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Michael Barone: Watching the eclipse with John C. Calhoun

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Joe Patrizzi III, a worker with Roth Restoration, is shown power-washing graffiti from a statue of John C. Calhoun, who was a vice president, U.S. senator and congressman from South Carolina, on June 23, 2015 in Charleston. The statue was defaced with the words "racist" and "slavery." (AP Photo/Jonathan Drew)

Writing in The Atlantic, Brooklyn Law School professor Alice Ristroph laments the August 21 eclipse "along most of its path, there live almost no black people." I'm not sure whether we're supposed to conclude that the heavens, in this first year of the Trump administration, are being controlled by racists, or whether (more likely) Americans of African descent tend to be concentrated in urban locales which take up very little of the land area of the nation.

The eclipse's path was only 70 miles or so wide, after all, and if it were to appear above territory in which 13 percent (the national average) of the residents were black, it would have to zigzag around to include many metropolitan areas and possibly the swath of rural counties running from Virginia to Arkansas and Louisiana where a majority of residents are black. Hard to arrange, even for science.

In any case, I decided to watch the eclipse in Clemson, South Carolina, a state whose black percentage of population is well above the national average. I was in Pickens County, whose population is reckoned at 7 percent black, about half the national average, but not zero. I had never been to Clemson and had known that it's a college town, but I didn't realize that Clemson University was established on land donated by Thomas Clemson and his wife, Anna Maria Clemson, the daughter of John C. Calhoun. At Clemson's express direction, the campus is centered on Fort Mill, Calhoun's house from 1825 to his death in 1850, which Clemson stipulated must always be open to the public.

The house is not quite grand enough to be called a mansion, in my view, but it has an impressive four-column Greek Revival facade, and, thanks to additions built after the original construction in 1802, is reasonably spacious, with a parlor large enough to host two pianos and a formal dining room able to seat 10 comfortably. The Clemson campus was thronged by thousands of students, already in residence but with their first classes scheduled two days hence. It's a hilly campus, with outdoor staircases and concrete foot bridges, but I was able to get up to Fort Hill in time and there, in front of the facade was able to witness the total eclipse; a troublesome cloud moved away a couple of minutes before.

It went much as advertised. Through my welder's glasses I was able to see just a small crescent of sun behind the moon in the minutes before totality, even as the sunlight and the 92-degree heat didn't seem to subside. Then, as the sliver grew tinier, it became distinctly darker, and crickets started chirping as they do at sunset, and the temperature seemed to drop. Then I saw totality, and saw, with my welder's glasses off, the sun's flares sticking flame-like from behind the black circle totally obscured by the moon. An orange star—Jupiter? Venus?--became visible in the sky.

The students cheering sounded just like they do during football games, as the knowledgeable guide at the Calhoun house told me.

After totality, when a sliver of sun could be seen once again through the welder's glasses, I toured Fort Mill. It is furnished with at least some of the furniture belonging to Calhoun and his wife Florida and the two Clemsons (she died in 1875, he in 1888): the feeling is more Victorian than Greek Revival, though most of the wood furniture is austerely carved. (Exception: a sideboard formed from timbers of the U.S.S. Constitution, given as a gift to Calhoun from his contemporary Henry Clay.)

Calhoun had a study built behind the house, which has some of his books and various desks, and where he evidently wrote some of his defenses of slavery, penned his theory of nullification (he argued that South Carolina could suspend the so-called Tariff of Abominations) and made the arguments that inspired the historian Richard Hofstadter to call him, in a brilliant 30-page essay, the "Marxist of the Master Class." (Marxist was not necessarily a negative characterization for Hofstadter, who seems to have thought Marx got a lot of things right.) As Hofstadter notes and I think few historians disagree, Calhoun was probably the most rigorous thinker and theoretician of the political generation that came between the Founders and Lincoln.

