John Caldwell Calhoun

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John Caldwell Calhoun

The American statesman John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850) became the most effective protagonist of the antebellum South. It was his tragedy to be come the spokesman for the dying institution of slavery.

John C. Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, in the uplands of South Carolina, the son of Patrick and Martha Caldwell Calhoun. The family was Scotch-Irish and Calvinist and was relatively wealthy; his father owned twenty or more slaves, was a judge, and served in the state legislature. John graduated from Yale in 1804. He studied in the law school of Tapping Reeves in Litchfield, Conn., and in an office in Charleston, S.C., and was admitted to the bar in 1807. He quickly established a practice in Abbeville near his family home.

In 1811 Calhoun married a distant cousin, Floride Bouneau, by whom he had nine children. The marriage brought him a modest fortune. He enlarged his holdings and in 1825 established a plantation, called Fort Hill, in his native area.

Handsome in early life and with a commanding presence and piercing eyes all his life through, Calhoun had a striking personality. He had a gracious manner, and Daniel Webster and others not his partisans paid tribute to his character and integrity. In later years he struck observers as a "thinking machine," speaking very rapidly and always terribly in earnest. The picture is conveyed in Harriet Martineau's phrase that Calhoun was a "cast-iron man who looks as if he had never been born and could never be extinguished." He was concerned almost exclusively with ideas, politics, and business; he had little humor and no broad, cultural interests. One Senate colleague said there was no relaxation with the man, and another complained that to be with Calhoun was to be made to think all the time and to feel one's inferiority.

Political Career

Calhoun was elected to the South Carolina Legislature in 1808 and 2 years later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Henry Clay made him chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Calhoun and other "War Hawks" moved the country to the unsuccessful War of 1812 against Great Britain. Calhoun led the effort in the House to supply and strengthen the Army, and after the war he continued to work for a stronger military establishment. He advocated measures which he would later denounce as unconstitutional: Federal encouragement of manufactures by means of a protective tariff, and internal improvements to "bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals." To objections that the Constitution did not authorize such Federal expenditures, Calhoun replied that "the instrument was not intended as a thesis for the logician to exercise his ingenuity on. It ought to be construed with plain, good sense…"

Calhoun was secretary of war in James Monroe's Cabinet (1817-1825). He became less and less militaristic through his life. In 1812 he had said that "a war, just and necessary in its origin, wisely and vigorously carried on, and honorably terminated," would establish "the integrity and prosperity of our country for centuries." But in 1846 he refused to vote for the declaration of war against Mexico; he asserted that the grounds for war given by the President were false and said simply, "I regard peace as a positive good, and war as a positive evil."

In Monroe's Cabinet, Calhoun was a nationalist. In 1821 John Quincy Adams appraised Calhoun as "a man of fair and candid mind … of enlarged philosophic views, and of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional and factional prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union…. " Calhoun was Adams's vice president (1825-1829) and was elected to the office again in 1828 under Andrew Jackson. He had expectations of becoming president following Jackson's tenure, but there was a rupture between them during Jackson's first term. The social contretemps over Peggy Eaton was involved, but more important was Jackson's discovery that Calhoun had criticized his invasion of Florida in 1818. Even without these irritants the clash would have come. Calhoun had anonymously written the "South Carolina Exposition" in response to the so-called Tariff of Abominations of 1828. He argued the right of a state to "nullify" a Federal enactment injurious to its interests if the state believed the law to be unconstitutional. By 1830 Calhoun was known as the author of the doctrine, and at a Jefferson's birthday dinner that year Jackson glared at Calhoun and proposed the toast, "Our Federal Union—it must be preserved!" Calhoun replied, "The Union—next to our liberty, the most dear!"

Jackson threatened military force to collect the duties in South Carolina, and in 1832 Calhoun in an unprecedented action resigned from the vice presidency and was elected by South Carolina to the Senate to defend its cause. Henry Clay brought forth a compromise, which Calhoun supported, to lower the tariff gradually over a decade; the crisis subsided for a time.

In the Senate in the 1830s, Calhoun attacked the abolitionists, demanding that their publications be excluded from the mails, that their petitions not be received by Congress, and finally that a stop be put to agitation against slavery in the North as had been done in the South. 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's shift from a national to a sectional position 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 of John Tyler's term. In his efforts for the annexation of Texas, Calhoun wrote a famous letter to the British minister in Washington, arguing that annexation was necessary to protect slavery in the United States and asserting (against the position of the British government, which was urging the emancipation of slaves throughout the world) that freed African Americans tended to be deaf, blind, and insane in far higher proportions than those in slavery. The letter did not help his cause in Congress. The treaty of annexation which he negotiated with the Republic of Texas was rejected by the Senate, where it was impossible to muster the required two-thirds vote in its favor. Calhoun then supported the device, of doubtful constitutionality, of admitting Texas by a joint resolution of Congress.

