A staunch defender of slavery, states' rights, and nullification, John Caldwell Calhoun served the nation as a Congressional Representative and Senator from South Carolina, U.S. Secretary of War and Secretary of State, and Vice President of the United States during the Antebellum Era.
John Caldwell Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, in an area that would later become the Abbeville District in the Uplands of South Carolina. Calhoun was the fourth child of Patrick and Martha Caldwell Calhoun. Both parents emigrated from Ireland to Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century. After moving to South Carolina, Patrick Calhoun became a prosperous upland planter and slaveholder, who was active in local politics, serving in the South Carolina provincial legislature from 1768 to 1774. After fighting for the English during the French and Indian War, he sided with the colonies during the American Revolution but opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution a decade later.
During his early years, John Calhoun attended a local school for a few months each year. As a teenager, Calhoun enrolled at the Willington Academy but his father’s death in 1796 forced him to return home to help manage the family plantation. Despite this setback, Calhoun qualified for admission to Yale University, where he enrolled in 1802. An able learner, Calhoun graduated two years later, earning distinction as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Following his graduation, Calhoun studied law under the tutelage of Tapping Reeve at the prestigious Litchfield Law School in Litchfield. Connecticut. He then returned to South Carolina, where he served as an apprentice lawyer before passing the bar exam in 1807 and establishing a law practice in Abbeville.
As a young lawyer, Calhoun soon became active in politics and voters elected him to a seat in the South Carolina Legislature, where he served from 1808 to 1809. The next year, voters of South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District elected Calhoun to represent them in the United States House of Representatives. Re-elected two times, Calhoun served in the 12th, 13th, and 14th Congresses from March 4, 1811 to November 3, 1817, when he resigned.
Soon after his election to Congress, Calhoun married Floride Bonneau Colhoun on January 8, 1811. His bride was his first cousin once removed and daughter of U.S. Senator John E. Colhoun. Their marriage, which lasted thirty-nine years, produced ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.
During his tenure in the House, Calhoun was an ardent nationalist who aligned himself with Speaker Henry Clay and other “War Hawks” who promoted war with Great Britain in 1812. After the war, Calhoun supported protective tariffs (to protect American industry), internal improvement bills (to build canals and roads), and other legislation aimed at solidifying the nation.
Secretary of War
After serving over six years in the House of Representatives, Calhoun resigned his seat on November 3, 1817, to accept an appointment as Secretary of War in President James Monroe’s cabinet. He held that position until Monroe’s second term as president expired in 1825. During his tenure, Calhoun championed a strong military to ensure the nation’s security. He reorganized the War Department, paid down outstanding debts from the War of 1812, reinvigorated the United States Military Academy, supported an expanded navy, and oversaw the creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To the consternation of some Southern politicians, he also campaigned for a program of internal improvements (roads, canals, and coastal fortifications) that would benefit other areas of the nation more than the South.
During the Second Seminole War, Calhoun made a relatively innocuous recommendation to President Monroe to ensure General Andrew Jackson for his unauthorized invasion of Spanish Florida in 1818. Jackson remained unaware of Calhoun’s request for twelve years because Monroe chose not to follow Calhoun’s counsel. In 1830, during Jackson’s first term as President of the United States, when Calhoun was serving as the nation’s Vice President, Jackson learned about Calhoun’s recommendation. The revelation further deteriorated the two men’s already eroding relationship.
U.S. Vice President
The year before Calhoun’s term as Secretary of War expired, he announced his candidacy to follow Monroe as President of the United States. When Calhoun realized that he lacked the support needed to win the presidency, however, Calhoun became a candidate for Vice President. In the highly contested 1824 November election, voters elected Calhoun as Vice President. None of the presidential candidates, though, received enough electoral votes to win the presidency, so the House of Representatives determined the result.
With the support of House Speaker Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams emerged the victor over runner-up Andrew Jackson. Adams then named Clay as his Secretary of State, a move that offended Calhoun’s sense of propriety. As a result, Adams and Calhoun developed a rocky relationship that leaked over into Calhoun’s duties as President of the Senate. Calhoun’s rulings on procedural matters that seemed to favor opponents of the administration during floor debates eventually led the Senate to amend its rules to limit the power of the President of the Senate.
Calhoun completed his break with Adams in 1828. In May, Congress passed and President Adams signed the Tariff of 1828, which imposed high duties on products imported into the United States. Also known as the Tariff of Abominations, the legislation was highly unpopular in the South, which had little industry and depended more heavily on purchasing foreign goods. Calhoun had reason to believe that, because Jackson was from Tennessee, he would be sympathetic to Southern concerns about high tariffs if he became president. Thus, Calhoun supported Jackson’s candidacy.
In the 1828 November election, Jackson emerged victoriously, and Calhoun was once again elected as Vice President, making him one of only two men to hold the office under two different Presidents (George Clinton was vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). If Calhoun’s tenure as Vice President under Adams was rocky, his relationship with Jackson became downright contentious.
In December 1828, shortly after his re-election, Calhoun anonymously penned two essays, collectively titled “South Carolina Exposition and Protest.” The manuscripts marked the beginning of Calhoun’s retreat from the pro-nationalistic position of his early career. In the essays, Calhoun hinted that states had the right to nullify acts of Congress that exceeded the powers expressly granted to the federal government in the Constitution.
President Jackson was sympathetic to states’ rights in the South. Nevertheless, he defended the tariff bill because he was intent on paying down the national debt. Jackson considered any talk of nullification as tantamount to treason. Although Jackson had no hard evidence that Calhoun was the instigator behind the nullification talk, rumors emerged indicating that such was the case.
