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Irving Bartlett
Irving Bartlett
John C. Calhoun:  A Biography
ISBN: 0393034763
John C. Calhoun: A Biography
Professor Bartlett talked about his book, John C. Calhoun: A Biography, which focuses on the life of this controversial politician from South Carolina, who also served as vice president during Andrew Jackson's administration. His particular area of study is how ideas influence American political culture.
John C. Calhoun: A Biography
Program Air Date: September 18, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Irving H. Bartlett, author of “John C. Calhoun: A Biography,” what's a man from Massachusetts writing about a man who was in favor of slaves from South Carolina?
IRVING BARTLETT, AUTHOR, "JOHN C. CALHOUN: A BIOGRAPHY:" Well, I've been asked that question before. My special interest has been American culture and American political culture particularly. I've been interested in the role of ideology in American culture, the role played by people on the right and on the left. I started to explore this subject with a book on Wendell Phillips, one of the leading abolitionists. I wrote that back in the '60s and the late '70s. I wrote a book on Daniel Webster, who's one of the people that Wendell Phillips hated, a conservative who was very much opposed to the abolitionists in the North. After that I was scraping around looking for another subject. The publisher suggested Henry Clay, but having gone through the life of Webster, I thought Clay was too close. I just couldn't see myself going through all that business on the bank over again.

The publisher suggested Buchanan, and so I started reading about Buchanan and fell fast asleep. Then the suggestion was made about Calhoun. Calhoun was clearly the most challenging of those three because he is unusual in the sense that he's both a life-long politician and heavy-weight political thinker. Also, I felt that I was in danger of concentrating all my efforts on New Englanders, and I don't feel that the story of American culture is New England writ large, although there are a lot of folks up around Boston and in Harvard Square who still cleave to that notion, and so I choose Calhoun. I would describe myself as an intellectual historian. That's not to say that I'm so intellectual myself, but I'm interested in the history of ideas and Calhoun provides a mix of both ideas and politics.
LAMB: Who was Peggy O'Neale?
BARTLETT: Peggy O'Neale is one of those colorful characters in American history who because of her own peccadilloes pretty much upset the apple cart in Andrew Jackson's administration. She was a woman with a reputation who married Jackson's best friend who became secretary of War in Jackson's administration.
LAMB: What was his name?
BARTLETT: Eaton. The people in Jackson's Cabinet or the Cabinet members, following the lead, apparently, of John Calhoun, who was vice president, and his wife, began to refuse to invite the Eatons to social affairs. Jackson took the Eatons' side, partly because he saw in Peggy Eaton a maligned woman, and his own wife, recently deceased, had been slandered very heavily during the campaign. The result was really a kind of civil war within the administration, and it helped to bring about a rupture between Andrew Jackson, the president, and John C. Calhoun, the vice president, and there were other casualties along the way.
LAMB: What party was Andrew Jackson in?
BARTLETT: Andrew Jackson was a Democrat. Calhoun was, in a sense, in his own party. He would call himself a republican, I think. That's not Republican in the sense we talk about Republicans today, but a person of the republican ideological persuasion. That goes back to the founding fathers.
LAMB: Was John C. Calhoun the only man elected vice president for two different presidents?
BARTLETT: You know, I'm not sure. I think so. He's certainly the only man, the only vice president, who got into an open fight with a president, and a very severe fight at that, and then resigned.
LAMB: When was the first time he became vice president?
BARTLETT: Under John Quincy Adams.
LAMB: 1824?
LAMB: How did he get that?
BARTLETT: Well, he was really promoting his own candidacy. He wanted to be president, and when it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, he allowed his supporters to put him up for vice president. As soon as he became vice president, he began working against the president, who was John Quincy Adams, because he was ambitious and thinking of his own political future. Now, that sounds strange in the context of modern politics, but in those days vice presidents ran on their own. He was made vice president not because John Quincy Adams wanted him; he was elected in his own right. He'd been very prominent for more than 10 years in public life, both as a congressman who helped promote the War of 1812 and as secretary of War for eight years.