John C. Calhoun is obviously a candidate for effacement in this day and age. His name has already been removed from one of the residential colleges at Yale (from which he graduated in 1804 Phi Beta Kappa). Calhoun statues sit uneasily on their pedestals; there is one in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, carved in 1910, which survived without comment during Nancy Pelosi's four years as Speaker but, in light of her recent comments, may be in trouble now.

I've never been a particular fan of Calhoun myself, since I started reading American history in Landmark books in the fourth grade. For me the stentorian, unyielding Calhoun has come always in third place among the great triumvirate of never-presidents of the 1811-1850 period, behind the genial and politically astute Henry Clay and the thundering defender of the union Daniel Webster. Among two politicians of that period who were 15 years older, he was not as learned or effective a tribune of American nationalism as John Quincy Adams, when they were friends secretary of war and of state in the Monroe administration (1817-25), and not as devoted to the Union or as consequential to his party as Andrew Jackson, whom he backed against Adams (when he was vice president in Adams's term) and opposed on nullification (when he was vice president in Jackson's first term).

But there are things that can be said for Calhoun. As one of the original war hawks, he helped to bring on the War of 1812 and, as a congressman, did as much as he could to carry it on successfully. As secretary of war, he installed Sylvanus Thayer as superintendent of West Point, who made it a first-rate engineering school and training ground for the gifted generals who excelled in the Mexican War and the Civil War. Like Adams when they were colleagues, he sought to expand the United States across the continent; like Adams, he was not hugely perturbed by the disputes that resulted in the Missouri Compromise (Clay's work, in one of his many terms as Speaker of the House).

But then, for me, Calhoun turns sour. When he first entered in Congress in 1811, multiple states had been abolishing slavery and, in the Founder's view, the "peculiar institution" seemed likely (they hoped) to be on the path to extinction. By the time of Calhoun's opposition to the tariff and support of nullification, two decades later, cotton had become the most profitable commodity in the world, with cultivation spreading west from the seaboard to the Mississippi Valley.

This was in many ways a happy development: the cotton clothing and bedding manufactured from the cloth of England's Lancashire mills was a big improvement over linen, flax and wool. Given the slave labor needed for intensive cotton cultivation (the historian Robert Fogel makes the point that no free men would work as hard or long as slaves, threatened with the lash, did), Southern politicians and theorists -- and none more than Calhoun -- devised ways of reading virtue into an institution they had previously said was deserving of only temporary toleration.

From my reading preparing for this eclipse trip, I gather he liked to say that he was moved only by principle, not political popularity. But in the late 1820s, even from the attenuated perspective of the vice presidency, he moved from nationalism to sectionalism, from extender of the Union to, if not the wrecker of the Union (Hofstadter says he sought not secession from the Union but domination of it by the South) to a position that led, as we now know, to secession and disunion and Civil War.

I am not learned enough about these things to make a final judgment, but my tentative view remains firmly that Calhoun was, on balance and without important qualifications, a negative figure. But he was also a learned man, and his son-in-law Thomas Clemson was as well: a mining engineer (working for the Confederacy in 1863-65 in Texas and Louisiana), Francophile (as minister to Belgium in the 1840s and as an entrepreneur in Paris), and agronomist. He wanted the university whose founding he prompted to be one of the land grant colleges authorized by the Civil War Republicans' Morrill Act, which it is.

As people acutely aware of, and sometimes acting in pursuit of, scientific discovery and technological progress, Calhoun and Clemson would have enjoyed the spectacle of the total eclipse of the sun visible from their front lawn August 21.

As I was driving down the traffic-clogged interstates to South Carolina, or detouring on parallel routes with all their mattress-and-recliner shops as well as flowering-tree-shaded avenues, I asked myself the following question: Would I, had I grown up in the place of John C. Calhoun or Thomas Clemson, have taken the positions they did?

The easy answer: absolutely not. From fourth grade on, I have taken other views, steered certainly by parents who always opposed racial discrimination (and sometimes did something about it, as when my surgeon father pushed for admission of a black doctor to his hospital's staff). As a boy I rooted for the Union over the Confederacy; as a college history major, I was delighted to see historians like Kenneth Stampp portray Reconstruction not as an assault on the white South (as otherwise liberal historians like Claude G. Bowers did), but as a tragically defeated and not altogether well prosecuted effort to protect the rights of black Americans under the Constitution.