Calhoun returned to the Senate in 1845, where he first opposed the war against Mexico and then the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in all the territories acquired from Mexico by that war. He denounced the Compromise of 1850, which did not guarantee the right of Southerners to take their slaves into all territories of the Union. He did not live to see that compromise adopted, dying on March 31, 1850. His last words were, "The South! The poor South!"

Political Philosophy

The political theory Calhoun had developed from the time of the Nullification Crisis of 1828 he began to organize in a formal treatise in the middle 1840s. His two works, Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, were published posthumously. Calhoun argued that government by mere numbers must inevitably result in despotism by the majority, a proposition supported by the men who drew up the Constitution. He also insisted that the Constitution should be based upon the "truth" of the inequality of man and on the principle that people are not equally entitled to liberty.

Calhoun said the U.S. Constitution lacked the necessary restraints to prevent the majority from abusing the minority. He proposed to give the minorities (the minority he had in mind was the Southern slaveholders) a veto power over Federal legislation and action by means of what he called the "concurrent majority." In the Discoursehe proposed the device of dual executives 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.

The 20th-century experience of the dangers of centralized governmental power has brought a renewed interest in Calhoun's proposals for the protection of minority rights. But although Calhoun's critical analysis was perceptive, his proposed solutions have not been regarded as serious contributions to the problem. Indeed, as critics have pointed out, although he spoke in general terms and categories, he was really interested only in defending the rights of a specific propertied minority—the slaveholding South.

Further Reading

Calhoun's own A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, originally published in 1851, are now available together in several editions. The Works of John C. Calhoun, edited by Richard K. Crallé (6 vols., 1851-1856), has been the basic published collection of his writings. However, a more recent, definitive collection of Calhoun's writings is The Papers of John C. Calhoun, edited by Robert L. Meriwether (4 vols., 1959-1969).

A representative collection of essays by Calhoun scholars is John L. Thomas, ed., John C. Calhoun: A Profile (1968). It provides an excellent introduction to the literature on Calhoun. The comprehensive biography is Charles M. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun (3 vols., 1944-1951); however, it denigrates his rivals and justifies Calhoun's actions throughout his career. The best one-volume biography, with a better interpretive balance, is Margaret L. Coit, John C. Calhoun: American Portrait (1950). For a more critical account see Gerald M. Capers, John C. Calhoun, Opportunist: A Reappraisal (1960). Richard N. Current, John C. Calhoun (1963), provides a good analysis of Calhoun's political theory.

To examine the changing interpretations of Calhoun over the last century see the biographies by John S. Jenkins, The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun (1852); H. von Holst, John C. Calhoun (1882); Gaillard Hunt, John C. Calhoun (1908); William M. Meigs, The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun (2 vols., 1917); and Arthur Styron, The Cast Iron Man: John C. Calhoun and American Democracy (1935). □

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(b. March 18, 1782; d. March 31, 1850) Antebellum statesman; served as vice president and secretary of war; strong spokesman for the southern states.

Although best remembered as the leading spokesman for the South in the controversies leading up to the Civil War, John C. Calhoun played a substantial role in the history of American society in relation to many aspects of war. In a national career of forty years, he was U.S. representative and senator, vice president, secretary of war, and secretary of state. Elected representative from South Carolina in 1811, he immediately became one of the leading "War Hawks," the coalition determined to vindicate the honor of the new United States by armed resistance to British insults and depredations. In 1812 Calhoun wrote Congress's declaration of war against England. His support for the war was not merely verbal. He was so active and energetic in legislative support for the war effort that a leading newspaper referred to him as "the young Hercules who carried the war on his shoulders."

The most important role that Calhoun played in American military history was undoubtedly his service as secretary of war in the cabinet of President Monroe, 1817 to 1825. When Calhoun took over, the War Department, which was the largest and most geographically dispersed part of the federal government, was in administrative, logistical, and financial chaos. With careful planning, Calhoun reorganized the department with an efficient bureau system and laid a foundation that was basic to the U.S. peacetime military establishment for many years to come. His governing principle was the concept of an "expansible army," a small but well-designed peacetime force that could be rapidly expanded under trained officers in case of national emergency. Calhoun's efforts touched every aspect of the army, including supply, health, and education, as well as the combat arms. The prestige of West Point dates from Calhoun's time. He continued to carry out the Jeffersonian policy of toward Native Americans (gradual and peaceful removal to the West). Later, as senator, Calhoun was a strong critic of President Jackson's harsher policy toward American Indians.