LAMB: Under James Monroe?
LAMB: This is a non sequitur but I wanted to read this. I'm getting at something I want to ask you about in a second. "Van Buren's running mate" -- Martin Van Buren was president when?
BARTLETT: In 1836.
LAMB: "Van Buren's running mate Richard Mentor Johnson, who had failed to get an electoral majority largely because of his notorious predilection for black mistresses, had to be elected by a voice vote in the Senate." What's that all about?
BARTLETT: Well, just what I said. He didn't get the necessary plurality, and the Senate had to confirm his election. Now, he was a celebrated war hero from the War of 1812. He was also celebrated for his black mistresses, which made him a very controversial kind of person. This was at a time when Calhoun was becoming very disenchanted with the political process. Jackson had essentially made Van Buren president, and Calhoun had thought that place, when he became vice president under Jackson, should have gone to himself. As a Southerner, he would have found Richard Mentor Johnson distasteful, I suppose, for his unwillingness to observe the racial conventions in the South. He also would have found Johnson unsavory because he'd had a very bad experience with Johnson and his brother when he was secretary of War involving an expedition to the west, which had been a great fiasco and no doubt a good deal of corruption involved with it.
LAMB: The point I was trying to get to and ask you about is that when you listen to today's political debate, both sides of the fence say life has never been this contentious in politics. Was all this public at the time? Was the Peggy O'Neale story and the Richard Mentor . . .
BARTLETT: The Peggy O'Neale story became public eventually. How much was known about Richard Mentor Johnson and talked about in the press I'm not exactly sure. I haven't looked into that in detail. But politics was just as rough. Jackson was accused of living illegally with his wife.
LAMB: How was he doing that?
BARTLETT: She presumably -- well, she had not been properly divorced, apparently, from her earlier husband.
LAMB: You're talking about the wife after the one that died?
BARTLETT: No, I'm talking about the wife, his only wife.
LAMB: Who died before we went in . . .
BARTLETT: Yes. The press was absolutely irresponsible in those days. Certainly everything was as bad as it is today or a good deal worse. We forget that, in part because, I think, of the immediacy of the media today. When stuff comes over television and when small film clips are used to make certain unsavory points, it's a lot different than it is from reading it in a newspaper or a magazine. Politics was tough thing. One of the interesting things about Calhoun is that his personal reputation really survived intact at a time when people like Webster and Clay and others were given a hard time for their personal conduct.
LAMB: Where was he born?
BARTLETT: He was born in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1782. Abbeville is in the back country near the mountains in western South Carolina.
LAMB: When you look at the map in that area you see Clemson. When you look at your book you see Clemson. What are the two, the connection?
BARTLETT: Clemson is the site of Calhoun's plantation. Thomas Clemson was his son-in-law. Thomas Clemson eventually inherited the property. Clemson was an engineer himself, and he deeded it to the state as an engineering university. All that remains of Calhoun's presence is the house, which was call Fort Hill, where Calhoun lived.
LAMB: And it's right there on the university?
BARTLETT: Right. Right in the middle of campus.
LAMB: Did you go there?
BARTLETT: Oh, yes. The interesting thing is I was at Clemson during World War II in the Air Force in preflight training. I went to the house then and then I went back several times when I was working on Calhoun, and I actually found one of my professors, who had become a Calhoun scholar, and looked up the grade I got in a course in trigonometry, which I'm afraid was a C+.
LAMB: You also write about South Carolina, that the two senators from there, both Fritz Hollings and Strom Thurmond, did something special in the Senate on the hundredth birthday of his death in 1950.
BARTLETT: I think so, yes.
LAMB: What did they do?
