March. 18, 1782-March 31, 1850
“FREE TRADE; LOW DUTIES; NO DEBT; SEPARATION FROM BANKS; ECONOMY; RETRENCHMENT, AND STRICT ADHERENCE TO THE CONSTITUTION,” read the campaign slogan of the Honorable John C. Calhoun during his last major bid for the presidency of the United States in 1843. These few phrases illustrate universal principles that Calhoun struggled with during his entire career that continue to be relevant in contemporary America.
The national political career of John Caldwell Calhoun spanned 40 years. Even though his ambition to hold the nation’s top office waned, his national political career distinguished Calhoun as one of the most revered statesmen in our nation’s history. Calhoun served in Congress, both in the House and Senate. He served as a cabinet member, both as secretary of war and secretary of state. He was elected as vice president twice, serving two different administrations, and he was the first vice president to resign from office. Politics was the essence of his life’s work.
John Caldwell Calhoun, born March 18, 1782, received his early formal education from the Rev. Moses Waddel in Appling, Ga. Waddel, husband of Calhoun’s older sister Catherine, became close to young John and nurtured his scholarship. Calhoun entered the junior class at Yale College where his talents were recognized by Yale President Timothy Dwight, a staunch Federalist. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1804. Because of illness, Calhoun was unable to deliver his senior speech entitled “The Qualifications Necessary to Constitute a Perfect Statesman.”
Calhoun sought specialized legal training and attended the famous Tapping Reeve’s Litchfield Law School, under Judge Reeve and his assistant James Gould, in Connecticut. He completed his course of study in July 1806 and sought further legal training, first under Judge Henry W. DeSaussure in Charleston and second, under George Bowie, a relative, in Abbeville. Calhoun was admitted to the South Carolina bar in December 1807 and joined Bowie’s office as a partner.
In the meantime, the youthful lawyer had already begun to show an interest in politics. In June 1807, when America became outraged over the British warship Leopard’s attack on the American frigate Chesapeake, a public rally was held on August 3 in Abbeville to denounce the British. On that occasion, Calhoun commanded the attention of Abbeville political leaders by addressing the audience with great skill.
South Carolina Legislature: 1808-1810
With proper family connections and having seized a popular issue, Calhoun was nominated for a seat in the state Legislature representing Abbeville and was easily elected. Calhoun was elected to the Legislature at a time when his area of the state, the “Backcountry,” was receiving greater representation as a result of the Compromise of 1808. The compromise set up a what could be referred to as a concurrent majority with a Senate controlled by the “Lowcountry” and a House controlled by the “Upcountry” in the General Assembly in Columbia.
U.S. House of Representatives: 1811-1817
John C. Calhoun entered the national political arena in the election of 1810 at the age of 29. Calhoun was elected to his Congressional seat from the Abbeville district, taking the seat of his cousin Joseph Calhoun. Beginning in the Twelfth Congress, the young Calhoun distinguished himself as one of the brightest of the new generation of congressmen labeled the “War Hawks.” Calhoun’s speech of Dec. 12, 1811, reinforced the Foreign Relations Committee’s call for war with Britain leading to the War of 1812 or the “Second War of Independence.”
During his seven years in the House of Representatives, Calhoun proved himself a nationalist by supporting the goals of his peers including a renewed national bank, internal improvements and the Tariff of 1816. Calhoun was referred to as “The Young Hercules” and was described as “a master spirit who stamps his name upon the age in which he lives … felling down the errors of his opponents with the club of Hercules.”
Secretary of War: 1817-1825
At the age of 35, Calhoun accepted a post as secretary of war in the administration of James Monroe and served from Dec. 8, 1817, to March 3, 1825. Calhoun’s major accomplishments included the reorganization of the armed forces and of West Point, the U.S. Military Academy. Also, he oversaw treaty negotiations with Indian nations and sought the censure of General Andrew Jackson for overstepping his authority during the Seminole War for invading Spanish Florida in 1818. He continued to support internal improvement as a part of national defense and the development of coastal fortifications including the building of Fort Monroe and Fort Calhoun guarding the Chesapeake Bay. During his tenure as secretary of war, his family (Calhoun had married his cousin Floride Colhoun in 1811) lived at Oakly, his home in the Georgetown Heights section of Washington (later know as Dumbarton Oaks).
Other crucial acts during the Monroe administration that Calhoun was in favor of were the passage of the Missouri Compromise, barring slavery north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes N (outside the boundary of Missouri), and the Monroe Doctrine, warning against European colonization in the Western Hemisphere.
Vice President: 1825-1829
Before leaving Monroe’s cabinet, Calhoun decided to run for president of the United States in 1824. But upon seeing his chances for party support dwindle, he withdrew from the campaign and instead ran for vice president. He believed the office would help him win the presidency later. John C. Calhoun was elected vice president in 1824 and served with President John Quincy Adams from 1825 to 1829.