Calhoun erased any doubts about his support for nullification when both men proposed toasts at a banquet commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on April 13, 1830. Jackson rose to proclaim,
Our Federal Union: it must be preserved!” Calhoun followed with his own salutation, “Our Federal Union — next to our liberties the most dear! May we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States and distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union!
The following month Jackson received solid evidence confirming his suspicions that Calhoun had urged President Monroe to censure Jackson for his unauthorized invasion of Spanish Florida during the Seminole War. For the next two months, the two men engaged in an acerbic war of words through personal correspondence that ended abruptly with no resolution in July 1831.
On July 26, 1831, Calhoun publicly owned up to his beliefs about the doctrine of nullification when he crafted his famous “Fort Hill Address.” Any chance for reconciliation with Jackson vanished.
The differences between the two men played themselves out on the national stage a year later. On July 14, 1832, Jackson signed a new compromise tariff into law. The Tariff of 1832 addressed some Southern objections to the Tariff of 1832, but it did not go far enough for many. In South Carolina, a Nullification Convention convened in November and proclaimed that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional, The delegates also declared that South Carolina officials would not enforce the tariff within the Palmetto State after February 1, 1833.
In response, Jackson angrily issued a “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina,” on December 10, 1832, characterizing the policy of nullification as “impractical absurdity.”
Two weeks later, on December 28, Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency to accept a seat in the Senate caused by the resignation of Robert Y. Hayne. Calhoun was the first and one of only two vice presidents to resign from the office (the other was Spiro Agnew, who resigned on October 10, 1973).
U.S. Senator – Part I
Soon after assuming his seat in the Senate, Calhoun teamed with Kentucky Senator Henry Clay to broker the enactment of a new tariff that addressed Southern grievances regarding protectionism. Signed into law by President Jackson on March 2, 1833, the Tariff of 1833 mandated the gradual reduction of protectionist duties until 1842. After that, all duties would return to levels imposed by the Tariff of 1816. The compromise provided Southerners the tariff relief they sought while giving domestic manufacturers nine years to adjust to compete with foreign competitors. Coupled with the Force Act, the compromise tariff averted bloodshed and preserved the Union.
Calhoun served in the 22nd through the 27th Congresses after the South Carolina legislature re-elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1834 and 1840, Calhoun spent the next decade acting as the leading spokesperson for the doctrine of nullification in the Senate.
In the Senate, Calhoun was also an unabashed opponent of abolition and a staunch defender of slavery. While many Southerners considered slavery a necessary evil that would eventually expire on its own accord, Calhoun made no such apologies. In fact, in a famous speech on the Senate floor on February 6, 1837, Calhoun argued that slavery was a “positive good.” In his view, the relationship between master and slave reflected the natural order of existence because Caucasians were inherently superior to African Americans. He also contended that the paternalistic care of Southern slave owners benefitted African Americans because they were much better off than Northern workers exploited by capitalists. Calhoun remained a leading proponent of these white-supremacist and paternalistic views throughout his career.
Still aspiring to become President of the United States, Calhoun resigned his seat in the Senate on March 3, 1843, to launch an ill-fated independent campaign. Unable to attract much support, he eventually dropped out of the race and busied himself with tending to his land holdings in South Carolina.
Secretary of State
In March 1844, Calhoun accepted an offer from President John Tyler to become Secretary of State, following the death of Abel P. Upshur. During his term, which lasted from April 1, 1844, to March 10, 1845, Calhoun spearheaded negotiations that led to the annexation of the Texas Republic. Calhoun also helped resolve territorial differences with Great Britain in the Oregon Territory.
U.S. Senator – Part II
After serving slightly less than one year as Secretary of State, Calhoun returned to the U.S. Senate on November 26, 1845, filling a vacancy caused by the resignation of Daniel E. Huger. Calhoun served in the 29th through 31st Congresses until his death on March 31, 1850. During his last term in the Senate, Calhoun was an outspoken opponent of attempts to prohibit slavery in the territories as the nation expanded westward. In January 1850, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of proposals in the Senate to resolve sectional differences, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. Calhoun rejected provisions that would abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia and admit California to the Union as a free state. On March 4, 1850, Virginia Senator James Mason delivered Calhoun’s final address to the Senate, because tuberculosis made too feeble to speak. Calhoun’s discourse delivered a blustering ultimatum to his Northern counterparts:
If you who represent the stronger portion, cannot agree to settle them on the broad principle of justice and duty, say so; and let the States we both represent agree to separate and part in peace. If you are unwilling we should part in peace, tell us so; and we shall know what to do, when you reduce the question to submission or resistance.
Death and Burial
Calhoun lived only three more weeks after making his veiled threats of secession and possible civil war. Tuberculosis overtook him at the Old Brick Capitol boarding house in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 1850. Following an elaborate funeral in Charleston, South Carolina Calhoun was buried at St. Philip’s Churchyard. During the Civil War, Southern sympathizers moved his remains to a secret location to prevent desecration by Union soldiers. In 1871, Calhoun’s body was returned to its original resting place.
Calhoun’s legacy as a political leader far outlasted his life. In 1910, South Carolina selected Calhoun as one of two state natives to represent the Palmetto State in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the nation’s capitol building (the other is Wade Hampton). In 1957, a Senate committee charged with identifying outstanding former members named Calhoun as one of the nation’s five greatest senators.