John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun; drawing by David Levine

“South Carolina,” wrote one of the state’s few opponents of secession in 1860, “is too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum.”1 In earlier years most southerners outside the Palmetto State would have agreed. In 1832 no other state joined South Carolina in its “nullification” of a national tariff law that Carolina planters viewed as discriminatory against plantation agriculture. On that occasion the Carolina planters and their allies backed down rather than face the wrath of President Andrew Jackson, who vowed to send in the army and hang the ringleaders of nullification. Again in 1851 they had to contain their zeal for a separate slaveholding republic when other southern states refused to secede in protest against the Compromise of 1850, which had admitted California as a free state. But on their third try, in 1860, South Carolina’s Southern Rights radicals pulled ten other slave states into secession.

The catalyst that turned what some called the Palmetto insane asylum into the Confederate States of America was the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. This “Black Republican” had pronounced slavery “a moral wrong and injustice,” and had called upon Americans to restrict its further expansion as a first step toward its “ultimate extinction” sometime in the twentieth century. To escape this fate, the South declared its independence and fired on American soldiers at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor, thereby provoking a war that cost more American lives, soldier and civilian, than all of the country’s other wars combined.

To a good many southerners the events of 1861–1865 have been known as “The War of Northern Aggression.” Never mind that the South took the initiative by seceding in defiance of an election of a president by a constitutional majority. Never mind that the Confederacy started the war by firing on the American flag. These were seen as preemptive acts of defense against northern aggression. The election of Lincoln by northern votes was “a deliberate, cold-blooded insult and outrage” to southern honor, a New Orleans newspaper declared, while a committee of the Virginia legislature declared that “the very existence of such a party [Republican] is an offense to the whole South.”2 As for the firing on Sumter, it was merely a response to provocation by the Lincoln administration, which kept Union troops there after the Confederacy had warned them to leave. “The aggressor in a war,” explained Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, “is not he who strikes the first blow…but the first who renders force necessary.”3

Secession and the firing on Sumter were, in southern eyes, the culmination of decades of aggression by a growing northern majority that was becoming increasingly antislavery. But southern leaders knew that the best defense was a good offense. When Yankee citizens harbored fugitive slaves, southerners in Congress passed a fugitive slave law that gave the national government greater powers than it had ever before possessed to reach into northern states and capture the fugitives (so much for southern commitment to states’ rights). When Republicans called for the exclusion of slavery from new territories, the southern majority on the Supreme Court ruled, in the Dred Scott case, that Congress had no power to prevent slaveholders from taking their human property into any territory they wished. When the antislavery majority of settlers in Kansas territory made bondage insecure there, southerners demanded a federal slave code enforced by the US Army to protect their “rights” in such territories. When northern Democrats refused to endorse this demand, southerners in 1860 split the party in two, thereby insuring the election of Lincoln, which in turn provoked secession.

Not all of the architects of this offensive-defensive strategy were South Carolinians. But as the three books reviewed here make clear, a large number of them lived in the Palmetto State. During the height of John C. Calhoun’s power it was said that when Calhoun took snuff, South Carolina sneezed. It could also be said that when South Carolinians took snuff, the South sneezed. Calhoun led the Southern Rights wing of the Democratic party until he died in 1850. His theory of slavery as a “positive good” and his doctrine of state sovereignty as a buttress of slavery lived on as the rationale for secession. Consumed by ambition for the presidency, an office that for thirty years he sought in vain, Calhoun dedicated his career to constructing elaborate methods to sustain southern political power despite the region’s shrinking minority of the American population. These methods included at one time or another state “interposition” or nullification of federal laws, southern control of the Democratic party, a Southern Rights party that would dominate a divided North, and a “concurrent majority” whereby either section would have a veto power over legislation passed by a national majority.

In the first full-scale biography of Calhoun to appear in almost forty years, John Niven of Claremont Graduate School describes these ideas as part of Calhoun’s “defensive posture” against the North’s “aggressions and encroachments on our rights.” Calhoun’s position had not always been defensive. Born during the final year of America’s war of independence, Calhoun inherited the driving energy of his father, a pioneer of Scotch-Irish descent whose slaves had carved a two-thousand-acre plantation out of the upcountry South Carolina wilderness. Calhoun graduated from Yale College and studied law with a leading Connecticut judge before returning home to marry his cousin, heiress of a well-to-do low-country planter. Elected to Congress in 1810, Calhoun began a career of forty years in politics that included six years in the House, eight as secretary of war, eight as vice-president, one as secretary of state, and fifteen as a senator. During the first decade of this remarkable career, Calhoun was an expansive nationalist advocating government intervention to promote commercial and industrial growth. In the 1820s he reversed his views, fearful that all such growth would benefit only the North, leaving his beloved South vulnerable to the Yankee colossus. Increasingly dour and sour, Calhoun devoted himself to the long campaign to thwart northern aggressions.