As the editor of The Calhoun Papers has stated, Calhoun was “the only Vice-President in our history who has been elected both overwhelmingly and in his own right rather than as the creature of a political party or Presidential nominee, an event made possible by a temporary hiatus in the two-party system.” Furthermore, “It could be said that Calhoun was Vice-President because of his importance, not important because he was a Vice-President.” Calhoun’s prominence grew in the coalition administration. Calhoun’s supporters, “the Calhounites,” together with the supporters of Andrew Jackson aided in forming a new opposition party, the Democratic Party, an updated version of Jeffersonian-Republicanism.
It was during his first term as vice president that the issue of tariffs came to the forefront. The Tariff of 1824 and the Tariff of 1828, or the so-called Tariff of Abominations, created a great stir throughout South Carolina and the agrarian South. These tariffs with high rates were designed to protect Northern industry, particularly the textile industry, and thus were regarded by Southerners as indirect taxation to raise revenue from the cotton producing Southern states.
In 1828, Calhoun anonymously authored the two papers referred to as the “South Carolina Exposition” and “Protest,” which were the philosophical rationale for the concept of nullification. The “South Carolina Exposition” discussed “interposition or state veto” by which a state convention could declare federal legislation unconstitutional. The “Protest,” on the other hand, dealt with the procedures for resolving issues. Calhoun used the terms “state interposition,” “state veto” and “to null and void” in his writings to specify nullification. An outgrowth of the concept of nullification was the concept of secession if nullification or amendment and compromise were ineffective.
The small salary, considerably less than his stipend as secretary of war, was one of the reasons for Calhoun’s relocation to Fort Hill. Floride and their children preferred rural life to Washington, and Calhoun desired to spend more time on his plantation in an effort to make it more profitable.
Vice President: 1829-1832
Calhoun was re-elected vice president in 1828, this time serving with President Andrew Jackson. The issue of tariffs and states’ rights continued to be overriding themes the next four years. The concept of states’ rights, besides being noted in the “South Carolina Exposition,” was seen in Sen. Robert Y. Hayne’s debate with Sen. Daniel Webster in 1830. Also, at the Jefferson Day Dinner in April 13, the same year, toasts by President Jackson and Vice President Calhoun clearly showed the divergence of the two statesmen’s views.
The president first said, “Our Federal Union: it must be preserved!”
Calhoun responded, “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!”
In the summer of 1831, tensions rose. On July 26, 1831, Calhoun wrote his famous “Fort Hill Address: On the Relation which the States and General Bear to Each Other.” No longer anonymous, Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification was issued in a lengthy public recapitulation in an open letter. His prose is firm and direct:
“The Constitution of the United States is, in fact, a compact, to which each State is a party. ... States, or parties, have a right to judge of its infractions; and in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of power not delegated, they have the right, in the last resort, to use the language of the Virginia Resolutions, ‘to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining, within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties appertaining to them.
“This right of interposition ... be it called what it may, — State-right, veto, nullification, or by any other name, — I conceive to be the fundamental principle of our system ... and I firmly believe that on its recognition depend the stability and safely of our political institutions.”
The question of states’ rights or sovereignty came to the forefront with renewed tariffs and in South Carolina on Nov. 24, 1832, as a state convention formulated the document “South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification.” On Dec. 10, Jackson called South Carolina in insurrection and asked Congress for a Force Bill, which called for federal troops to collect the tariff to prevent treason in South Carolina. (Calhoun resigned in late December 1832 during this crisis.)
Other tensions leading to Calhoun’s break with Jackson included a Washington social rift called the “Peggy Eaton Affair.” This incident involved Floride, who refused to repay a social visit to Peggy O’Neal Timberlake Eaton, wife of Jackson’s incoming secretary of war John Eaton, on the grounds that the recently married widow was a woman of questionable morals. Floride, as a pillar of family values, enlisted the other fashionable ladies to shun Peggy. Jackson supported the wife of Eaton, his friend from Tennessee, and Calhoun supported the position of his wife. The cabinet polarized over the issue.
And finally, a renewed interest in Calhoun’s past statements about Jackson (particularly that during the 1818 Seminole War, Calhoun had wanted Jackson reprimanded for invading Florida) further stressed the working atmosphere between president and vice president. Calhoun resigned at the height of the affair.
United States Senator: 1833-1843
Calhoun returned to the U.S. senate chamber, not as the vice president, but as a newly elected U.S. senator from South Carolina. He worked to develop a compromise that gradually reduced the tariff load from the Tariff of Abominations over a period of years. He viewed himself as an independent in opposing Jackson and his successors and befriending the newly organized Whig Party, yet later returned to the Democratic Party.
