I hope everyone’s Labor Day Weekend is going well. I am having my coffee and doing a few things. It should be a quiet day, though we plan on going out for lunch later. Here is a picture I snapped in the stacks of the DAR Library yesterday. It is volumes one through seven of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. I find these projects, which often last decades, fascinating. The Calhoun endeavor took almost half a century; volume one was released in 1959 and an internet search informs us that the editors released volume 28, the final volume, in 2003. The first installment was edited by a historian named Robert L. Meriwether, who died in 1958 as that initial volume was in galleys. A cursory JSTOR search of Meriwether’s writings reveals the strong Lost Cause sensibility of his worldview, which should not be surpassing in a white South Carolinian born in the late nineteenth century. Whatever that initial provenance, Meriwether and the editors who came after him did historiography a great service in the editing of Calhoun’s extensive papers.
I don’t claim to be an expert on John C. Calhoun but he is a fascinating figure in American history. The duality is evident: involved in American affairs for decades, he did so much to build the American republic as part of that generation that came immediately after the Founders; conversely, his unapologetic support for slavery, and willingness to secede and tear the union asunder, are also his legacy. How if at all does one square that circle? History is complicated and filled with all kinds of irony.
I remember the case a few years ago when a dining room employee at Yale destroyed a stained-glass window in Calhoun College depicting slaves picking cotton. The school was later renamed. Over a long career Calhoun served as vice president, a U.S. House & Senate member, and Secretary of State & War, among other things. He died in 1850 when that generation of Clay, Webster, and others left the scene just prior to the Civil War.