James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery
Antebellum South Carolina was different from the rest of the South. Else-where in the lower South and in Virginia the slaveholders held effective power, exercised impressive hegemony, and determined policy in all matters that concerned the foundation of their property rights in human beings, but they had to struggle constantly to maintain their power under democratic constitutions in states rent by class antagonisms and shifting alliances. Only in South Carolina did the slaveholders, and more specifically the “political class” based on the big planters, come close to maintaining the naked class dictatorship of Leninist theory and myth.
The great John C. Calhoun dominated the state by a combination of extraordinary intellectual power, political skill, moral credibility, and iron will. Never without enemies, rivals, and impatient heirs apparent, he generally got his way. There were internal battles, not between pro- and antislavery forces—nowhere in the lower South was conflict over that issue permitted—but primarily between those who sought safety for slavery in or out of the Union. Calhoun walked that tightrope. He waged a lifelong struggle to build a slaveholders’ party that could control the Union. Within South Carolina he had to fight off challenges both from those who considered his course extreme and a threat to national unity, and from those who scorned his efforts at sectional compromise as giving away too much to dangerous opponents. Those who denounced him as a compromiser feared that he was governed by an overweaning ambition to be president, and kept sniping at him from the right.
Among these, James H. Hammond commands special attention for his unusual personal qualities and for his paradoxical claims to being Calhoun’s heir. Born into a family of modest means, he grew up determined to make it big in the planter class—“The Chivalry,” as the haughty low-country planters styled themselves. Make it he did, however much his success as a planter, a politician, and a master of men, women, and children left him with a mouthful of ashes. Recently Carol Bleser brought him to life in a beautifully edited volume of the Hammond family papers, for which she provided an illuminating biographical introduction.1 Now Drew Faust has written a first-rate biography.
Ms. Faust, a historian and professor of American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, previously published A Sacred Circle, which included an account of Hammond and his relations with other leading southern intellectuals. Subsequently, she edited a valuable collection of antebellum southern writings, suggestively called The Ideology of Slavery, which she introduced with an important essay that marked a long step forward in her thought.2 With this study of Hammond she takes her place in the forefront of historians of the South. She writes clearly and gracefully and her book is a pleasure to read.
Hammond’s father thought him a genius, destined for great things if only he would work hard and learn self-control. Elisha Hammond, as James later recalled, lived through and for his favorite son, and to make sure that all went…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.