Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

No, John C. Calhoun Didn’t Invent the Filibuster

As convenient as it might be to blame the filibuster on the famous defender of slavery, the historical record is much messier.
September 20, 2021
No, John C. Calhoun Didn’t Invent the Filibuster
Color portrait of John Caldwell Calhoun, one of five U.S. senators whose portraits were chosen in 1957 by a Senate committee as "the five outstanding persons among all persons. . .who have served as members of the Senate since the formation of the government." Portrait hangs in the Senate reception room of the Capitol. (GettyImages)

In his classic book The Historian’s Craft, the historian Marc Bloch warned his fellow historians against worshipping the “idol of origins,” the idea that current events could be traced back to singular, pure, or first causes in the past that promised to lay bare the true nature of things in the present. I have thought of Bloch’s warning every time I read an op-ed confidently proclaiming, as one recent piece in the New York Review of Books put it, that “the filibuster was invented by John C. Calhoun to uphold slavery and white supremacy.” This claim has been repeated so often and straightforwardly by journalists, newspaper editorialists, podcasters, and even historians over the last several months that it has become the preferred tactic for kneecapping the filibuster in 280 characters or less on Twitter. As far as I can tell, the idea has been popularized by Adam Jentleson’s recent book Kill Switch, which argues that the Senate filibuster is to blame for the stagnation of our democracy. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this year, Jentleson told host Terry Gross that “the progenitor of the filibuster, its main innovator, was John C. Calhoun, the great nullifier, the leader, father of the Confederacy.”

Calhoun was a zealous defender of slavery and a determined critic of majority rule, but he did not invent the filibuster. Setting the record straight is not a defense of the filibuster, and even less of Calhoun. Instead, it is a reassertion of the inconvenient fact that history rarely provides easy answers, and that we should be wary when told it does.

Like most historical origin myths, parts of the story are true. The filibuster as we know it today is an unintended consequence of rule changes made in the twentieth century. Yet scholars point to several pre-Civil War episodes of obstruction that form a kind of prehistory of the filibuster. Jentleson focuses selectively on three of these episodes between 1826 and 1848 to claim that Calhoun invented the filibuster. But while scholars do point to these episodes, among others, as part of the filibuster’s history, none of them makes the claim that Calhoun invented it. In order to make that much stronger claim stick, Jentleson ignores a lot of context and contradictory evidence.

The first episode happened in 1826 when Calhoun, presiding over the Senate as John Quincy Adams’s vice president (but also his political rival), refused to stop Senator John Randolph of Virginia during a vicious harangue against Adams. Jentleson portrays Calhoun as purposefully departing from Senate norms and permanently weakening the power of the Senate’s presiding officer to rein in obstructionists, setting the stage for the filibuster.

Calhoun had studied the Senate’s rules carefully before taking office, and in response to complaints by Adams’s supporters he argued that senators could only be called to order by their colleagues or by a president pro tempore appointed from among their own ranks, not by the vice president acting in his capacity as president of the Senate. It would be dangerous, Calhoun argued, for an officer of the executive branch to take on himself the authority to limit debate in the legislative branch (an interpretation we might be newly sympathetic to after witnessing a chief executive try to use his vice president as a battering ram to derail the certification of an election in the Senate in January).

Jentleson calls Calhoun’s reasoning “bullshit.”

Certainly Calhoun was an expert at splitting hairs, but at least two senators defended him in print. And the Senate lent tacit validation to his argument by clarifying its rules to explicitly allow the vice president to call members to order, a development Calhoun called for himself during the controversy. If his intent was to weaken the power of the presiding officer, this was a strange way to do it.

Further, if anyone was filibustering in the situation it was the irascible Randolph, then serving a short stint filling a vacancy in the Senate. Famous for his endless tirades in the House over the previous quarter century, Randolph posed a novel challenge to the Senate’s rules and the presiding officer’s authority. Historian Franklin Burdette, in his account of the filibuster’s origins, focuses on Randolph, not Calhoun, and concludes that the Virginian “had a protector, though by no means necessarily an abettor, in the Vice President.”