BARTLETT: Well, there was some kind of a celebration, I remember. I don't remember the exact details. They were simply paying tribute to his -- I mean, he's the greatest man that South Carolina has produced, and they were simply acknowledging that fact. It was in the '50s. It was at a time when the civil right cause was fairly well advanced, as I recall, and it's simply an acknowledgment. There were resolutions passed in the Congress to recognize Calhoun's achievements.
LAMB: How would you describe him? Not all the things he got involved in, but 6'2" I know you say he was. What else would you say about him?
BARTLETT: Well, he had bushy hair that kind of went straight up in his head and later in life kind of fell down to his shoulders. He was tall. He was thin. He was very intense. He was probably unsurpassed in his own time as a parliamentary speaker, but he was not a ceremonial speaker like Daniel Webster. He showed to best advantage in the give and take of debate in the Senate. He was a fierce partisan for his particular points of view. He was accused of being too cerebral, too abstract. I think that part of his personality is overdrawn. The stereo-type of him is the stereotype which was launched by Harriet Martineau, an English journalist, of the cast-iron man. This stereotype has some basis in fact. Calhoun was unflinching in his defense of the South, his defense of South Carolina, in his defense of slavery. I mean, he didn't give an inch. It was as if he was a kind of locomotive that was frequently off course in the minds of his detractors and his opponents but couldn't be stopped. It was this aspect of Calhoun that encouraged the image of the cast-iron man. I was interested in my book in exploring this, and I found, like most stereotypes, it had some basis in fact, but clearly there aren't any cast-iron people. There are human beings. There was a story that used to be told that Calhoun once tried to write a poem to his sweetheart before he married her but couldn't get by the first word, which was "whereas." In point of fact, I was able to find in the Calhoun papers a love letter in which Calhoun is clearly smitten, and although I don't know that he ever tried to write any poetry, he had the feelings that other people have. But his public persona was of this fierce, unrelenting, determined defender of the South and slavery.
LAMB: Who did he marry?
BARTLETT: He married Floride Bonneau Calhoun, a second cousin, wealthy, a young woman who came from the tidewater in South Carolina. He came from the back country. That marriage made him financially secure along with the inheritance that he received from his father.
LAMB: What was the relationship of his wife to a first cousin?
BARTLETT: Marriage between second cousins was not unusual in South Carolina. It was an attempt to keep families strong, keep plantations together. His wife's mother had been married to a cousin who had been in the Senate before Calhoun. Calhoun, in a sense, saw himself as being part of a Calhoun tradition in South Carolina politics, partly because of this connection with his cousin, who had been the senator probably because of his connection with his father, who had been a very important political leader in the back country in South Carolina.
LAMB: How many children did John C. Calhoun have?
BARTLETT: Well, I have to count them up. He had one daughter, and that was his favorite child.
LAMB: Was that Anna?
BARTLETT: Anna, Anna Maria. He had John C. Calhoun and James Calhoun and Andrew Pickens Calhoun. Well, he had two daughters. I beg your pardon. Cordelia was the second daughter.
LAMB: Did they have something like 10 or 12 children?
BARTLETT: Yes. Well, she lost two, and she had the children fairly close together and it was a large family. Trying to bring up a family in Washington was not to her liking and politics was not to her liking, and she spent more and more of her time back at Fort Hill in South Carolina. They were separated a lot over the course of their marriage, half of each year while he was in the Congress.
LAMB: We've mentioned eight years as secretary of War under James Monroe.
LAMB: He was vice president under two different presidents.
LAMB: Did he serve out the entire term under Andrew Jackson?
BARTLETT: No. Once the nullification crisis took center stage in Washington, he . . .
LAMB: Was does that mean?
BARTLETT: Well, South Carolina, and the South generally, was opposed to the tariff policy of the federal government because the South was very heavily involved in staple agriculture which meant export, and the tariff was alleged to hurt the South. The way they put it in common language was that a protective tariff forced Southerners to buy high and sell low. What they meant by that, the price they paid on imported goods was higher or on domestic produced goods was higher because of the protective tariff, and because the countries that they would sell to would place tariffs on their own goods in competition and reprisal of American tariff policy, they were forced to sell their own goods lower.