Of his oratorical skill it was said, “His manner of speaking is energetic, ardent, rapid, and marked by a solemn earnestness, which inspires a full belief in his sincerity and deep conviction. His style is forcible, logical, and condensed; often figurative for illustration, never for ornament.”
Perhaps one of his most creative attempts toward reconciling the continuing sectional crisis was Calhoun’s system of a concurrent majority, which sought to keep the South on parity to the North. The ideal of this philosophy was a means of securing the rights of numerical minorities by allowing concurring power. Calhoun would even later suggest a dual presidency to keep the proposed concurrent majority and the Union alive.
At the age of 60, he was four years short of the completion of his term in office. On March 3, 1843, Calhoun resigned his seat in the U.S. senate after serving continually in national office for nearly 32 years. Returning to Fort Hill in the spring of 1843, he began in earnest what would be his last major bid for the Democratic nomination and the presidency of the United States. His national campaign was advanced in the national press and by his followers in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and other cities.
Calhoun said of campaigning for the presidency, “To me it seems to be the highest and most responsible office in the world — far too much so to be the object of personal solicitation, or sought by a personal canvass, or ever to be accepted on any other grown that that of duty.”
Because of Calhoun’s lack of electioneering for the presidency and seeing his hope grow dim, he withdrew in the summer of 1843 and retired to Fort Hill.
Secretary of State: 1844-1845
Calhoun was selected to complete the unexpired term as secretary of state by President John Tyler following the death of Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, who was killed in an explosion on Feb. 28, 1844, aboard a Navy warship. Key issues that Calhoun addressed during the administration were manifest destiny, expansionism including the question of Oregon’s northern border and the annexation of Texas, which was finalized in Tyler’s administration. Calhoun was a thorough executive of the State Department and an astute elder statesman dealing with foreign policy issues.
U.S. Senate: 1845-1850
Calhoun was elected again to the U.S. Senate in 1845. The last years of his distinguished service to the nation were again in the company of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, collectively know as “The Great Triumvirate.” During the Mexican War in 1846, an act called the Wilmot Proviso, designed to forbid slavery in the newly acquired land from Mexico, was debated in Congress. The South and Calhoun reacted to the growing abolitionism movement.
Calhoun’s later speeches defended his constituency, South Carolina and the agrarian South, and the economic labor structure based on the “peculiar institution” of African American slavery. Calhoun, at the same time, lost national support for his defense of slavery as a “positive good” in the context of a class struggle, and he lost local support in South Carolina and the South from the hotheaded politicians called “fire-eaters” for his conciliatory attitudes toward the North.
Calhoun’s last Senate speech was delivered on March 4, 1850, by Sen. James Mason of Virginia. Calhoun, dying of consumption (tuberculosis), was too ill to read his own speech. He had to be helped into the Senate chamber to listen to his friend Mason. At that time, Congress was involved in a long debate over the admission to statehood of California and several issues relating to slavery.
Calhoun’s last speech included these words:
“The Union cannot ... be saved by eulogies on the Union, however splendid or numerous. The Cry of ‘Union, Union, the glorious Union!’ can no more prevent disunion that the cry of ‘Health, health, glorious health!’ on the part of the physician, can save a patient lying dangerously ill. ...
“How can the Union be saved? There is but one way by which it can with any certainty; and that is, by a full and final settlement, on the principle of justice, of all the questions at issue between the two sections. ...
“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.”
On March 31, 1850, Calhoun died in Washington at the age of 68. The famous Compromise of 1850 that prevented Civil War for another 10 years was thus enacted by Congress months after Calhoun’s death. Calhoun was a major force on the body politic, a man of independent ideas and independent philosophies. Ironically, two of John C. Calhoun’s most important works were published after his death. Printed posthumously, “A Disquisition on Government” and “A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States” illustrate Calhoun’s mature philosophical interpretations in two fully developed books on American politics. The former Disquisition illuminates the doctrine of concurrent majority, while the latter Discourse is a culmination of Calhoun’s philosophy in regard to the Constitution and the compact theory of states’ rights. His metamorphosis from nationalist to nullifier to sectionalist parallels the political thinking that prevailed in antebellum South.
We continue to seek understandings of the ambitions and philosophies of Calhoun, who was described as having an intellect that was “metaphysical.”
Calhoun, in a letter to his daughter two years before his death, summed up his life work and career. “I hold, the duties of life, to be greater than life itself ... no appreciation of my efforts, either by the present, or after times, is necessary to sustain me in struggling to do my duty in resisting wrong, especially where our country is concerned, although I put a high value on renown.”
John Caldwell Calhoun’s renown is preserved at Fort Hill.