These aggressions consisted mainly of antislavery rhetoric and economic policies favoring free-labor capitalism over slave-plantation agriculture. But, as Niven shows, Calhoun’s “defensive mode” could become quite aggressive in its own right. He would deny first amendment rights to opponents of slavery by excluding their literature from the mails and refusing to receive their petitions to Congress. Calhoun’s favorite tactic was to profess a desire to preserve the Union but to predict disunion if the North refused concessions to southern rights, thus placing the blame on the North for imperiling the Union.

Calhoun claimed to see aggression from far off. In 1826, as vice-president, he foresaw dire consequences if the government extended diplomatic recognition to Haiti. This “would in the present tone of feelings to the south lead to great mischief,” he wrote.

It is not so much recognition simply, as what must follow it. We must send and receive ministers, and what would be our social relations to a Black minister in Washington?… Must his daughters and sons participate in the society of our daughters and sons?… Small as these considerations appear to be they involve the peace and perhaps the union of the nation.

To placate the South, the US government refused to recognize Haiti until 1862—after the South had seceded.

Southern threats to secede served the section well in the crisis that led to the Compromise of 1850. If Congress insisted on admitting California with the free-state constitution written by gold rush settlers, Calhoun told the Senate, slave states could not “remain in the Union consistently with their honor and safety.” To a friend Calhoun wrote: “You will see that I have made up the issue between North and South. If we flinch we are gone, but if we stand fast on it, we shall triumph either by compelling the North to yield to our terms, or declaring our independence of them.”4 Other southern leaders were less subtle than Calhoun. “We ask you to give us our rights” in California, Congressman Albert G. Brown of Mississippi said. “If you refuse, I am for taking them by armed occupation.” James H. Hammond of South Carolina told Calhoun that if the North got California, thereby robbing the South of equal representation in the Senate (fifteen free states and fifteen slave states before California came in), “we should…kick them out of the Capitol & set it on fire.”5

These tactics did not prevent the admission of a free California, but they did win access for slavery to the rest of the region conquered from Mexico (the territories of New Mexico and Utah enacted slave codes, though few slaves were taken there). So the South pursued the same tactics throughout the 1850s, winning repeal of the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36° 30′ in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, warning northern conservatives not to vote for the first “Black Republican” presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, in 1856 (if Frémont was elected, said the governor of Virginia, slave states would “proceed at once to ‘immediate, absolute and eternal separation’ “), and forcing President James Buchanan in 1858 to support the admission of Kansas as a slave state—if he had refused, Buchanan explained, southern states would “secede from the Union or take up arms.”6

Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina showed that the South meant business. When Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made unflattering remarks about Brooks’s cousin Senator Andrew Butler in 1856, Brooks walked into the Senate and bludgeoned Sumner with a heavy cane until he fell unconscious. Censured by the House, Brooks was unanimously reelected by his constituents; from all over the South he received gifts of new canes bearing such inscriptions as “Use Knock-Down Arguments.” During a bitter contest to elect a speaker of the House in 1859, which pitted northern and southern representatives against each other, the governor of South Carolina wired one of the state’s congressmen: “If you upon consultation decide to make the issue of force in Washington, write or telegraph me, and I will have a regiment in or near Washington in the shortest possible time.”7


In 1860 southerners again threatened to secede if a Republican was elected president. Lincoln was fed up with their protestations that they were merely trying to protect themselves from northern aggression. “You say, you will destroy the Union,” said Lincoln on February 27, 1860, in a speech in New York City intended to be read by southerners; “and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’ “8 This time the South made good its threat. And Lincoln opposed the last-minute attempts to woo them back with the Crittenden Compromise, which opened future territories south of 36° 30′ to slavery. The South had long had an eye on annexation of Cuba, where slavery existed, and portions of Central America, where it could be introduced. “We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated,” Lincoln wrote to a Republican congressman in January 1861.

Now we are told…the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten….If we surrender, it is the end of us…. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union…. The tug has to come & better now than later.9

The tug came on April 12, when southern artillery sent shells crashing into Fort Sumter.

Southerners exhibited their sense of victimization in this matter. Lincoln tricked us into firing on Sumter, they declared. We acted in self-defense. The North was the aggressor. Everyone is against us and our institution of slavery. But we know we are right and we will fight for our rights.

Some insight into the southern psychology is provided by the “secret and sacred” diaries of James H. Hammond, skillfully edited by Carol Bleser of Clemson University. Like Calhoun a cotton planter and slaveholder in upcountry South Carolina, Hammond possessed a large ego and insatiable political ambitions. But he also had insatiable sexual appetites, which threatened to cut short his political career and to destroy the marriage that had brought him his plantation and slaves. By his wife he fathered eight children. In 1839 he bought an eighteen-year-old slave, Sally, and her infant daughter Louisa. Hammond took Sally as a concubine and fathered several children by her; when Louisa reached the age of twelve he transferred his desires to her, and fathered more children. Hammond kept all of his dark-skinned progeny in slavery as “their happiest earthly condition.”