In the 1820s, the price of cotton plummeted. It was 27 cents a pound, I think, in 1815; 9 cents a pound in the mid-1820s. The tariff was perceived as being the culprit. It was not. It was more complicated than this. Cotton was cheaper in large part because too much of it was being produced as new cotton lands were opening in the Southwest, but it became a symbol of Southern oppression. Calhoun was called upon to defend the South, and he did this by developing a theory of constitutional government in America which held that the states had been sovereign when they entered into the federal union and they retained their sovereignty, delegating to the federal government specific powers -- powers over foreign policy, some powers over commerce -- but the federal government was not given the specific power to pass a protective tariff. It was only given power to put duties on imports in order to raise revenue. Calhoun held that in the final analysis, each state retained the right to negate a federal law if it found this law threatening its own welfare. This was the power of nullification.

He wrote a statement about this when he was still vice president. There's a lot of irony here. He was elected vice president in Jackson's first administration, and this was the election in which the people presumably took over. A great majority of the people swept Jackson into office, and the theory of nullification that Calhoun was articulating was essentially an attack on majority power, and he was writing it as vice president-elect. So that at the same time he was swept into office by a large majority vote, he was writing a theoretical statement denouncing the unlimited power of the majority. Ultimately, South Carolina attempted to nullify the tariff of 1832, which kept duties high. The tariff of 1828 had escalated tariffs 30 or 50 percent, and the tariff of 1832 maintained that level. A great confrontation between the federal government and the president, Andrew Jackson, and South Carolina and the vice president, John C. Calhoun, ensued.
LAMB: How did he leave office then?
BARTLETT: He quit. He resigned, and was elected to the Senate. But he was almost finished with his term of office. At that time it was clear that Van Buren would be the vice president in Jackson's second term.
LAMB: What other jobs did he have? John C. Calhoun, secretary of war, vice president, senator.
BARTLETT: Yes. He was secretary of State in the mid-1840s for about a year. The secretary of State at the time was killed in a tragic explosion on a naval vessel -- a gun exploded -- and Calhoun was made secretary of State. His term was short but important because it was during this period that the negotiations to annex Texas were finalized.
LAMB: That was President Polk?
BARTLETT: Yes. No, President Tyler.
LAMB: John Tyler. Trying to keep track of all these presidents and all these jobs. Okay, he was a senator, secretary of State, secretary of War. How often was he a senator though? I kept reading in your book that . . .
BARTLETT: Well, he was in the House from 1812 until he became secretary of War in Monroe's administration. That would have been 1816. He was secretary of War until 1824, and then he went to the Senate where he remained until 1844 when he resigned to run for the president in the election of 1844. That campaign didn't work out. It was as close as he ever came.
LAMB: How many times did he run for president?
BARTLETT: Well, it's hard to know. I mean, he never got a formal nomination of the Democratic Party, but he would be nominated by the delegates from a certain state, South Carolina or some other friendly state. And it was while he was, in a sense, licking his wounds as a person whose campaign had not really gone very far in 1844 that the vacancy in the secretary of State's place in the Cabinet came up, and he moved into that position. He was not asked to stay on as secretary of State by the new president, Polk. He talked about retiring, but the people in South Carolina, his friends, wouldn't let him stay retired and they sent him back to the Senate, and he died as senator.
LAMB: He died in 1850, and I know you've written a book on Daniel Webster and then the Comprise of 1850 and all that.
LAMB: One thing I remember reading, and I want you to tell the whole story about the last few months of his life, but when he died did they actually bring his body physically into the Senate?
BARTLETT: Yes, I think they did. It was customary for famous senators.
LAMB: But I guess he lay in state in the Senate.
