Calhoun, John C. (1782–1850)

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CALHOUN, JOHN C. (1782–1850)

John C. Calhoun, foremost southern statesman of his time, was a product of the great Scots-Irish migration that took possession of the southern backcountry before the american revolution. Born near Abbeville, South Carolina, young Calhoun received a smattering of education at a local academy and in his twentieth year went "straight from the backwoods" to Yale College. He excelled by force of intellect and zeal. In 1805, not long after graduating, he attended Litchfield Law School. This New England Federalist education left a permanent impression on Calhoun's mind, though all his political associations were Jeffersonian. Returning to South Carolina, he was admitted to the bar and hung out his shingle in Abbeville. But Calhoun did not take to the law. After making it the step-pingstone to the political career he desperately wanted, he gave it up altogether. In 1807 he was elected to the legislature, taking the seat once held by his father. Sometime later he married Floride Bonneau Colhoun, who belonged to the wealthy lowcountry branch of the family, and brought her to the plantation he had acquired above the Savannah River. After two sessions at Columbia, Calhoun won election to the Twelfth Congress. He took his place with the "war hawks" and upon a brilliant maiden speech was hailed as "one of the master-spirits who stamp their name upon the age in which they live."

Calhoun's major biographer has conveniently divided his career into three phases: nationalist, nullifier, sectionalist. During the first, which ended in 1828, Calhoun was successively congressman, secretary of war, and vice-president. As a nationalist, he was the chief congressional architect of the Second Bank of the United States; he supported the tariff of 1816, including its most protective feature, the minimum duty on cheap cotton cloth; and he was a prominent advocate of internal improvements. Many Republicans, headed by President james madison, believed a constitutional amendment was necessary to sanction federally funded internal improvements. But Calhoun, speaking for his Bonus Bill to create a permanent fund for this purpose, declared that he "was no advocate for refined arguments on the Constitution. 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.…"He held that the general welfare clause was a distinct power; to those who balked at that, he cited the enumerated power to establish post roads. Deeply committed to a system of roads and canals and other improvements to strengthen the Union and secure its defenses, Calhoun, like Hamilton before him, viewed the Constitution as the starting-point for creative states-manship. Later, when advocating internal improvements as secretary of war, he passed over the constitutional question in silence, thereby avoiding conflict with his chief, james monroe, who inherited Madison's scruples on the subject.

Calhoun made his first bid for the presidency in 1824 as an unabashed nationalist who professed "to be above all sectional or party feelings and to be devoted to the great interests of the country." He had to settle for the vice-presidency, however; and in that office he seized the first occasion to join the Jacksonian coalition against the National Republican administration of john quincy adams. Meanwhile, economic distress revolutionized the politics of South Carolina, driving Calhoun's friends off the nationalist platform and onto the platform of states ' rights and strict construction occupied for the past decade by his inveterate enemies. Calhoun was not a leader but a follower—a late one at that—in this movement. By 1827 he, too, had turned against the tariff as the great engine of "consolidation." It was unconstitutional, exploitative of the South, and, with other nationalist measures, it threatened "to make two of one nation." After the "tariff of abominations" the next year, Calhoun, at the request of a committee of the state legislature, secretly penned a lengthy argument against the tariff, showing its unconstitutionality, and expounded the theory of nullification as the rightful remedy. (See exposition and protest.) The theory was speciously laid in the virginia and kentucky resolutions. They, of course, were devised to secure the rule of the majority; Calhoun's theory, on the other hand, was intended to protect an aggrieved minority. Moreover, he was precise where those famous resolutions were ambiguous; and, unlike them, he invoked the constitution-making authority of three-fourths of the states. That authority might grant by way of amendment a federal power, such as the protection of manufactures, denied by any one of the states. Calhoun believed that the power of nullification in a single state would act as a healthy restraint on the lawmaking power of Congress; if not, and nullification occurred, the issue would be referred to a convention for decision. Each state being sovereign under this theory, secession was always a last resort; but Calhoun argued that the Union would be strengthened, not weakened or dissolved, under the operation of nullification. Indeed, the Union could be preserved only on the condition of state sovereignty and strict construction—an exact reversal of his earlier nationalist position. The legislature published the South Carolina Exposition in December 1828. Although Calhoun's authorship was kept secret for several years, he had become the philosopher-statesman of a movement.

Calhoun hoped for reform from the new administration of andrew jackson, in which he was, again, the vice-president. But he was quickly disappointed. Personal differences, perhaps more than differences of principle or policy, caused his break with Jackson, completed early in 1831. Laying aside his presidential ambitions—he had hoped to be Jackson's successor—Calhoun issued his Fort Hill Address in July, publicly placing himself at the head of the nullification party in South Carolina. Named for the plantation near Pendleton that was ever after Calhoun's home, the address elaborated the theory set forth in the Exposition. When in the following year South Carolina nullified the tariff, it did so in strict conformity with the theory. Calhoun resigned the vice-presidency and was elected to the Senate to lead the state's cause in Washington. He denounced the President's force bill as a proposition to make war on a sovereign state. In a notable debate with daniel webster, he expounded the theory of the Union as a terminable compact of sovereign states and within that theory vindicated the constitutionality of nullification. (See union, theories of.) But Calhoun backed away from confrontation. He seized the olive branch of tariff reform henry clay dangled before him. The crisis was resolved peacefully. The nullifiers declared a victory, of course; and Calhoun vaunted himself on the basis of this illusion.

