Calhoun, John C.

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Calhoun, John C. 1782–1850






John Caldwell Calhoun was a South Carolina politician who served in several state and federal offices from 1808 until his death in 1850. He was a candidate for the presidency of the United States several times without ascending to the post, but he nevertheless became one of the most powerful figures in the pre–Civil War United States. Calhoun used his considerable influence and political acumen to defend the right of states to control their own destiny—specifically the ability of the southern states to retain the institution of slavery.


Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, to Patrick Calhoun and Martha Caldwell, both of Scotch-Irish descent, in the northwestern region of South Carolina called Abbeville. Calhoun’s early childhood was spent on his father’s plantation, which was cultivated by thirty-one enslaved Africans. There was little formal schooling available for the young Calhoun, and he did not attend school regularly in his adolescent years. At the age of eighteen he entered an academy founded by Moses Waddell, a young Presbyterian minister who had married Calhoun’s older sister. Calhoun read voraciously at Waddell’s academy and entered Yale College (present-day Yale University) in 1802. He then attended Litchfield Law School, and after completing apprenticeships in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Charleston, South Carolina, he began his own law practice in Abbeville.

In 1807, after a British frigate attacked an American vessel, Calhoun led the public outcry over the transgression. At a town hall meeting, he gave a speech advocating aggressive retaliation and his popularity soared. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature as a representative from the Abbeville district in 1808. He would serve in this post for two years.


Calhoun began his national political career when he was elected to the Twelfth Congress as the representative from the Sixth Congressional District of South Carolina. In these early years Calhoun quickly gained a reputation for favoring aggressive national action. Along with Henry Clay and other politicians dubbed the “War Hawks,” Calhoun helped convince President James Madison to declare war on Britain, sparking the War of 1812. Calhoun would serve in Congress from 1811 to 1817. Among his career highlights during this period were arguing in favor of increasing government power through consolidation of the banking system and increasing the federal government’s ability to levy taxes.

In 1817 Calhoun left the House of Representatives to serve as secretary of war in James Monroe’s cabinet. In this post, which he held until 1825, Calhoun continued to advocate nationalist legislation. He strengthened national defense by centralizing the military administration in Washington and increasing funding for military infrastructure and troop necessities. Calhoun made a brief run for the presidency in 1824, before accepting the post of vice president under John Quincy Adams. He served as vice president to John Quincy Adams in 1824 and again under Andrew Jackson in 1828, making him the only person in U.S. history to serve as vice president for two different administrations.

Calhoun’s two tenures as vice president marked a turning point in his career. The Tariff of 1828 (called the Tariff of Abominations) called for a tax on British goods imported into the United States. This tariff benefited northern manufacturing interests at the expense of southern raw material exporters. The South Carolina legislature passed a nullification bill in retaliation, revoking the federal tariff. The U.S. government passed the Force Bill in return, which authorized the use of the military to enforce federal tariffs. This standoff, called the Nullification Crisis, marked the turning point in Calhoun’s political thinking. Calhoun changed his political ideology from pro-federal government to pro-states rights, and sided with the state of South Carolina.

Calhoun resigned as vice president in 1832 to return to the Senate. He would take one other cabinet post in his lifetime, as secretary of state in John Tyler’s cabinet from 1844 to 1845—but it was as a senator (1832–1843, and 1845–1850) that he made his most indelible mark on the American political landscape.


Calhoun spent most of his life on a 900-acre plantation in Fort Hill, South Carolina. He owned approximately eighty slaves. Calhoun defended the institution of slavery vigorously up until his death, notoriously calling it a “positive good” for slave and master alike. In 1836 he blocked the reading of petitions against slavery on the Senate floor, arguing that because the Fifth Amendment declared that no person be deprived of property without due process of law, and since slaves were property, the discussion of the petitions was a moot point. Congress finally rejected Calhoun’s position, with many of its members declaring that the “gag rule” violated the right to petition. That same year, when abolitionists wanted to send mail into the southern states, he supported the suppression of such mail, including the vigilante search of the interstate mails in Charleston. He cited the First Amendment, arguing that it was the right of the states to control mail if they chose to, and that the federal government had no say in the matter.

Calhoun’s views had racial as well as economic justifications. He repeatedly asserted that the African was innately inferior to the European, and he viewed slavery as a positive good that afforded the inferior blacks an opportunity to advance faster than any other civilization. Economically, Calhoun argued that in every civilization, one portion of society always depended on the labor of another. The South had a unique economy that allowed the laboring class—the black slaves—to be always well fed and have their children and elderly cared for. He contrasted the slave labor of the South with the degraded conditions of the working class in Britain, arguing that the southern blacks had a far more favorable existence.

Calhoun’s beliefs in European racial superiority were applied to other groups as well. In his arguments against a potential war and colonization of Mexico, he asserted that mixing Indian blood and culture with that of Americans would lead to degradation and destroy the cultural institutions of the United States.


John C. Calhoun will always be remembered as one of America’s most able politicians. His proslavery arguments were at times unassailable, however. Yet despite his staunch defense of states rights and slavery, his writings do not reveal a support for a southern secession or war. A man of ascetic behavior who rarely lost his temper and had no documented instances of lascivious behavior, Calhoun appears to have garnered the respect of both friend and foe.


Meigs, William M. 1970 (1917). The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun. 2 Vols. New York: De Capo Press.

Niven, John. 1988. John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Peterson, Merrill D. 1987. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. New York: Oxford University Press.

Spain, August O. 1951. The Political Theory of John C. Calhoun. New York: Bookman Associates.

Roderick Graham

Calhoun, John C.

views updated May 17 2018

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun was the first to develop the concepts of states’ rights and Southern secession from the Union in the decades leading up to the American Civil War (1861–65). He was convinced that the only way to preserve the South's institution of slavery lay in separation of the slave states from the free (non-slave) states.