BARTLETT: Yes. Then they took him to South Carolina, and he was buried in Charleston. His tomb is there. He wouldn't have liked that. He didn't like Charleston particularly. Charleston represented super sophistication and a lot of expensive ways of life and luxury. Calhoun was pretty much of a puritan, a Southern kind of puritan. His wife had planned for him to be entombed on the plantation. That's what he would have liked. But it was handled as an affair of state, and the governors and the powers that were in effect in South Carolina at that time decreed otherwise. I was going to come back to a question that you asked earlier about why a Yankee would want to write about a secessionist and nullifier like Calhoun. It seems to me one of the most challenging questions in the study of American culture is to understand the connection between the slave South and the development of democracy and liberty in the United States, and Calhoun gave me a chance to do that.

I happen to be a student of Edmund Morgan, who was professor of American studies at Brown when I went to graduate school there and finished his career at Yale. He wrote a wrote a wonderful book about Virginia in which he showed that ideas of liberty and ideas of slavery grew hand-in-hand in the colonies. He even hypothesized that in Virginia colonists may have been willing to experiment with free institutions because they felt that they would not be threatened by an unruly mob of people of their own race -- because they had slaves, in other words; that slavery somehow made it easier for them to experiment with new forms of government, that they would have been unwilling to do that in England. I found the same thing to be true in South Carolina; that is, as Calhoun was growing up, the back country in South Carolina was getting blacker and blacker. Slavery was expanding to the frontier, to the back country. As it expanded, life became more and more civil for white people. It wasn't ever very good for the slaves, obviously. But Calhoun in his experience always saw slavery as a civil institution, as an institution that encouraged civility and law and order and all the rest of it. Trying to understand that is very important for all of us. I mean, we have to understand that slavery was there at the beginning along with liberty -- a very flawed situation, obviously, but that's the way it happened.
LAMB: How many slaves did Calhoun have?
BARTLETT: Calhoun, at one time, owned a half interest in his son's plantation in Alabama. He had about 100.
LAMB: How did he treat his slaves?
BARTLETT: Well, that was a question I was very much interested in. I wish I'd been able to find more material on that. In all of his letters -- you know, they've been published in some 23 volumes and it's not done yet, the process -- he doesn't say a lot about his slaves. My conclusion is that he was a just master. I was interested to find in a graveyard that was close to his birthplace a awful lot of graves had "just master" written on them by contemporaries of his father. So as far as I can tell, his father was a just master. Well, what does that mean? A just master was a person who believed in slavery, who assumed that slaves were inferior to white people and that being in the charge of white people, being owned by white people, was perfectly proper. But it also meant that slaves had to be treated well, and it also meant that slave owners were supposed to live up to a high standard of conduct.

Slavery created a distinctive culture in which honor became very important. We tend to think of that in terms of the prickliness of Southern slave holders, their willingness to resort to duels and so on, but there's a good deal of scholarly literature which indicates that honor was a key value in the South, whereas outside the South in New England, there were other values that were dominate. Well, think of Benjamin Franklin and his advice. What are the values that he is encouraging his countrymen to emulate? Well, their shrewdness, competitiveness, acquisitiveness. It was this culture that formed Calhoun and this culture in which he, for many Southerners, symbolized the ideal. He was willing to discipline slaves. He had them whipped when they ran away. He talked about the importance of having moral slaves. He would get very upset if he thought his overseer was giving a slave who was hired out too much of the money he was earning. On the other hand, he had grown up with slaves.