Skipping over two other episodes that most historians consider the first filibusters in Senate history, one in 1837 and another in early 1841, Jentleson argues that Calhoun waited until the summer of 1841 to finish the job he started fifteen years earlier. That summer, Senator Henry Clay and the Whigs were determined to push through a transformative legislative agenda that included a new national bank, higher tariffs, and a proposal for the federal government to assume state debt—nothing less than a new economic charter for the nation. Senate Democrats, including Calhoun, fought a determined rearguard action against Clay, offering amendments and arguing over points of order until Clay threatened to institute rules limiting debate.

Jentleson portrays the 1841 episode as the ex nihilo creation of the filibuster at Calhoun’s hands. “Organizing southern senators in opposition,” Jentleson writes, “Calhoun deployed them on the floor to make speech after speech against the bill.” Jentleson leans almost exclusively on Senator Thomas Hart Benton’s memoir for evidence, and he writes that Benton’s account “crackles with the excitement of someone who realizes they are witnessing the birth of something new and important, and perhaps a little bit dangerous.” He singles out Calhoun’s defense of minority rights in response to Clay’s threat to limit debate as the key moment, “the fusion of speechifying with the principle of minority rights that came to define the filibuster.”

There are numerous problems with this picture.

First, this kind of coordinated obstruction was not new in the Senate in 1841. Benton himself had been on the opposite side in the 1837 filibuster that Jentleson leaves out of his narrative, facing off against none other than Henry Clay. Unsurprisingly, while Benton gleefully documents Democrats’ tactics during the 1841 filibuster, he never claims that what they did was new. Nor does he portray Calhoun as the Democrats’ ringleader. Calhoun, meanwhile, never mentions his supposed invention in his correspondence from that summer. Filibuster historian Burdette rightly includes Calhoun among several other Democrats as leaders of the bank filibuster, but does not claim Calhoun singlehandedly led the effort let alone that he invented the filibuster that summer.

Jentleson claims that “Clay had never seen anything like what Calhoun was doing.” But in fact, Clay in 1837 had himself done almost exactly what the Democrats were doing, and just that spring he had done so again in a fight over a government printing contract. The records of the session in the Congressional Globe suggest that both men were aware of this. When Clay charged the Democrats with obstruction, he argued that it was useless in light of the Whig majority, not new or unprecedented. In response, Calhoun pointedly asked, “Who consumed the time of last Congress in long speeches, vexatious and frivolous attempts to embarrass and thwart the business of the country . . . ?” Clay never answered. The 1841 filibuster was more dramatic than its predecessors, reflecting the magnitude of the Whig agenda, but the tactics were not new.

Next, and crucially to his argument, Jentleson claims that Calhoun’s real aim when he invented the filibuster that summer was to defend slavery. It is almost never wrong to assume that Calhoun had slaveholders’ interests in mind. Slavery lurked somewhere in the background of most arguments in this era, and there is little doubt Calhoun saw in Clay’s plan a long-term threat to the economic and political influence of the South.

But focusing solely on the issue of slavery ignores what many Americans, including Calhoun, believed was more immediately at stake that summer. The depth of emotion stirred by economic issues in the nineteenth century, especially a national bank, is almost incomprehensible to us today. It had been Andrew Jackson’s monomaniacal obsession with killing the Second Bank of the United States as an antidemocratic concentration of wealth and power that endeared him to many of his followers. This was the main line of attack that Calhoun and other Democrats followed against Clay that summer. In a typical comment, Calhoun pointed out that Clay’s bill to establish a new national debt could hardly be more advantageous to the banking industry “if this body, instead of being a Senate of the United States, was a deputation from Wall Street.” Calhoun’s fierce attacks on the nexus of financial and political power that summer won him a devoted following far beyond the South. In the run-up to the 1844 presidential election he became a favorite of the so-called Loco Focos, Northern working-class Democrats who were the Occupy Wall Street of their day.