Early years

Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, in rural South Carolina . His Scotch-Irish family was relatively wealthy and owned twenty or more slaves. His father was a judge and served in the state legislature. Calhoun graduated from Yale in 1804. He then studied law and established a law practice near his family home. In 1811, he married a distant cousin, and the marriage brought him a modest fortune. In 1825, he established a plantation in South Carolina.

Calhoun was a handsome young man with a commanding presence. He had little humor and no cultural interests, and he concerned himself almost completely with ideas, politics, and business. He was considered a great thinker.

War hawk

Calhoun's political career began in 1807 with a speech he delivered denouncing Britain for violating American rights at sea. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1808 and two years later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. In Congress, he became one of the

“war hawks,” a group of congressmen led by U.S. representative Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky , who strongly and impatiently urged war with England. Calhoun became chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, where he played a major role in moving the country into the War of 1812 (1812–14) against Great Britain.

After the war, Calhoun pushed for a stronger military establishment. He advocated measures that he himself would later denounce as unconstitutional, such as federal encouragement of manufacturing interests by means of a protective tariff (a duty, or tax, paid on imports), and federally funded internal improvements like roads and canals.

Calhoun held top positions through several presidential administrations. He was secretary of war under James Monroe (1758–1831; served 1817–25), and he served as vice president under both John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29) and Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37). He had expectations of becoming president, but he fell out of favor because of his involvement in the nullification controversy .

Nullification theory

Just before Jackson was elected president, Congress passed an extremely high protective tariff, taxing goods coming into the United States from other countries. This tariff raised the prices of imported goods, making them less competitive against goods produced within the country. The Tariff of 1828 (also known as the Tariff of Abominations) protected only those goods manufactured in the industrial North. The South had no such protections for its agricultural products. Europeans, resenting the tariffs on their products in the United States, were far less likely to buy any American products.

Most Southerners hated the tariff, but the cotton planters of South Carolina were especially angry. South Carolina was already facing economic disaster as its soil became depleted (its nutrients reduced or used up) by the overplanting of cotton. The proposed tariff would only further damage the frail economy.

Calhoun turned to the Constitution to find a way for his state to avoid the tariff. In 1829, he secretly wrote and distributed copies of The South Carolina Exposition and Protest, a pamphlet with an unusual interpretation of the Constitution. Calhoun argued that the Union (the United States) had not been formed directly by the people of the United States; rather, it had been formed through the individual states, of which the people were citizens. According to Calhoun, it was the states, and not the federal government, that were supreme in power. Thus, when a state objected to a law passed by a majority in the federal government, that state had the right to nullify the law (block its enforcement) within its borders until three-quarters of the other states overruled its decision. At the time it was overruled, the state could choose to yield to the will of the other states, or to secede (withdraw) entirely from the Union. President Jackson, who believed in preserving the Union at all costs, was furious when he learned that Calhoun, his vice president, was the author of this doctrine.

Jackson threatened military force to collect the duties in South Carolina. In December 1832, Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency after being elected by South Carolina to the U.S. Senate to defend its cause. Clay brought forth a compromise, which Calhoun supported, to lower the tariff gradually over a decade. The crisis subsided for a time.

A sectional position

Calhoun was outspoken in his support of slavery in the South. In the Senate in the 1830s, Calhoun attacked the abolitionists (people who wish to eliminate slavery altogether), demanding that their publications be excluded from the mails and their petitions not be received by Congress, and finally urging a prohibition on all protests against slavery. By 1837, he was defending slavery as “a positive good” and had become an advocate for the suppression of open discussion and a free press.

Calhoun began to write his political theory in the middle 1840s. These political writings were published after his death. In them he insisted that the Constitution should be based on the principle that people are not equally entitled to liberty. He argued against government by the will of the majority, which he believed would necessarily take away the rights of minorities (such as Southern slave owners). He proposed to give the minority groups a veto power over federal legislation. He also proposed having two executives, or presidents, for the Union, each to be chosen by one of the great sections of the country, with the agreement of both necessary for federal action.

Calhoun's shift to a sectional position (one concerned with a particular region and its interests) had virtually destroyed his chances for the presidency, but he continued to aspire to that office. He declared his candidacy in 1843 but withdrew to accept appointment as secretary of state for the last year in office of President John Tyler (1790–1862; served 1841–45). In that position, Calhoun championed the annexation of Texas as a slave state. He negotiated a treaty of annexation, but it did not pass in Congress.

For the rest of his life, Calhoun fought federal acts that in any way encroached on the South's right to choose its own institutions. Determined to see the Southern way of life preserved, he must have foreseen the trouble ahead. As he lay dying in 1850, his last words were, “The South! The poor South!”

Calhoun, John C. (1782-1850)

views updated May 09 2018

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 fathers 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. Calhouns 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 Monroes cabinet and criticized Andrew Jacksons 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 Calhouns plan to succeed Jackson as president went dramatically awry. The Eaton affair, the revelation that Calhoun had denounced Jacksons 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 Turners 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 Tylers 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 Senates 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 Clays 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).

Calhoun, John C.

views updated May 11 2018

Calhoun, John C. (1782–1850), congressman, secretary of war, vice president, senator, and secretary of state.When James Monroe appointed Congressman John C. Calhoun secretary of war in 1817, the South Carolinian discovered a department mired in financial irresponsibility and managerial incompetence. Calhoun eliminated economic waste, initiated a series of coastal defenses, tightened the army command structure, and improved the curriculum at West Point. He continued the standing policy of negotiating treaties for Indian land and Indian removal, and sent out expeditions to explore the country's vast western expanse. Calhoun, however, struggled to get along with his generals, especially the headstrong Andrew Jackson.

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

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