Saturday, September 18, 2010

War Hawks of 1812, I: John C. Calhoun Calls for War with Britain

Introduction by Michael Kaplan

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina is most famous as the champion of states’ rights, southern sectionalism, and slavery. But early in his career he was an ardent nationalist and expansionist. Like Jackson, Calhoun came from a Scots-Irish family in the Carolina backcountry. His father Patrick had been a leader of the Regulator Movement which fought for backcountry rights in the 1760s and 1770s. Calhoun’s family was more stable and prosperous than Jackson’s and young John Caldwell received the education and advantages denied to Jackson. Graduating with honors from Yale and going on to law school, then marrying into South Carolina’s tidewater planter aristocracy, Calhoun rapidly advanced in his political career. Calhoun was very much the sophisticated intellectual, a man of grace and elegance, in contrast to Jackson the rough hewn frontier warrior. In 1811 and 1812, Calhoun, along with Henry Clay of Kentucky, led the War Hawk faction in Congress. In later years Calhoun, who shared Jackson’s iron will and self-discipline, came to resemble Jackson in his dour, craggy appearance as well. As Jackson’s vice president, Calhoun would come to blows with his chief on the issue of nullification. By then Calhoun had abandoned his nationalism in favor of southern sectionalism. Jackson, of course, remained a nationalist to the end.

Here are excerpts from four of Calhoun’s speeches in Congress (originally published in the Annals of Congress) on the need to vindicate American honor and restore national vitality through a just and righteous war. Calhoun, like Jackson, wanted to teach the British a lesson they would never forget.

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To wrongs, so daring in character, and so disgraceful in their execution, it is impossible that the people of the United States should remain indifferent. We must now tamely & quietly submit, or, we must resist, by those means which God has placed within our reach.

Your committee would not cast a shade over the American name, by the expression of a doubt which branch of this alternative will be embraced. The occasion is now presented, when the national character, misunderstood & traduced for a time by foreign & domestic enemies, should be vindicated. If we have not rushed to the field of battle like the nations, who are led by the mad ambition of a single chief, or the avarice of a corrupted court, it has not proceeded from a fear of war, but from our love of justice & humanity. That proud spirit of liberty & independence, which sustained our fathers in the successful assertion of their rights, against foreign oppression, is not yet sunk: The patriotic fire of the Revolution still burns in the American breast with a holy & unextinguishable flame, and will conduct this nation to those high destinies, which are not less the reward of dignified moderation, than of exalted valour.

But we have borne with injury until forbearance has ceased to be a virtue. The sovereignty and independence of these states, purchased and sanctified by the blood of our fathers, from whom we received them, not for ourselves only, but as the inheritance of our posterity, are deliberately and systematically violated: And the period has arrived when, in the opinion of your Committee, it is the sacred duty of Congress to call forth the patriotism and resources of the country. By the aid of these, and with the blessing of God, we confidently trust we shall be enabled to procure that redress, which has been sought for by justice, by remonstrance & forbearance in vain.

“Speech on the Report of the Foreign Relations Committee,” December 12, 1811

Mr. Speaker: I understood the opinion of the Committee of Foreign Relations differently from what the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Randolph) has stated to be his impression. I certainly understood that committee as recommending the measures now before the House as a preparation for war; and such in fact was its express resolve, agreed to, I believe, by every member, except that gentleman. . . .

The resolve contemplates an additional regular force; a measure confessedly improper but as a preparation for war, but undoubtedly necessary in that event. Sir, I am not insensible of the weighty importance of this question, for the first time submitted to this House, as a redress of our long list of complaints against one of the belligerents—but, according to my mode of thinking on this subject, however serious the question, whenever I am on its affirmative side, my conviction must be strong and unalterable. War, in this country, ought never to be resorted to but when it is clearly justifiable and necessary; so much so, as not to require the aid of logic to convince our reason nor the ardor of eloquence to inflame our passions. There are many reasons why this country should never resort to war but for causes the most urgent and necessary. It is sufficient that, under a government like ours, none but such will justify it in the eye of the nation; and were I not satisfied that such is our present cause, I certainly would be no advocate of the proposition now before the House.

