John C. Calhoun and the Civil War

John C. Calhoun remains one of the most controversial figures in American history. Variously revered and reviled in the century and a half since his death in 1850, the two-time vice-president and U.S. Senator from South Carolina is often attributed with sowing the seeds for a Civil War he didn't live to see due to his defense of states' rights and the doctrine of nullification. Moreover, Calhoun's famous defense of the institution of slavery as a "positive good," as he called it in a speech on the Senate floor in 1837, is one of the best examples of the debates over slavery that led to the Civil War and one of the clearest reminders of the history of racial oppression in our nation's past. This seminar will offer an up-to-date account of Calhoun in the context of recent scholarship on slavery, nationalism, and the Civil War. Participants will read and discuss some of Calhoun's writings as we try to understand how to think about a figure the historian David Potter once called "the most majestic champion of error since Milton's Satan."