Saturday, March 07, 2009

"I know of no man who lives in such utter intellectual solitude"

My last post on Daniel Webster brought to mind the Great Triumvirate, and Harriet Martineau's arresting descriptions of them. Here she describes a typical evening affair held during the winter of 1835. I have added paragraph breaks for readability:
Our pleasantest evenings were some spent at home in a society of the highest order. Ladies, literary, fachionable, or domestic, would spend an hour with us on their way from a dinner, or to a ball. Members of Congress would repose themselves by our fire side.

Mr. Clay, sitting upright on the sofa, with his snuff-box ever in his hand, would discourse for many an hour, in his even, soft, deliberate tone, on any one of the great subjects of American policy which we might happen to start, always amazing us with the moderation of estimate and speech which so impetuous a nature has been able to attain. Mr. Webster, leaning back at his case, telling stories, cracking jokes, shaking the sofa with burst after burst of laughter, or smoothly discoursing to the perfect felicity of the logical part of one's constitution, would illuminate an evening now and then.

Mr. Calhoun, the cast-iron man, who looks as if he had never been born, and never could be extinguished, would come in sometimes to keep our understandings upon a painful stretch for a short while, and leave us to take to pieces his close, rapid, theoretical, illustrated talk, and see what we could make of it. We found it usually more worth retaining as a curiosity than as either very just or useful. His speech abounds in figures, turly [truly?] illustrative, if that which they illustrate were but ture [true?] also. But his theories of government, (almost the only subject on which his thoughts are employed,) the squarest and compactest theories that ever were made, are composed out of limited elements, and are not therefore likely to stand service very well.

It is at first extremely interesting to hear Mr. Calhoun talk; and there is a never-failing evidence of power in all he says and does, which commands intellectual reverence: but the admiration is too soon turned into regret,—into absolute melancholy. It is impossible to resist the conviction that all this force can be at best but useless and is but too likely to be very mischievous. His mind has long lost all power of communicating with any other. I know no man who lives in such utter intellectual solitude. He meets men and harangues them, by the fire-side, as in the Senate: he is wrought, like a piece of machinery, set a-going vehemently by a weight, and stops while you answer: he either passes by what you say, or twists it into a suitability with what is in his head, and begins to lecture again. Of course, a mind like this can have little influence in the Senate, except by virtue, perpetually wearing out, of what it did in its less eccentric day: but its influence at home is to be dreaded. There is no hope that an intellect so cast in narrow theories will accommodate itself to varying circumstances: and there is every danger that it will break up all that it can, in order to remould the materials in its own way.

Mr. Calhoun is as full as ever of his Nullification doctrines; and those who know the force that is in him, and his utter incapacity of modification by other minds,(after having gone through as remarkable a revolution of political opinion as perhaps any man ever experiences,) will no more expect repose and self - retention from him than from a volcano in full force. Relaxation is no longer in the power of his will. I never saw any one who so completely gave the idea of possession. Half an hour's conversation with him is enough to make a necessarian of any body. Accordingly, he is more complained of than blamed by his enemies. His moments of softness, in his family, and when recurring to old college days, are hailed by all as a relief to the vehement working of the intellectual machine; a relief equally to himself and others. Those moments are as touching to the observer as tears on the face of a soldier.

About the illustration:
A satire on the surprising alliance, forged early in the presidential campaign of 1840, between the Van Buren administration and southern or "nullification" Whigs in the circle of John Calhoun. At left editor Francis Preston Blair embraces Calhoun saying, "Now we will see if Pikens [i.e., South Carolina Congressman Francis W. Pickens] dare say again that I am a Galvanized Corps &c &c.' I think this will cause Nulification Stock to raise." Calhoun replies, "It gives me great pleasure to say that the best part of the Measures of the present Cheif Magistrate, are approved of by me, and I am happy of the opportunity of making these declarations, and I will stand by them." Van Buren, dancing in the background, exults, "Hurrah for Nullification Stock. I am delighted, what will the D---d Whigs say, who cares for Granny-Harrison." An obese Dixon Hall Lewis (right) adds, "I say Matty, you will find Cataline and myself, of some weight." Calhoun is characterized as a traitor (thus Lewis's reference to the Roman Catiline) because of his shift in allegiance from Whig to Democrat. Weitenkampf tentatively dates this as 1836. Its close similarity to "Expansion & Contraction" (no. 1840-47) and its commentary on the Calhoun-Van Buren alliance make 1840 more likely.

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