During the 1830s Hammond was elected to a term in Congress. There he earned some fame for a speech that thundered awesome threats if Congress should act on petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. If that day ever came, said Hammond, he was for “disunion, and civil war if need be. A Revolution must ensue, and this Republic sink in blood.”

In 1842 Hammond won the governorship of South Carolina. During his term, and for more than a year before it, he engaged in frequent sexual play with the four teen-age daughters of his brother-in-law, Wade Hampton II, the largest planter in South Carolina and reputedly one of the richest men in America. “Here were four lovely creatures from the tender but precocious girl of 13 to the mature but fresh and blooming woman nearly 19,” wrote Hammond in his diary after their father had learned of the affair and put a stop to it,

all of them rushing on every occasion into my arms and covering me with kisses,…pressing their bodies almost into mine, wreathing their limbs with mine, encountering warmly every portion of my frame, and permitting my hands to stray unchecked over every part of them and to rest without the slightest shrinking from it, in the most secret and sacred regions.

These activities, Hammond wrote,

extended to every thing short of direct sexual intercourse [and] for two years were carried on not with one, but indiscriminately with all of them…and renewed every time or nearly every time we met at my house in Columbia, which was never less than once a week while I was there, and most usually much oftener….Is it in flesh and blood to withstand this? Is there a man, with manhood in him and a heart susceptible of any emotions of tenderness, who could tear himself from such a cluster of lovely, loving, such amorous and devoted beings? Nay are there many who would have the self-control to stop where I did? Am I not after all entitled to some…credit for not going further?

Hampton was restrained from challenging Hammond to a duel only by the need to shield his daughters from publicity (the inevitable rumors nevertheless seem to have frightened away suitors, for none of the four girls ever married). But the powerful planter saw to it that Hammond’s political career was cast into limbo. Not until Hampton was on his deathbed did Hammond win election to the Senate in 1857. By then he was reunited with his wife, who had stuck by him through the Hampton scandal and the liaison with Sally but had left him for several years when she learned about Louisa.

When Lincoln won the presidency Hammond resigned from the Senate. Already in ill health, he did not survive the Confederacy he had done so much to create. Hammond died on November 13, 1864, just as General Sherman was setting forth on his march from Atlanta to the sea. Hammond’s wife and children, astonishingly, cherished his memory and kept his diaries intact except for two deletions, one of them concerning the Hampton scandal. Some of the foibles of this remarkable family through four generations were previously revealed by Carol Bleser’s edition of their letters, The Hammonds of Redcliffe (Oxford University Press, 1981).10 But for more than half a century the diaries remained under lock and key at the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina, available with restrictions to only a handful of scholars. Through the devotion to untrammeled scholarship of the current library director, Les Inabinet, and Carol Bleser’s careful editing, these diaries are now available to the general reader.

Hammond was scarcely a typical southern planter or politician. Many others, of course, had slave concubines. The secession governor of South Carolina, Francis Pickens (Calhoun’s cousin) had several slave mistresses and children by all of them. The Confederate general Jubal Early fathered both black and white illegitimate children. But nothing like the dalliance with the Hampton girls has come to light about any other planter or political leader, while the combination of self-pity and narcissism revealed in Hammond’s diary seems uniquely pathological. Drought, floods, poor crops, debt, and the enmity of neighbors were all part of a conspiracy of the universe against him. “God hates me…. Every man’s hand is against me…. Deserted by God, persecuted and robbed by man, what can I do.” Epidemics that took the lives of his slaves caused sorrow for his own loss but little sympathy for the slaves, whom Hammond lumped with his livestock:

It crushes me to the earth to see every thing of mine so blasted around me. Negroes, cattle, mules, hogs, every thing that has life around me seems to labour under some fated malediction…. I have lost 89 negroes and at least 50 mules and horses in 11 years. Several of the horses, blooded mares, costing me $1000 to 1500…. Great God what have I done. Never was a man so cursed!

When his wife left Hammond after she discovered his affair with the twelve-year-old Louisa, he expressed bitter astonishment at the pettiness of woman. After all, other men did the same; why should he be singled out for blame?

What devils women are! How their jealousy blinds them…. Utterly forgetful of me and my prospects…my wife [has] paralysed me by her arrogance and violence…. My God! what have I done or omitted to do to deserve this fate?… I have been guilty in indiscretions—venial ones in the judgment of all history and in the practice of every social system until my case…. No one not one, exercises the slightest indulgence towards me. Nothing is overlooked, nothing forgiven.

