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

§ 14. The Chief Spokesman of the South

Though other Southern states were at first by no means in agreement with South Carolina, when she presented to the world the theories which Calhoun so neatly phrased and so ably defended, he came to be, as the days went by, the leader of his section as well as the idol of his state. Sometimes he was a leader so far in advance that Southern people scarcely knew that they were slowly following his footsteps. More and more the South was identified with slavery; and more and more the people took their cue from Calhoun. He did not pose as a friend of disruption, and probably was a sincere friend of the Union; but the Union, he insisted with increasing fervour, must be a Union respecting the rights of the states, a Union which would hold together only if its government respected the varying conditions and the different interests of states and, indeed, of sections. He thus became the chief defender of two things or two ideas, slavery and particularism, to which the developing character of the nineteenth century was utterly opposed; slavery here and everywhere was doomed to be beaten down by the tide of humanitarianism, while localism, and sectionalism, and all other tendencies to exclusiveness and segregation, were at variance with those great forces of aggregation and of nation-building which were manifest in the whole civilized world. Calhoun’s great talents were actually devoted to elaboration and vehement promulgation of theories to the effect that the American Union was a clever political system devised for the express purpose of protecting peculiar local interests against external attack; and the chief local interest was the “peculiar institution” of the South!

Calhoun’s important contributions to the theory of American government began in 1828 in connection with the agitation in South Carolina about the tariff question. From that time on, his attention was largely devoted to inculcating the doctrine that the state had the right under the Constitution to protect its local interest against national aggression. His task was, and needed to be, in the presence of the growing power of the North, to develop principles for the protection of the minority, and in his quest for these doctrines he worked out a notable series of constitutional principles and philosophical theories.