Ask yourself this question: If you were born in the shoes of John C. Calhoun, or of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, are you absolutely confident that you would have had the courage and determination to do the things that you (and I) wish they had done about slavery? Confident, without a shadow of a doubt?

I'm not. My opinions on this, held over six decades now, came easily. Yours probably too. It's true that Washington took some trouble to free his slaves. Thomas Jefferson thought about it, but believed he was too indebted to do so. James Madison, urged by his twenty-something aide Edward Coles to free his slaves, just wasn't interested. John Randolph of Roanoke, a classic small-government conservative (and opponent of Calhoun in his war hawk years) did free his slaves. So did Roger Taney, the chief justice who wrote the horrifying Dred Scott decision, and whose statue has just been dethroned in Maryland.

Calhoun, as you might imagine, never considered doing so. But the custodians of Fort Hill have sponsored reunions not only of the descendants of Calhoun but also of the slave who lived and labored there.

Edward Coles did more. Unlike the hundreds or thousands of Americans who grew up in master families on slave plantations and inherited slave property, he did what most of us, in early 21st century America, think that obviously we would have done in his shoes—except that almost no one else in those circumstances did. Inheriting a plantation and slaves in his early twenties, Coles determined to free his slaves—and did so.

He abandoned his native Virginia and all his friends and associates, shipped himself and his slaves while on the way down the river Ohio, then told his slaves that he was freeing them, and buying them land of their own in the free state of Illinois. And so he did. In the 1820s, politicians in Illinois—territory where slavery was banned under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—pushed for a law legalizing slavery. Edward Coles, serving a four-year term as governor of Illinois, fought back and won. Illinois would not be a slave state—and if it had become one, can one imagine the career of Abraham Lincoln?

There have been two recent biographies of Edward Coles, a man I find hugely admirable and who lived long enough to support Abraham Lincoln in the elections of 1860 and 1864 and to see slavery abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution: Suzanne Cooper Guasco's Confronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America, and Kurt Leichtle's and Bruce Carveth's Crusade Against Slavery: Edward Coles, Pioneer of Freedom.

By way of contrast, to the best of my determination, there have been no recent scholarly biographies of John C. Calhoun, a man of enormous intellect and serious consequence. That may owe something to the fact that Calhoun, for all the strength of his intellect, seems not have a been a charming man, and also something to the fact that his personal papers, consigned to library away from Fort Hill in the nineteenth century, were destroyed in a fire in 1894. By way of contrast, John Quincy Adams's 60-plus years of diaries have become available on the internet and there have been a raft of books on this hugely smart man (and likeminded colleague of Calhoun in 1817-25, after which they went on very much separate ways).

My trip to Fort Hill to see the eclipse has put me in the following frame of mind. If you are confident, absolutely and without any doubt confident, that you if born in Edward Coles's circumstances, would have done what he did, with all the personal and financial consequences it might have entailed, then by all means pull all those statues down and do what you can to erase the memories of those who did not follow his example. But if you are not so confident, if you think you might not have done so, if you think you might have followed a course something like that of John C. Calhoun (leaving aside the question of whether you or I has the intellectual equipment he had); if you fear that you might have taken what was in personal and economic terms an easier course, then you might want to have, as I do, second thoughts about this enterprise.

And particularly if your study of history presents people with tragic choices — that the hugely admirable choices of Edward Coles and the vastly less admirable choices (in my view, and surely yours) of John C. Calhoun both led in different ways to the horrors of the Civil War — then you might want to add third thoughts to the second. The sponsors of the reunions of the descendants of slave masters and slaves, like the people at Fort Hill in Clemson, are on the right track, I think. Let those of us who might have been no more noble than the people we disparage learn what we can from the history of those who came before.