“Speech on the Albany Petition for Repeal of the Embargo,” May 6, 1812

One would suppose, from the language of the gentleman from Virginia [John Randolph], that he was much in the secret of government. He says the plan now is to disband the army, and carry on a predatory war on the ocean. I can assure him, if such is the plan, I am wholly ignorant of it; and that should it be proposed it would not meet with my approbation. I am decisively of the opinion that the best interests of the country will be consulted by calling out the whole force of the community to protect its rights. Should this course fail, the next best would be to submit to our enemy with as good a grace as possible. Let us not provoke where we cannot resist. The mongrel state, neither war nor peace, is much the worst.

The gentleman from Virginia has told us much of the signs of the times. I did hope, that the age of superstition was past, and that no attempt would be made to influence the measures of government, which ought to be founded in wisdom and policy, by the vague, I may say, superstitious feelings of any man, whatever may be the physical appearances which gave rise to them. Are we to renounce our reason? Must we turn from the path of justice and experience, because a comet has made its appearance in our system, or the moon has passed between the sun and the earth? If so, the signs of the times are bad indeed. It would mark a fearful retrograde in civilization—it would prove a dreadful declension towards barbarism. Sir, if we must examine the auspices; if we must inspect the entrails of the times, I would pronounce the omens good. It is from moral, and not brutal or physical omens that we ought to judge; and what more favorable could we desire than that the nation is, at last, roused from its lethargy and, that it has determined to vindicate its interest and honor. On the contrary, a nation so sunk in avarice, and so corrupted by faction, as to be insensible to the greatest injuries, and lost to its independence, would be a sight more portentous than comets, earthquakes, eclipses, or the whole catalogue of omens, which I have heard the gentleman from Virginia enumerate. I assert, and gentlemen know it, if we submit to the pretensions of England, now openly avowed, the independence of this nation is lost—we will be, as to our commerce, re-colonised. This is the second struggle for our liberty; and if we but do justice to ourselves, it will be no less glorious and successful than the first. Let us but exert ourselves, and we must meet with the prospering smile of heaven. Sir, I assert it with confidence, a war just and necessary in its origin, wisely and vigorously carried on, and honorably terminated, would establish the integrity and prosperity of our country for centuries.

“Report on the Causes and Reasons for War,” June 3, 1812

If a long forbearance under injuries ought ever to be considered a virtue in any Nation, it is one which peculiarly becomes the United States. No People ever had stronger motives to cherish Peace: None have ever cherished it with greater sincerity and zeal.

But the period has now arrived, when the United States must support their character and station among the Nations of the Earth, or submit to the most shameful degradation. Forbearance has ceased to be a virtue. War on the one side, and peace on the other, is a situation as ruinous as it is disgraceful. The mad ambition, the lust of power, and commercial avarice of Great Britain, arrogating to herself the complete dominion of the Ocean, and exercising over it an unbounded and lawless tyranny, have left to Neutral Nations—an alternative only, between the base surrender of their rights, and a manly vindication of them. Happily for the United States, their destiny, under the aid of Heaven, is in their own hands. The crisis is formidable only by their love of peace. As soon as it becomes a duty to relinquish that situation, danger disappears. They have suffered no wrongs, they can receive no insults, however great, for which they cannot obtain redress. . . .

Your Committee, believing, that the freeborn sons of America are worthy to enjoy the liberty which their Fathers purchased at the price of so much blood and treasure, and seeing in the measures adopted by Great Britain, a course commenced and persisted in, which must lead to a loss of National character & Independence, feel no hesitation in advising resistance by force—In which the Americans of the present day will prove to the enemy and to the World, that we have not only inherited that liberty which our Fathers gave, us, but also the will & power to maintain it. Relying on the patriotism of the Nation, and confidently trusting that the Lord of Hosts will go with us to Battle in a righteous cause, and crown our efforts with success, your Committee recommend an immediate appeal to Arms.

Source: Robert L. Meriwether, ed., The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Volume 1 (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 1959), pp. 67-68, 75-76, 106-107, 110, 122.

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