One of them was a favorite on his plantation. His name was Sawny. He treated him, gave him special privileges. There are letters from other people in the family about slaves which indicate that they were concerned. His daughter was very concerned with ministering to slaves on the plantation. But Calhoun was never aware that he was living in a particularly privileged situation. He never felt any guilt, as far as I could make out, about slavery. And he assumed incorrectly, I assume, that the slaves were content with their lot. There's an interesting letter which I found very late in my research right after Appomattox in which one of Calhoun's descendants, a granddaughter, I think, is saying all the slaves have left except a handful. They were as happy as slaves everywhere else to leave. Calhoun's attitude toward this -- he never used the word "nigger." Never did I find a single thing in the papers which was derogatory to slaves as individuals. Never treated them derisively, but would have insisted to the death in their inferiority. That was the basic assumption on which slavery rested. He had to believe in that. This, in turn, led to one of the sorriest episodes in his life when he accepted at face value the ridiculous account in the census of 1840 about the plight of free black people in the North. The census was essentially a racist census and purported to show that free black people were mentally ill in ridiculously high numbers. Sometimes the number of insane blacks was greater than the total number of blacks in a given community. Calhoun actually drew on this census in an important diplomatic paper which he wrote as secretary of State in which he was attacking British philanthropists and abolitionists and trying to show that the American system of slavery was the way to go with respect to relationships between and black and white people.
LAMB: Died in 1850. He was 68 years old at the time, a United States senator. You paint a picture near the end of a very sick man and people going to his apartment near Capitol Hill over here visiting. What were the circumstances and why did his point of view matter then?
BARTLETT: It was the time when the Congress was trying to decide what to do with the territory acquired from Mexico in the war. There was a big argument over whether slavery should be allowed into the territory acquired from Mexico. A proviso, a famous piece of legislation, had been introduced, the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prevented slavery from being practiced in the new states that would come out of this territory -- New Mexico, California. Calhoun was adamant on this. A lot of people said, "What difference does it make? Slaves aren't going to be taken out there anyway. They're not going to be on the desert; they're not going to be in California."

But Calhoun saw that the principle was vitally important. It was natural for Southerners to feel terribly offended. South Carolina had contributed, given its small size, more soldiers to the war in Mexico than almost any other state. What sense could it make to a South Carolinian to be told now that he couldn't take his slaves to territory that had come out of the war? So Calhoun was very strong in refusing to compromise on this issue, and he was insisting on the rights of nullification that he had enunciated 20 years earlier. At the same time that this was going on, Calhoun was writing his great political theoretical works, Disquisition on Government and the Discourse on the Constitution [and Government] of the United States. Eventually there was a compromise, one of the most famous in American history, the Compromise of 1850, engineered in part by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and other people. Calhoun made his last speech as a statement against the compromise. His diseases, essentially heart failure and consumption, were so far advanced that although he had been able to write the speech, he could not deliver it. A friend, a senator from Virginia, actually read the speech to the Senate while he sat enveloped in a large coat which hid his emaciated form. It was one of the dramatic moments in the history of the Senate.
LAMB: You did the book on Daniel Webster. If you had the two of them together today, what would those two men be like, in your opinion?
BARTLETT: Well, it's hard to know. Webster, I think, would be pretty much the same -- convivial, a strong partisan of the federal union. It's difficult to know about Calhoun. Calhoun would certainly have been a conservative during the civil rights movement. He never said anything about the possibility of slavery disappearing. He seemed to think that slavery and American liberty could go on forever. In fact, he thought slavery was kind of key to the American dream because he felt that slavery would provide in the South a conservative influence that would keep class conflict down. He thought that inevitably capitalism would provoke class conflict outside the South. He would be baffled, I suppose, to find that some of his ideas which were that a numerical majority is not sufficient to provide just government; you need a concurrent majority, which means providing a separate voice for interests as well as numbers. In his theoretical work he talks about the possibility of a plural veto. I mean, he was after something like the Security Council. He wanted a weak federal government in which the states and the most important interests would have to concur before important legislation would be passed.
LAMB: Where was Henry Clay in 1850?
BARTLETT: Henry Clay was simply trying to hold the Union together.
LAMB: What was his title?