After Calhoun died, Hammond considered himself “the first man in SoCa…as a Statesman and man of intellect…. I could guide the State and the South through all their present difficulties” if only Wade Hampton hadn’t destroyed his career for “frivolous causes, the occurrence of which were among the most common events…. If my career had not been so often cut short, I could and would have dissolved this Union…. Thus and thus only can the Great Revolution be…ultimately accomplished.” It would push analogy too far to view Hammond’s mentality as a microcosm of the mentality of the ante-bellum South. But the sense of victimization, the lashing out of aggrieved innocence toward one’s persecutor, the aggression bred by frustration present in both cases are nevertheless suggestive.

In any event it is not hard to understand why slaveholders like Hammond, Pickens, and the numerous other South Carolina planters in Lacy Ford’s Origins of Southern Radicalism would regard the electoral victory of the antislavery Republican party as a mortal threat to their future. What is more difficult to comprehend is “why the plain folk of the Old South, the white majority, willingly joined the region’s planter elite to fight a long and bloody war seemingly waged in defense of slavery.” That is the question Ford seeks to answer in this penetrating study of South Carolina’s upcountry, which along with the rest of the state almost unanimously supported secession in 1860.

James Hammond’s most famous speech in the US Senate provides clues to the answer. The speech had two equally notable parts. The first expressed the “King Cotton” thesis. “The slaveholding South is now the controlling power of the world,” Hammond told the Senate in 1858. It supplied 80 percent of the world’s cotton and covered 850,000 square miles,

as large as Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Spain. Is that not territory enough to make an empire that shall rule the world?… Would any sane nation make war on us? Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, should they make war on us we could bring the whole world to our feet…. No, you dare not make war on cotton…. Cotton is king.11

This attitude helps to explain why southern states seceded in 1861 confident that the Yankees would not fight, or that if they did Britain would intervene in the South’s favor to insure the continued flow of cotton. Origins of Southern Radicalism helps us to understand this hubris by analyzing the cotton fiefdom and the psychology it generated in one corner of the South.

But Lacy Ford, who teaches history at the University of South Carolina and is descended from yeoman farmer stock in the state, concentrates more on the questions raised by the second theme of Hammond’s Senate speech. Northern exponents of free labor capitalism had indicted plantation agriculture and slavery as economically backward and exploitative of both the slaves and white non-slaveholders. Hammond answered the first part of that indictment with his panegyric of King Cotton’s economic prowess. He responded to the second with his notorious “mudsill” metaphor portraying slavery as an institution that lifted all whites—yeomen, workers, and planters alike—to a level above that of the working classes in “free” societies. “Your whole hireling class of manual laborers and ‘operatives,’ as you call them, are essentially slaves,” Hammond told northern senators.

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life…. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society…. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to the purpose…. The difference between us is that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated…. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated.12

Hammond here reformulated the “country-republican” ideology, as Lacy Ford labels it, that eighteenth-century Jeffersonians handed down to succeeding generations. In this ideology an essential component of personal liberty was independence. The opposite of independence, of course, was dependence. A man who depended on another for his living was not truly free—he was subject to the dictation of the boss who paid his wages. Independence—and therefore liberty—was achieved by ownership of productive property. Only a society of farmers, artisans, and professionals who owned their means of production could sustain a republican government; the development of a class of dependent wage-earners would undermine liberty and destroy republican government. The southern yeoman farmer, writes Ford in reaffirmation of recent scholarship on this class, “feared the fall from independent producer to dependent proletarian, a status he equated with enslavement.”

The existence of genuine black slavery gave a peculiar racial twist to this ideology. Whether or not they owned productive property, all southern whites owned the most important property of all—a white skin. This enabled them to stand above the mudsill of black slavery and prevented them from sinking into the morass of inequality, as did wage workers and poor men in the North. John C. Calhoun expressed it well. “With us,” he said to the Senate in 1848, “the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”13 Because the slave system was “of all others the best adapted to the freedom and equality of the white,” a South Carolina newspaper editor said, the election of Lincoln presented a mortal threat to the liberty of southern yeomen. “If slaves are freed, whites will become menials,” an upcountry politician added. “We will lose every right and every liberty which belongs to the name of freemen.”14 Indeed, the Baptist clergyman James Furman warned after Lincoln’s election, “If you are tame enough to submit, Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.”15

Little wonder, then, that “the common people” of South Carolina, as a contemporary observer put it, were “the most resolute” opponents of “Northern aggression.” With the slogan “Freedom is not possible without slavery” ringing in their ears, they went to war against the Yankees alongside their slaveowning neighbors to “perpetuate and diffuse the very liberty for which Washington bled, and which the heroes of the Revolution achieved.”16 George Orwell need not have created the fictional world of 1984 to describe Newspeak. He could have found it in the South Carolina of 1861.

This Issue

January 19, 1989