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Thursday, October 12, 2023

October 12, 2023: Vice President Studying: John C. Calhoun and Spiro Agnew

[50 years ago this week, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. That striking political moment was not only part of the deepening Watergate scandal, but one of the few times when an American Vice President has made major news. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Agnew and other noteworthy Veeps, leading up a weekend post on our current VP!]

On a significant difference between the two VPs who resigned, and a linking thread.

When Agnew tendered his resignation, he became (and remains to this day) just the second Vice President ever to resign the office. The first, President Andrew Jackson’s first Vice President John C. Calhoun (who had also served as President John Quincy Adams’ Vice President, making Calhoun the second of two figures to date to serve as VP for two different Presidents), resigned in a significantly less consequential way: Jackson had already won a second term in the 1832 election with a new Vice Presidential nominee, Martin Van Buren; and so Calhoun was a lame-duck Vice President (not a phrase we often use, but an accurate one in this case) when he resigned the office in late 1832. He did so in order to replace outgoing South Carolina Senator Robert Y. Hayne, who had resigned that position to become the state’s Governor; in the resulting special election Calhoun was unanimously elected by the South Carolina legislature (as was the plan to which all these parties had apparently agreed) to fill Hayne’s Senate seat.

While Calhoun’s resignation itself was thus largely symbolic (and strategic vis-รก-vis these other positions), the reasoning behind it was nonetheless quite significant, and represents a key distinction between Calhoun and Spiro Agnew. To put it simply: Agnew resigned in large part because he was too closely associated with his President and a key scandal engulfing the administration (although the public explanation for the resignation was a series of smaller differences between the two men, as well as Agnew’s own prior bad behavior); while Calhoun resigned because of a scandal of his own making that divided him from his President. That scandal was the South Carolina nullification debate that I wrote about in this early post and that was a hugely important step on the multi-decade move toward secession (for which Calhoun became a direct inspiration) and Civil War. With all due respect to Monday’s subject and a close contender for this title, Aaron Burr, I’m pretty sure a Vice President was never more overtly at odds with their President than Calhoun was with Jackson over nullification, and certainly Agnew and Nixon were never anywhere close to so antagonistic.

Despite those significant differences in their administration relationships and resignations, however, there’s at least one way in which I would link Calhoun and Agnew (and through which both men foreshadowed certain key elements of the contemporary American Right). Calhoun’s racist support for the system of slavery (which he called “a good—a positive good”) led him to advance a mythic patriotic, blatantly white supremacist vision of American identity and history, one that as I argue in Of Thee I Sing the Confederacy would later take up as a central founding narrative. In his critique of journalists who opposed the Vietnam War as “nattering nabobs of negativity” (among many other attacks, as that article traces), Agnew became one of the 20th century’s most overt proponents of a mythic patriotic narrative, one in which critics of an administration and its policies became nothing less than enemies of the state. A white supremacist vision of the nation and a narrative that critiques of America are treasonous are not identical positions, but what they are, as I’ve argued in many places for the last few years, are two essential elements of mythic patriotism—a divisive and destructive form that was embodied by both John C. Calhoun and Spiro Agnew.

Last VeepStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Vice Presidents you’d highlight?

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