Calhoun, John C. (1782-1850)
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850)
Vice president, senator, and southern nationalist
Early Life. John Caldwell Calhoun was born on 18 March 1782 in the South Carolina uplands near the Savannah River in a settlement founded several decades earlier by his grandfather. He was the second youngest of five children. At the time of his birth the family was wealthy enough to own nearly forty slaves in a region relatively untouched by slavery. When he was fourteen he began to study law with a brother-in-law in Georgia, but he returned home in 1796 after his father’s death. After helping run the family plantation, he went to Yale College and graduated in 1804. He then studied at the Litchfield Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1807. In 1811 he achieved a measure of financial independence by marrying Floride Calhoun, a distant cousin with a large inheritance. The couple had nine children.
Nationalist. Calhoun’s political career began with his election to the South Carolina state legislature in 1808, followed in 1810 by his election to Congress. As a leading “War Hawk” he favored war with Britain, and after the war Calhoun supported such nationalist programs as a large navy, a standing army, internal improvements, internal taxes, and a central bank. He headed the War Department in James Monroe’s cabinet and criticized Andrew Jackson’s aggressive action in Florida against the Seminoles. In 1824 he considered running for the presidency but settled for the vice presidency instead. Calhoun was distressed by the “corrupt bargain” that brought John Quincy Adams to the White House, and in 1828 he sided with Jackson and was again elected vice president. In the next four years Calhoun’s plan to succeed Jackson as president went dramatically awry. The Eaton affair, the revelation that Calhoun had denounced Jackson’s action in Florida, and his role in the nullification controversy discredited him. He resigned the vice presidency and was replaced by Martin Van Buren.
Exposition and Protest. At some point since his days as a War Hawk, Calhoun reconsidered his earlier nationalistic views and replaced them with the opinion that the federal Constitution was a compact between the states and the central government, not one between the federal government and the people as a whole. Thus, individual states as equal partners in the compact could revoke, or “nullify,” unpopular federal legislation, at least as it applied to them. Calhoun secretly wrote the South Carolina Exposition and protest in 1828, which explained the theory of nullification. After resigning the vice presidency Calhoun returned to the Senate to lead the fight against the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations,” which South Carolina attempted to nullify.
Fire-Eater. In the Senate, Calhoun began to think seriously about how the South could defend itself and its institutions, particularly slavery, from the encroachment of the federal government. Calhoun and others began to defend slavery as a positive institution that both secured white liberty and protected black slaves through their masters’ paternal kindness. Calhoun planned for a sectional alliance that would unite southern states. The nullification crisis, increased antislavery agitation in the North, and Nat Turner’s slave revolt only made Calhoun a more vigorous defender of slavery and states’ rights. In the mid 1830s he staunchly supported the annexation of Texas, and as John Tyler’s secretary of state he negotiated an annexation treaty in 1844, but his open endorsement of annexation as a means of spreading slavery westward led to the Senate’s rejection of the treaty. Calhoun strongly objected to the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in territory taken from Mexico, and argued that the federal government had no right to deny any citizen the right to take any property, including slaves, into federal territories. On 4 March 1850 he addressed the Senate for the last time; too weak to give a speech, he listened while Sen. John Mason of Virginia read for him his attack against Clay’s compromise Omnibus Bill, which Calhoun felt did not provide enough guarantees for the South. He died before the month was out, and his prophecy that “two peoples so different and hostile” could not “exist together in one common Union” was fulfilled a decade later.
Irving H. Bartlett, John C. Calboun: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1993);
John Niven, John C. Calboun and the Price of Union: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).
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Calhoun, John C.
Government retrenchment due to the Panic of 1819 sidetracked many of his initiatives, eliminating his improved transportation system. In 1820 to avoid the disastrous impact of a huge cut in the army, Calhoun proposed his ingenious Expandable Army Plan. The reduction would come among privates; officer and noncommissioned officer strength would remain. In crisis, the army could expand by recruiting privates to serve under experienced leadership. A penurious Congress rejected the scheme. The South Carolinian was, however, able to implement another of his plans, the prohibition of the recruitment of blacks into the U.S. Army, an order that remained in effect from 1820 until the Civil War.
When Calhoun left office in 1825, he had accomplished much less than he had desired. However, he had restored some fiscal responsibility and some order to a department found in chaos. Though better known for his later political career, Calhoun was an influential secretary of war.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Army, U.S.: 1783–1865.]
Charles M. Wiltse , John C. Calhoun, 3 vols. 1944–51.
Irving H. Bartlett , John C. Calhoun, A Biography, 1993.
Trenton E. Hizer
"Calhoun, John C.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/calhoun-john-c
"Calhoun, John C.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved April 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/calhoun-john-c