John C. Calhoun: The Backcountry Face
November 21, 2015, 05:32 AM
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John C. Calhoun has a walk-on part in this week's Radio Derb.
One of the demands by the blacks at Yale is for Calhoun College, one of the residential facilities, to be renamed. John C. Calhoun, you see, was not merely a slave owner; he argued for slavery as a positive good. Oh dear.

As it happens, I have just been writing about Calhoun, by way of reviewing Grantland Tucker's excellent new book Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan. Calhoun is one of the fourteen. Quote from my review, which will appear in Chronicles magazine, quote: "The U.S.A. has not produced so many first-class political intellects that we can afford to forget one, whatever he thought about slavery," end quote.

The first thing that always comes to my mind when Calhoun is mentioned is his face.  Some of the photographs of him (do I mean "daguerrotypes"?  not sure) are downright scary.

David Hackett Fischer includes a drawing from one of those photographs in his 1989 classic Albion's Seed.  He attaches the following caption to the picture.

In old portraits and early photographs, the baleful faces of backcountry leaders often bear a striking resemblance to verbal descriptions of the North British borderers who settled the Appalachian highlands.  Contemporary observers described these men as tall, lean and sinewy, with hard, angry, weatherbeaten features.  The strong emotions that were so actively cultivated in this society left indelible marks upon them.  A case in point was John Caldwell Calhoun, whose physiognomy in many ways resembled his enemy Andrew Jackson.  Both of these men were descended from the backcountry ascendancy.  The compelling portraits of these men testify to their strength of character and force of will, and also to their courage and cruelty.  Their vices and virtues had been nourished by the environment of the British borderlands and the American backcountry.