Thus, contra Jentleson, it was not only “Southern senators” who resisted Clay but also prominent Northern Democrats like Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire and Silas Wright of New York. On the other side of the coin, Calhoun’s fellow senator from South Carolina, the slaveholder and radical nullifier William C. Preston, was a Whig, one of Clay’s allies. No wonder then that Sarah A. Binder and Steven S. Smith, in their history of the filibuster, agree with Burdette in labeling the 1841 filibuster as a “partisan” filibuster, not a sectional one (meaning that it was not primarily about slavery).

Finally, if Calhoun’s appeal to minority rights in response to Clay’s proposal to limit debate was really a defense of slavery, then he had a very strange ally in John Quincy Adams, who by 1841 was serving in the House of Representatives. Before Clay tried to limit debate in the Senate, his ally Rep. Lott Warren, a slaveholding Whig from Georgia, had successfully introduced a similar rule change in the House. Adams protested and voted against Lott’s motion. No friend of Calhoun’s or of slavery, Adams’s vote against the rule change was an effort to preserve the weapon he had used so effectively three years earlier, in 1838, when he had mounted a successful filibuster against the annexation of Texas on antislavery grounds. Knowing that popular sentiment favored annexation, Adams stubbornly refused to bow to the majority, remarking that “a very large portion of the people of this country, dearly as they loved the Union, would prefer its total dissolution to the act of annexation of Texas.” Adams held out for three weeks. And he won.

Jentleson’s story is about the Senate, not the House, but this artificially narrow focus allows him to ignore what may be the best example of an antislavery filibuster in American history, as well as a long-established tradition of filibustering in the House. Adams’s heroic stand against Texas annexation perfectly illustrates Jentleson’s definition of the filibuster as “the fusion of speechifying with the principle of minority rights.” The 1841 rule change limiting debate in the House meant that when Texas annexation reared its head once more a few years later, Adams would be powerless to stop it. (Versions of filibustering lived on in the House however, for a half-century more.)

The last episode in Jentleson’s account is both the clearest example of Calhoun using obstructionist tactics to defend slavery and also the least convincing in making the case that he invented the filibuster. In the summer of 1848, several Southern senators, including Calhoun, resisted the passage of a bill providing a territorial government for Oregon because the bill also included a provision barring slavery from the territory. After a major speech on August 10 decrying abolitionism, Calhoun served mostly in a supporting role as Southerners successfully held off the majority for four more days until the last day of the session, August 14. According to congressional rules the Senate could not present a bill to the president on the last day of the session, but a resolution was introduced to suspend this rule and the majority seemed poised to pass it and, consequently, the Oregon bill. After a final protest on the morning of the 14th, Southern opposition gave way and Henry Foote of Mississippi announced that the minority would allow the resolution to pass. The weight of custom and a respect for majority rule would not allow the minority to carry their obstruction any further. After Foote’s announcement, Calhoun bitterly reminded his colleagues that “By the rules of the Senate, the Oregon bill was lost, and the majority well knew that.” Then the resolution, and the bill, quickly passed. Calhoun lost.

Jentleson claims that by 1848 Calhoun had lost all respect for the Senate’s norms and that his comment is proof that he was willing to flout the majority’s will if only his fellow Southerners hadn’t folded, making him a precursor of those who would brazenly flout the majority today.

Perhaps. But despite his complaint Calhoun did not take the path that Senator John Davis of Massachusetts had taken two years earlier for precisely opposite purposes. Davis, a Whig, was one of two senators to vote against the Mexican-American War. He was opposed to the expansion of slavery. In August 1846, on the last day of the session, Davis successfully obstructed a motion to remove the antislavery Wilmot Proviso from a military appropriations bill in the Senate, holding the floor until it was too late to send the amended bill back to the House for approval.

Davis’s lone stand is a better example of the filibuster as it would be known to history than anything Calhoun ever did. Ironically, Jentleson could have built a better argument by pointing out that even John C. Calhoun yielded to the majority, although not without getting the last word.

John C. Calhoun did not invent the filibuster. And yet Jentleson is not completely wrong to associate the modern filibuster with Calhoun. As a political theorist, Calhoun is best known for his idea of the concurrent majority—the idea that consensus, not majority rule, should be the basis of constitutional democracy, and that to implement this every major interest in a society should be given veto power over significant legislation. Filibuster scholars Binder and Smith have noted how Calhoun’s theories prefigured the filibuster. But Calhoun’s vision for how this would work in his own day was not the filibuster, but his proposal in an essay published after his death in 1850 for a dual executive, North and South, each with veto power.