Henceforth, Calhoun abandoned nullification as a remedy and associated his constitutional theory with varying stratagems of sectional resistance to the alleged corruptions and majority tyranny of the general government. The idea of the "concurrent majority," in which the great geographical sections provided the balancing mechanism of estates or classes in classical republican theory, held a more and more important place in his thought. He came to believe that the government of South Carolina, with the balance of legislative power between lowcountry and upcountry established by "the compromise of 1808," embodied this theory. Slavery, of course, was at the bottom of the sectional interest for which Calhoun sought protection. In 1835 he proposed an ingenious solution to the problem of abolitionist agitation through the United States mail. Direct intervention, as Jackson proposed, was unconstitutional, Calhoun said; but the general government could cooperate in the enforcement of state laws that barred "incendiary publications." He thus invented the doctrine of "federal reenforcement" of state laws; and though his bill was defeated, his object was attained by administrative action. Calhoun led the fight in the Senate against the reception of petitions for the abolition of slavery in the district of columbia. He denied that there was an indefeasible right of petition. Regarding the attack on slavery in the District as an attack on "the outworks" of slavery in the states, he held that the mere reception of the petitions, even if they were immediately tabled, as would become the practice, amounted to an admission of constitutional authority over slavery everywhere. The fight was, therefore, the southern Thermopylae. In 1838, indulging his penchant for metaphysical solutions, Calhoun introduced in the Senate a series of six resolutions which, in principle, would throw a constitutional barricade around slavery wherever it existed—in the states, in the District, and in the territories (Florida then being the only territory). In an allusion to Texas, one resolution declared that refusal to annex territory lest it expand slavery violated the compact of equal sovereign states. This last resolution was dropped, others were modified, and as finally passed the resolutions advanced Calhoun's position by inches rather than yards.

Calhoun never naïvely believed that abolitionism constituted the chief danger to the South. The chief danger was from consolidation, from spoilsmen, from banks and other privileged interests fattening themselves at the public trough, and from the attendant corruption that undermined republican virtue and constitutional safeguards. The only remedy was to strip the government of its excessive revenues, powers, and patronage, and return to the Constitution as it came from the hand of the Framers. For a time, seeing Jackson as the immediate enemy, Calhoun worked with the Whigs; in 1840 he returned to the Democratic fold. He had become convinced that the Democratic party offered better prospects of security for the South. In addition, he hoped to realize his presidential ambition in succession to his old enemy, martin van buren, in 1844. This was not to be.

The year 1844 found Calhoun secretary of state, engineering the annexation of texas, in the shattered administration of John Tyler. Returning to the Senate the following year, he lent his powerful voice to the Oregon settlement, opposed the Mexican War, then became the foremost champion of slavery in the new territories. He set forth his position in resolutions countering the wilmot proviso in 1847: the territories are common property of the states; the general government, as the agent of the states, cannot discriminate against the citizens or institutions of any one in legislating for the territories; the restriction of slavery would be discriminatory; and finally, the people of the territories have the right to form state governments without condition as to slavery. Before long Calhoun repudiated the missouri compromise and called for the positive protection of slavery in the territories. The leader of an increasingly militant South, he nevertheless acted, as in the past, to restrain disunionist forces. Secession was never an acceptable solution in his eyes.

The senator's last major speech—he was too ill to deliver it himself—occurred in March 1850 in response to Henry Clay's compromise plan. Calhoun did not so much oppose the measures of this plan as consider them inadequate. The balanced, confederate government of the Constitution had degenerated into a consolidated democracy before which the minority South was helpless. Only by restoring the sectional balance could the Union be saved, and he vaguely suggested a constitutional amendment for this purpose. Within the month he was dead. Two post-humous publications were his political testament. The Disquisition on Government contained his political theory, including the key idea of the concurrent majority. The Discourse on the Constitution specifically applied the theory to the American polity. After recommending various reforms, such as repeal of the 25th section of the judiciary act of 1789, the Discourse concluded with a proposal for radical constitutional change: a dual executive, elected by North and South, each chief vested with the veto power. This was a metaphysical solution indeed! Yet it was one that epitomized Calhoun's paradoxical relationship to the Constitution. Although he made a fetish of the Constitution, he could never accept its workings and repeatedly advocated fundamental reforms. Although he proclaimed his love of the Union, his embrace was like the kiss of death. And while exalting liberty, he based his ideal republic on slavery and rejected majority rule as incompatible with constitutional government.

Merrill D. Peterson


Cralle, Richard K., ed. 1853–1857 The Works of John C. Calhoun. 6 Vols. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Meriwether, Robert L.; Hemphill, W. Edwin; Wilson, Clyde N.; and others, eds. 1959–1980 The Papers of John C. Calhoun. 8 Vols. to date. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Wiltse, Charles M. 1944 John C. Calhoun: Nationalist, 1782–1828. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

——1949 John C. Calhoun: Nullifier, 1829–1839. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

——1951 John C. Calhoun: Sectionalist, 1840–1850. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.