In 1825 Calhoun became vice president, but resigned in 1832 to become a senator and take a leading role in his state's conflict with President Jackson's administration, a conflict known as the Nullification controversy. In the South Carolina Exposition in 1828, Calhoun argued that the Southern minority, through the tariff, was being exploited by the majority, and that the remedy for this was

state action to nullify an unconstitutional federal law. For the rest of his life he developed ideas regarding the restraint of majorities, culminating in his Disquisition on Government, which remains of interest to students of politics. For most of the rest of his life, he was a senator from south Carolina. He played an influential role in all controversies of the "Jacksonian era," increasingly focused on rallying the South to resist the Free Soil movement that would ban slavery from all future new states.

The former young "War Hawk" also became, in the last part of his career, a critic of "manifest destiny" and militarism. He argued forcefully against diplomatic and military confrontations with Mexico and with Great Britain over Oregon, two issues many leading politicians were eager to pursue. To Calhoun, there was no need for belligerence. The proper stance, he argued, was "masterful neglect." The natural westward dynamic of the American people would guarantee all the just territorial ambitions of the United States peacefully.

As secretary of state (1844–1845) under President John Tyler, Calhoun initiated the admission of Texas to the Union, which was carried through by the succeeding Polk administration. However, he became a strong (and unpopular) opponent of the war with Mexico that broke out in 1846. He abstained from voting on the declaration of war, contending that the war was unnecessary and had been deliberately brought on by the President to preempt the constitutional authority of Congress. This, he warned, was a dangerous precedent for the future.

Calhoun also argued for a negotiated settlement, short of the U.S. army occupying the Mexican capital, and for limited territorial demands. In eloquent speeches he contended that American occupation of foreign countries was more likely to tranform American society from republic to empire than it was to bring freedom to those countries. Further, Mexican territory was "forbidden fruit" because the struggle to control it would bring on unsolvable conflict between the North and the South that would end in war, which was an accurate prophecy.


Coit, Margaret. John C. Calhoun: American Portrait. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Spiller, Roger J. "John C. Calhoun as Secretary of War, 1817 to 1825." Ph.D. diss., Louisiana State University, 1977.

Wilson, Clyde N. The Essential Calhoun. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

Clyde N. Wilson

See also:Indian Removal and Response; Manifest Destiny; Texas, Republic of.

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John Caldwell Calhoun achieved prominence as a U.S. vice president, Southern politician, and a staunch defender of states' rights.

Calhoun was born March 18, 1782, in Abbeville County, South Carolina. After graduating from Yale University in 1804 and litch-field law school in 1806, Calhoun was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807 and established a successful legal practice there.

In 1808, Calhoun entered politics, beginning as a member of the South Carolina legislature. Three years later, he began his career in federal government, representing South Carolina in the House of Representatives until 1817. During his tenure, he performed the duties of acting chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and in 1811 was a member of the War Hawks, a group that advocated war with England in 1812.

Calhoun resigned from the House in 1817 and assumed the duties of secretary of war for the next eight years. In 1825, he began his first term as vice president of the United States, serving under President john quincy adams for four years. He remained in this office during the presidency of andrew jackson, but relinquished his post in 1832 after a disagreement with Jackson concerning states' rights. The dispute between Jackson and Calhoun resulted in the Nullification Controversy of 1832 and 1833. Calhoun was a proponent of the right of a state to declare a federal law null and void if the state deemed such a law unconstitutional. His attitude was a result of the passage of protective tariffs that Calhoun believed favored the interests of the North over those of the South. Calhoun expressed his beliefs in his work, South Carolina Exposition, in which he discussed his views of

sovereignty of the states. He believed that a state had the right to secede from the Union in order to keep the powers of the federal government in check. The Nullification Controversy finally ended with a compromise, and Calhoun emerged as the foremost speaker for the South during that era.

"The right of suffrage is the indispensable and primary principle in the foundation of a constitutional government."
—John Calhoun

Calhoun represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1832 to 1843, and again from 1845 to 1850. He continued his campaign for states' rights, supported slavery, and introduced a policy of "concurrent majorities," wherein every area of the United States would participate equally in the exercise of federal power. During the period between his two senatorial

terms, Calhoun served as U.S. secretary of state from 1843 to 1845. Calhoun died March 31, 1850, in Washington, D.C.

As an author, Calhoun wrote many publications, including Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. A compilation of his works from 1851 to 1855 was published posthumously by R. K. Crallé in a six-volume set.

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Calhoun, John Caldwell (1782–1850) US statesman and vice president (1825–32). After serving in the House of Representatives (1811–17), he was secretary of war (1817–25). He was vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, resigning over nullification. Calhoun was elected to the Senate and, except for a brief period as secretary of state (1844–45), served until 1850. An advocate of slavery and states' rights, he was an important spokesman for the South.

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