BARTLETT: He was a senator and a Whig leader. But today we have other people talking about trying to represent interests and talking about tyranny of the majority. Lani Guinier is one of them. She doesn't in her new book talk about Calhoun -- I guess that would be too much to expect -- but she talks about the tyranny of the majority and she talks about the importance of giving ethnic minorities a kind of separate voice and talks about super majorities. Calhoun would have great difficulty understanding this. He didn't think that the descendants of slaves -- well, he just didn't think of them as citizens. Slaves could not be citizens. Black people could not be citizens as far as he was concerned. But nevertheless, there's a logical connection between Lani Guinier's ideas and what Calhoun was talking about. Calhoun would be very upset with the size of the federal government, I think, with the powers of the federal government, and very upset with partisan politics. Some people have argued that what Calhoun wanted really came to pass in the sense that lobbies became important. Lobbies saw to it that legislation that's offensive to any significant interest is very hard to get passed. Calhoun would not have liked the ideas of lobbies.
LAMB: There weren't any then?
BARTLETT: Well, no, not in the sense that there are today.
LAMB: You painted a whole different picture of Washington.
BARTLETT: Yes. It was changing in the sense that there were two major parties. Calhoun did not like parties. He thought that parties could be corrupt. Parties competed with each other to get hold of federal government, to raise money and then use that money disbursements to build up their own strength, and this was corrupt.
LAMB: Was he honest?
BARTLETT: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Was Daniel Webster honest?
BARTLETT: Webster couldn't be bought, but he could be paid. That is the way I would speak about it.
LAMB: What about Henry Clay?
BARTLETT: Well, I think Clay was pretty much in the same camp. I would put Calhoun, in terms of character, above them.
LAMB: Fort Hill, his place in South Carolina and Ashland in Kentucky for Henry Clay and the other place was . . .
BARTLETT: Marshfield.
LAMB: Massachusetts?
LAMB: Have you been to all three of those places?
BARTLETT: Oh, yes.
LAMB: What does one see today? How are they remembered?
BARTLETT: There's not much in Marshfield because the house burned down, and there's just a little place. You can see a pond. It was a very elegant plantation. Webster borrowed money like mad to develop it. He was always in debt. Calhoun was in debt, too, but not because he squandered his money. His son helped him fall in debt to his son-in-law. Henry Clay's place is luxurious and has a kind of Baroque flavor to it, handsome but very Victorian. Calhoun's place is pretty simple, a handsome place that's the way it was when he and his wife put it together. There's a great table there that was made out of pieces of the Constitution given to him by Henry Clay. But it's very simple if you wanted to compare it to aristocratic country places in England. Nothing like that. His plantation would have been a fairly ideal kind of Southern plantation. He had diversified agriculture. He liked scientific agriculture. He was out in the field frequently supervising ditching operations. He was very comfortable living the pastoral life.
LAMB: Your liner notes say that Irving Bartlett is John F. Kennedy Professor of American Civilization at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
BARTLETT: Emeritus.
LAMB: When did you retire?
BARTLETT: A year ago.
LAMB: How long were you there?
BARTLETT: I was there, I think, 13 years. Earlier I had taught for a considerable period of time at Carnegie-Mellon University.
LAMB: Pittsburgh.
BARTLETT: Yes. I was head of the department there for a while. I started out as an assistant professor at MIT. And for a while I was the president of a community college, Cape Cod Community College. I was the founding father of that institution.
LAMB: For how long?
BARTLETT: Not very long, about three and a half years and then I went to Carnegie.
LAMB: Where . . .?
BARTLETT: It's right in Hyannis.
LAMB: I was going to ask where you were born.
BARTLETT: Oh, Springfield, Mass.
LAMB: And where was your undergrad?
BARTLETT: Ohio Wesleyan.
LAMB: What did you study?
BARTLETT: Well. I started out as pre-ministerial student. Then I was gone for four years during World War II, and I came back transformed. I realized that being a preacher meant being in the answer-giving business, and I seemed to be pointed more toward the question-asking business. Historians are people who ask questions of the past, and I've been doing that ever since. I suppose there's a connection, though. I look on history as a kind of revelation. That's where we help to find the meaning of life, lessons about the way we should live and so forth.
