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

§ 18. Style and Language

Calhoun’s written treatises on government and the rights of the South do not differ essentially from his spoken words on the same subjects. They are often metaphysical and subtle; but his doctrines rested on certain philosophical conceptions; and in presenting his theories he used language that was calm and clear, as clear at least as the nature of his delicately wrought system might well allow. In his speeches, he rarely, if ever, sought to stir his audience by mere flights of eloquence; he spoke, rather, as a man with his back to the wall, striking hard blows, seeking to defend himself and his section, unconsciously appealing to the emotions, if appealing at all, because his own position was not free from pathos; for here was a great man defending a losing cause and heroically beating back the forces that were hourly gaining in numbers and strength. Even when discussing subjects which now appear of bygone interest, he commonly struck at fundamentals and at principles with such force and precision that many of his words still have vitality; and much that he said will long retain interest for the academic student of politics. With the possible exception of Hamilton there is no other politician in our history whose writings today—decades after the disappearance of the subjects discussed—contain so much deserving attention and challenging respect even from the unbeliever. History offers few examples of such leadership, such success in mapping out for some millions of people a course of conduct and the ideas and beliefs on which conduct rests.

We have spoken of Calhoun as the great Southerner who presented with logical power the doctrines on which the South came to rest its case in defence of slavery. There were however, others almost as able and gifted who wrote and spoke on similar lines. In the early years of the century, the Southerners were on the whole nationalistic in sentiment; opposition to national authority came from the North-east; but after the War of 1812 the conditions changed; the South, partly doubtless because it felt economic distress, began to complain. The first formidable protest came from Virginia and was directed against the Federal Court and its great chief justice, himself a Virginian, who was declared to be interpreting the Constitution in violation of states’ rights and to be intent on building up a consolidated government, or as we should now say a unitary state.