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176erra WAR HISTORY John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography. By John Niven. (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Pp. xvi, 367. $24.95.) This book is a straightforward, knowledgeable, and up-to-date introduction to the life of John C. Calhoun. Much, of course, has already been written about the great South Carolinian's career and ideas. Of this literature, the outstanding work remains Charles M. Wiltse's immensely learned and magnificently detailed, if strongly biased, three volume study, now nearly forty years old. Also of considerable value are briefer and insightful, if controversial, studies by Gerald M. Capers and Richard Current, as well as Merrill D. Peterson's elegant and carefully crafted study of The Great Triumvirate, which compares Calhoun's career with that of his great rivals Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. By synthesizing the existing literature on Calhoun into 345 pages of text, John Niven has produced a concise, manageable, and clearly written book that is balanced and sensible in its judgments and knowledgeable of the existing primary and secondary sources. The book is organized around Calhoun's political career. Niven deftly traces him from a war hawk in 1812 (and a young nationalist) to secretary of war under James Monroe; from vice-president during John Quincy Adams's administration and Andrew Jackson's first term, to his controversial break with the latter; from father of nullification and political theorist to spokesman for Southern interests and defender of slavery, as well as perennial presidential candidate. To his task Niven brings two important strengths. The first is a good familiarity with the nuances and intricacies of early nineteenth-century politics, something he had already demonstrated in his well-regarded biographies of Marvin Van Buren and Gideon Welles. Second, Niven has carefully culled The Papers of John C. Calhoun, the modern edition of Calhoun's writings of which seventeen volumes have appeared, containing just about everything of any significance that Calhoun wrote until early 1844, for interesting pieces of information and well-chosen quotes. The most original part of the book is Niven's attempt to deal with Calhoun's human side. Although scholars have long recognized that Calhoun was probably the most brilliant, original, and energetic member of the generation of Americans who came to dominate politics between 1815 and 1850, they have generally not done a very good job in coming to terms with the man himself. To a certain extent this is understandable because, while Calhoun is by almost any standard an impressive figure, his legacy, by twentieth-century standards, is the peculiarly unattractive one of secession and the defense of slavery. Also, it is because Calhoun himself tended to project a humorless, cold, and unbending personality. Niven, however, makes a good case that Calhoun, instead of being BOOK REVIEWS177 arrogant and confident in his judgments, was really a kind of genius driven by a variety of anxieties and insecurities, and was essentially defensive where Southern interests were concerned. To be sure, Calhoun was not a particularly introspective individual, and his writings do not easily lend themselves to psychoanalysis; yet this approach does make Calhoun more human, comprehensible, and even approachable, and one wishes that Niven had more fully and systematically developed his important insight. Perhaps the book's biggest limitation is that Niven does not do very much to place Calhoun in the context of broader developments. He does not try to explain the source of Calhoun's ideas, his complex relationship to Federalism, the nature of the Old South, or what groups or interests Calhoun represented. In fact, Niven does not even make use of or engage the work of the many scholars who have tried to grapple with these problems. Still, the book should prove particularly useful to lay readers, undergraduate students, and teachers looking for an easy and reliable introduction to one of the early nineteenth century's most important political figures. Richard E. Ellis State University of New York at Buffalo Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in North Carolina. By John C. Inscoe. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989. Pp. xvi, 348. $29.95.) In the preface of this well-researched and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 176-177
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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