LAMB: What was your undergraduate and did you get a master's, too?
BARTLETT: Yes, a master's degree and a Ph.D. in American studies. I was one of the early people in the American studies program at Brown. I spent most of my life in history departments and writing history. As I mentioned earlier, I've been interested in this question of ideology in America. Dealt with Wendell Phillips, two books on Phillips.
LAMB: Who was he?
BARTLETT: He is the great abolitionist orator and the person who developed a theory of agitation, a theory of radicalism within the American context.
LAMB: When did he live?
BARTLETT: He lived from 1811 to the 1880s, '84, I think.
LAMB: Where did he live?
BARTLETT: He's a Bostonian. His father was mayor of Boston, and he was a Harvard graduate, well-born, wealthy, but a radical all his life. And then Webster was more conservative who wanted to hold things together, and Calhoun who was a hard -- I mean, part of Calhoun is reactionary; that is, his defense of slavery has to be called reactionary in the middle of the 19th century. But, you know, in the early part of his career he'd been a strong nationalist. He was interested at the time of his death in the French Revolution. He was closer to the founding fathers in many ways than he was to the new democracy that was coming into power during the age of Jackson.
LAMB: His father was born in Ireland?
BARTLETT: That's right. Calhoun was the son of an immigrant, and he lived on the frontier. You know, people perceived him as this aristocratic slave holder. His grandmother had been killed by the Indians. He had an aunt that was captured by the Indians. His father had a hat that was shot through with balls from Indian muskets. I mean, he was as close to the wilderness as Andrew Jackson or anyone else of his generation.
LAMB: You say way back during his father's time that "the back country planters of South Carolina found it easy to believe that their government in Charleston" -- you mentioned this a little bit earlier -- "was little more than a money machine designed and run to keep coastal politicians rich and powerful." What's the difference between then and now?
BARTLETT: Well, I don't know exactly how to . . .
LAMB: Would he say the same thing today?
BARTLETT: Oh yes, I suppose -- yes, oh yes, he would. I mean, I think he'd be very upset at lobbyists today. He was a republican; that is to say he believed that government should be kept lean and that government should be led by people of ability and integrity. He believed that people like himself with education and a sense of morality and civic virtue should play an important role in politics. He believed that politicians should always have the long-range interests of the country at heart and not settle for short-range games. He was a life-long politician who was constantly knocking politics. He thought that politics was a kind of scramble for political office. He believed in the power of the suffrage and he was for the expansion of the suffrage in South Carolina -- white manhood suffrage -- in the 1820s, but he did not like playing to the crowd.
LAMB: With the remaining time, I've got to give you an opportunity to -- I've asked this of several historians, but you wrote about it, too. Was he Abraham's Lincoln's father?
BARTLETT: Have you asked other people that question?
LAMB: It's been written up, yes.
BARTLETT: Well, it's the first question I was asked when I went to a social function in South Carolina, and I was dumbfounded. And then it was asked again of me out in the back country by a black South Carolinian, a schoolteacher who lived in Abbeville where Calhoun had been born. No, he wasn't. But it is possible that he had some kind of relationship with a barmaid named Nancy Hanks. There was such a person, and Calhoun would have gone through the community where she lived. It's possible that something like that happened. What interested me was that that legend should have stayed alive for so long. I talked to one person who knew a lot about South Carolina culture, and she said she thought it was because Carolinians didn't want to give Lincoln too much credit. They wanted to make sure that there was some Carolina blood in Abraham Lincoln. I think it's more likely that Calhoun had a unspotted personal reputation, and people are unwilling really to let people in public life get off scot free that way. There's a tendency to be fascinated by any story that tends to spot the reputation of the public person who presumably has been considered spotless, something of that sort. Anyway, it's a fascinating legend that will never go away.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. Our guest has been Irving H. Bartlett and the book is “John C. Calhoun: A Biography.” Thank you.
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