Ironically, the filibuster as it exists today is a closer approximation of Calhoun’s theory than anything that existed during his lifetime. Jentleson points out that in a closely divided Senate the 60-vote requirement to end debate, instituted in 1975, effectively hands the minority a veto on any legislation. I think Jentleson is right that Calhoun would like the modern filibuster.

What should we make of this? In a recent essay, historian Matthew Karp laid out the contemporary American left’s obsession with historical origins, and especially with metaphors of genetic inheritance and DNA that imply unbroken lines of historical inheritance and influence:

History, in this conception, is not a jagged chronicle of events, struggles, and transformations; it is the blossoming of planted seeds, the flourishing of a foundational premise. The dominant images here are biblical and biological.

In this conception of history if John C. Calhoun can be shown to have invented the filibuster, or if it closely resembles his theories, then this is, ipso facto, proof that it is evil. This view of history also has been and continues to be influential on the right—as when, for example, any link between critical race theory and Marxism is evidence that it cannot be trusted.

But this is an impoverished view of how history works. One of the benefits of studying history, to be sure, is connecting the dots from the past to the present, but this work of mere connection is only a beginning. The real work, and pleasure, of doing history is that its course is unpredictable, full of unintended consequences and unforeseen effects. Context can transform the same thing in one situation into its opposite in another. The lines of causation reaching into the present from the distant past are real, and often deeply consequential, but they are not straight or predictable. They require careful untangling and reconstruction.

For instance, although written to defend slaveholders and nearly perfectly embodied in the modern filibuster, Calhoun’s theories have had a surprising and unpredictable afterlife outside the United States. As the political scientist James H. Read has suggested, the best example of Calhoun’s theories in the world today is not the filibuster, but the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brokered peace in Northern Ireland. The agreement established a “diarchy” that resembles Calhoun’s dual executive and required separate majorities of both nationalist and unionist groups to approve important decisions. The structure of the agreement was partly shaped by the work of the political scientist Arend Lijphart, who founded the field “consociational democracy” and who cited as an influence Calhoun’s idea of the mutual veto. History is unpredictable.

Historical perspective can and should inform our action in the present, but it has to be taken whole, and it cannot substitute for the hard work of moral and political reasoning in our own unique historical context. The filibuster appears nowhere in the Constitution. It has been put to extensive and shameful use warding off civil rights legislation. Binder and Smith identify 45 filibusters between 1837 and 1992 that focused on either antislavery or civil rights measures, the single most common target of filibusters. In its current form the filibuster makes a mockery of the Senate’s claim to be the world’s greatest deliberative body by handing the minority total veto power. All of these things are true. They also happen to fit neatly within the narrative that Calhoun invented the filibuster to defend slavery, rendering any hesitancy to abolish it seem perverse. The idol of origins is an attractive god because it tells us what we must do.

If the filibuster’s opponents wish to avoid being misled by false gods they have to ask inconvenient questions. What about John Davis and John Quincy Adams? What about the 289 non-civil rights filibusters, far outnumbering measures focused on civil rights, that Binder and Smith also found between 1837 and 1992? Does the fact that the filibuster appears nowhere in the Constitution mean that it is unconstitutional? Has the Senate, our political system, or our deeply fractured society changed in ways that might make the filibuster in some form necessary or even desirable? Jentleson argues that the filibuster favors conservatives because they only need to stop things to accomplish their mission, while liberals need to do things. But does anyone doubt that Trumpist Republicans, if not conservatives, have quite a lot they want to do? John C. Calhoun did not invent the filibuster, but even if he had these questions would still need to be answered before deciding its fate. The idol of origins holds out the alluring possibility of easy answers, but history rarely provides them.

Robert Elder

Robert Elder, an associate professor of history at Baylor University, is the author of Calhoun: American Heretic (2021). Twitter: @southernphd.