John Calhoun states that we are not a nation but a union. How do Calhoun's comments reflect the spirit of the pre-Civil War South?
How does it compare with Lincoln's statement: A house divided against itself cannot stand.
Calhoun's statement reflects much of the sectionalism that preceded the Civil War. The belief at the time was that the North and South took different paths towards achieving identify in the modern conception of America. Now that the threats from the British had been eliminated once and for all after the War of 1812, America was free to advance into the 19th century. Yet, America sought different ways to express this identity. The South, with its agrarian and binding to "tradition," represented one narrative of expression and the North, with factories and industrialization, represented another. Leading into the Civil War, both sections of the nation did not foresee nor seek to acknowledge the invariable level of differences between the two. At some point, both sides seemed to delay the inevitable that a conflict was present, which is where Lincoln's statement acquires so much importance for he realized at an early point that both notions of the good cannot exist in the American nation.
To the people (or at least the political elites) of the antebellum South, the United States were properly seen as a union of states. More specifically, they were a voluntary union entered into by sovereign states that retained the right to leave the union whenever they wished. This was the spirit that led to the nullification crisis in the late 1820s and it was the spirit that led to the secession that caused the Civil War.
This can be contrasted with Lincoln's view. His view is that the union is a compact that cannot be broken. He believes that the states gave up their sovereignty when they entered the union.
These different views of the meaning of the union did much to cause the Civil War.
The situation in the time of John Calhoun was likened to a smoldering fire on the issue of slavery vs. free citizens. The economic-geographies of this issue divided the nation; North and South. The South depending on cheap or free labor to manage plantation farming, the North having no need for slaves, although we know the north practiced near slave labor conditions throughout the industrial base.
Our founding fathers knew as early as 1775 that this particular issue must be resolved but delayed confronting this incredibly destructive issue in light of the near impossible struggle they were facing with Great Britain. Therefore when the pressures to free the slaves became much too intolerable for a hawkish South, they believed that they had the right to dissolve their relationship to the United States. In stark contrast to Lincolns statement, Calhoun's statement supports the feelings of a great many southerners who felt there was no choice but to dissolve the agreement of union in light of what they perceived to be their imminent economic collapse when Northern states and abolitionists appeared to be united in the call for ending slavery.