are widely different, so far as the outer semblance is concerned. The great leonine head of Webster, charged with physical and mental strength, the massive jaw, the eyes, as Carlyle said, glowing like dull anthracite furnaces beneath the heavy brows, seem at the first glance to have no even remote resemblance to the haggard face of Calhoun, with the dark, piercing, yet somber, eyes looking out from cavernous orbits, the high, intellectual forehead, the stern, strong mouth and jaw, all printed deep with the lines of suffering endured in silence. But if we look again and consider more deeply we can see that there is a likeness between them. The last photographs of Webster, the last portraits of Calhoun, show us a certain strong resemblance which is not, I think, the mere creation of a fancy bred by our knowledge of the time. Both are exceptionally powerful faces. In both great intellect, great force, and the pride of thought are apparent, and both are deeply tragic in their expression. It is not the tragedy of disappointment because they had failed to attain the office which was the goal of their ambition. That was the shallow explanation of excited contemporary judgment. Personal disappointment does not, and can not, leave the expression we find in those two faces. There is a “listening fear in their regard; not a personal fear—they were too great for that—but a dread because they heard, as other men could not hear, the hand of fate knocking at the door. The shadow of the coming woe fell darkly across their last years, and the tragedy which weighed them down was the tragedy of their country. It was thus that Webster looked when, in the 7th of March speech in the great passage on “peaceable secession,” he cried out in agony of spirit:

What States are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be? An American no longer? Am I to become a sectional man, a local man, a separatist, with no country in common with the gentlemen who sit around me here, or who fill the other House of Congress? Heaven forbid! Where is the flag of the Republic to remain? Where is the eagle still to tower? Or is he to cower and shrink and fall to the ground?

However Webster and Calhoun disagreed, they both knew that the Union could not be lightly broken. They knew the disruption of the States would be a convulsion. They foresaw that it would bring war, the war which Webster predicted, and they both turned with dread from the vision which haunted them.

We catch the same note in the words of Calhoun on March 5, 1850, when he declared, “If I am judged by my acts, I trust I shall be found as firm a friend of the Union as any man within it.” Despite all he had said and done, he still clung to the Union he had served so long, and when as the month closed and he lay upon his deathbed the thought of the future, dark with menace, was still with him, and he was heard to murmur: “The South! The poor South! God knows what will become of her.”

So they passed away, the three great Senators, and the vast silent forces which moved mankind and settled the fate of nations marched forward to their predestined end.

We do well to place here a statue of Calhoun. I would that he could stand with none but his peers about him and not elbowed and crowded by the temporarily notorious and the illustrious obscure. His statue is here of right. He was a really great man, one of the great figures of our history. In that history he stands out clear, distinct, commanding. There is no trace of the demagogue about him. He was a bold as well as a deep thinker, and he had to the full the courage of his convictions. The doctrines of socialism were as alien to him as the worship of commercialism. He “raised his mind to truths.” He believed that statesmanship must move on a high plane, and he could not conceive that mere money making and money spending were the highest objects of ambition in the lives of men or nations.

He was the greatest man South Carolina has given to the Nation. That in itself is no slight praise, for from the days of the Laurenses, the Pinckneys, the Rutledges, from the time of Moultrie and Sumter and Marion to the present day, South Carolina has always been conspicuous in peace and war for the force, the ability, and the character of the men who have served her and given to her name its high distinction in our history. But Calhoun was much more even than this. He was one of the most remarkable men, one of the greatest minds that American public life can show. It matters not that before the last tribunal the verdict went against him, that the extreme doctrines to which his imperious logic carried him have been banned and barred, the man remains greatly placed in our history. The unyielding courage, the splendid intellect, the long devotion to the public service, the pure, unspotted private life are all there, are all here with us now, untouched and unimpaired for after ages to admire. [Applause on the floor and in the galleries.]

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