Lindsey Graham’s History Problem: John Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, and the Legacy of South Carolina Presidential Hopefuls

John Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, & Lindsey GrahamJohn Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, & Lindsey Graham (Photos: Beinecke Library, Library of Congress, Michael Vadon flickr CC)

Lindsey Graham wants to be President of the United States. But South Carolina Senators don’t have a good track record with White House runs. Graham’s two would-be Palmetto presidential predecessors – John Calhoun and Strom Thurmond – are notorious. Putting Lindsey’s campaign in historical context highlights the challenges he faces, as well as the historical legacy of South Carolina politics.

John C. Calhoun was the first South Carolinian to get close to the White House. Calhoun was a rising star in the early years of the republic, acquiring wealth and power as a slave-owning aristocrat and winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives as an anti-British “War Hawk” in 1810. When the young nation went to war against the British in 1812, Calhoun emerged as a leading voice for American power. In the post-war years, he served as the nationalist Secretary of War under President Monroe, and, in 1824, the ambitious forty-two year old decided to challenge his political elders for the presidency. In that year’s crazy, confused election, Calhoun, though a nationally-recognized leader, found himself without a clear constituency: Deep South slave-owners supported the states’ rights extremist William Crawford of Georgia; Northeast commercial interests and reformers endorsed John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts; western frontiersmen rallied to the banner of “Harry of the West,” Henry Clay of Kentucky; and, the final candidate, General Andrew Jackson, enjoyed widespread popularity as a famed Indian killer and hero of the Battle of New Orleans. In the end, Calhoun was forced to give up his candidacy and make a deal for the Vice Presidency with Secretary of State Adams, who emerged the eventual victor.

Adams’s victory, however, came with tremendous cost, for he was selected by Congress, not the Electoral College. The supporters of Jackson, who won the popular vote, cried foul and insisted Adams had won the White House through corruption. (None of the candidates received a majority in the Electoral College, so the election went to the House of Representatives, where nationalists united upon the popular and highly-respected Secretary of State.) Calhoun, who still eyed the presidency, spent the next four years distancing himself from the liberal Adams and building up support in his home region of the Deep South. Winning southern votes meant abandoning his youthful nationalism and embracing extreme conservatism. Thus, in 1828, the next presidential election, Calhoun penned a widely-circulated essay enunciating the now-notorious doctrine of nullification and secession. He argued that states had the right to nullify federal laws and secede from the Union if the federal government attempted to enforce those laws. These ideas, Calhoun hoped, would unite white southerners behind his candidacy and allow him to win the presidency. Once again, though, Calhoun’s dreams were thwarted by his elders: in 1828, Jackson, now allied with northern conservatives in a new, highly organized Democratic Party, won the presidency. Unwilling to give up national office, Calhoun agreed to stay on as the Vice President under Old Hickory.

His presidential dreams dashed for a second time, Calhoun rid himself of any last vestiges of nationalism and remade himself into the sectionalist leader of the slave states. In 1832, he resigned the Vice Presidency and entered the Senate from South Carolina in order to lead the nullification crisis, in which the Palmetto State challenged federal authority. No slave states joined South Carolina in its states’ rights experiment, but nullification found a following and Calhoun spent the remaining seventeen years of his life working to unite the South and pave the way for disunion. He would never win the presidency, but he did achieve the highest status among southern conservatives and became a symbol of the Slave Power and secession.

For over a hundred years after Calhoun’s death, South Carolina remained a stronghold of extreme conservatism. In the mid-twentieth century, Strom Thurmond took up Calhoun’s banner of states’ rights and white supremacy. Born and raised in rural, western South Carolina, Thurmond studied law at Clemson University and entered local politics in the 1930s. After serving with distinction in World War II, he won the gubernatorial election in 1946 as a segregationist Democrat defending Jim Crow laws (although it later came out that he had fathered a bi-racial daughter). In 1948, the national Democratic Party took a decidedly liberal turn and endorsed civil rights legislation for African-Americans, including desegregation of the federal government and the military. White southerners of the Calhoun/Thurmond stripe were apoplectic, and Thurmond led the “Dixiecrats” out of the Democratic Party and into a coalition to back him for an independent run for the White House in that year’s election.

Thurmond was “a young, vigorous, and energetic campaigner,” according to historian James Patterson. Like his predecessor Calhoun, he focused on states’ rights and white supremacy. “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race,” read the Dixiecrat platform. And later, “We oppose and condemn the action of the Democratic Convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by Federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting, and local law enforcement.” But Thurmond and the Dixiecrats were not the only challengers to the two-party system: 1948 also saw the candidacy of liberal crusader Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, whose members considered the Democrats too conservative, especially President Truman’s policy of “containment” toward communist nations. Though the three-way fracture of the Democratic Party gave Republicans (and their candidate, New York governor Thomas Dewey) reason for optimism, Truman won the election, allowing the Democrats to hold on to the presidency. Thurmond, for his part, won four states, 39 electoral votes, and 1,176,125 popular votes, a respectable showing for an infant single-issue organization.

Once again channeling Calhoun, Thurmond did not give up his crusade in the face of defeat and entered the U.S. Senate from South Carolina in 1956. In 1957, he enacted the longest filibuster by a single senator in US history against a major civil rights bill. Though his filibuster failed to stop the bill, and President Eisenhower signed it into law, Thurmond’s bold segregationist stand cemented his leadership of southern conservatives. Thurmond spent the next forty-six years championing states’ rights and white supremacy, and attacking civil rights legislation, liberal social programs, and the growth of federal power. In the 1960s, he formally switched to the Republican Party where he played a key role in delivering southern votes for Republican presidents.

The very next person to fill Thurmond’s historic Senate seat was Lindsey Graham, elected in 2002. Following in the footsteps of Senators Calhoun and Thurmond, Graham has announced his candidacy for the presidency. If this South Carolinian is going to win the White House, though, he will need not only to shed the sectionalist, racist mantle of Calhoun and Thurmond, but also to overcome historical precedence: so far, South Carolinians end up historical villains rather than presidents.

About the Author

Michael Landis

Michael Todd Landis is an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. He is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014).

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  1. The forgotten candidacies of South Carolina’s Charles Coatesworth Pinckney don’t really fit into this excellent narrative, but they may wind up being the best Graham could possibly hope for. Nice article drawing threads through the ‘leading lights’ of South Carolina politics.

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