John C. Calhoun

John Caldwell Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) was a prominent United States Southern politician and political philosopher from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century.

Calhoun began his career as a staunch nationalist, favoring war with Britain in 1812 and a vast program of internal improvements afterwards. He reversed course in the 1820s to attack nationalism in favor of States Rights of the sort Thomas Jefferson had propounded in 1798. Although he died a decade before the American Civil War broke out, Calhoun was a major inspiration to the secessionists who created the short-lived Confederate States of America. Nicknamed the "cast-steel man" for his staunch determination to defend the causes in which he believed, Calhoun pushed the theory of nullification, a states' rights theory under which states could declare null and void any federal law they deemed to be unconstitutional. He was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he defended as a "positive good" rather than as a necessary evil. His rhetorical defense of slavery was partially responsible for escalating Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting abolitionist sentiment in the North. His emphasis on the rights of minorities which cannot be trampled by democratic majorities, has become a central part of the American political creed.

Calhoun spent his entire career working for the national government in a variety of high offices. He served as the seventh Vice President of the United States, first under John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and then under Andrew Jackson (1829-1832), but resigned the Vice Presidency to enter the United States Senate, where he had more power. He served in the United States House of Representatives (1810-1817) and was Secretary of War (1817-1824) under Monroe and Secretary of State (1844-1845) under Tyler.

Rise to power

John Calhoun was the son of Scots-Irish immigrant Patrick Calhoun. When his father became ill, the 14-year-old boy quit school to manage the family farm in South Carolina. But he eventually returned to his studies, earning a degree from Yale College in 1804. He was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807.

In January 1811 Calhoun married his first-cousin-once-removed, Floride Bonneau Colhoun. The couple had ten children over an 18-year period, although three died in infancy. During her husband's second term as Vice President, Floride Calhoun was a central figure in the Petticoat Affair. Two distant cousins were South Carolina Governors Andrew Pickens and his son Francis Wilkinson Pickens.

He is invited to dinner at Jackson's house.

Calhoun as Nationalist

In 1810, Calhoun was elected to Congress, and became one of the War Hawks who, led by Henry Clay, agitated for what became the War of 1812. After the war, he proposed a Bonus Bill for public works. With the goal of building a strong nation that could fight a future war, he aggressively pushed for high protective tariffs (to build up industry), a national bank, internal improvements, and many other policies he later repudiated.

In 1817, President James Monroe appointed Calhoun to be Secretary of War, where he served until 1825. As Belko (2004) argues, his management of Indian affairs proved his nationalism. His opponents were the "Old Republicans" in Congress, with their Jeffersonian ideology for economy in the federal government; they often attacked the operations and finances of the war department. Calhoun was a reform-minded executive, who attempted to institute centralization and efficiency in the Indian department, but Congress either failed to respond to his reforms or rejected them. Calhoun's frustration with congressional inaction, political rivalries, and ideological differences that dominated the late early republic spurred him to unilaterally create the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824.

In the election of 1824, no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College; the election was ultimately resolved by the House of Representatives. Calhoun forged an alliance between factions that made John Quincy Adams President and Calhoun Vice President. But he soon broke with Adams, whom he believed unfairly favored Northern interests.

Jackson and the Nullification Crisis

Calhoun became Andrew Jackson's running mate in the election of 1828, and again became Vice President. But once again a rift between Northern and Southern views drove a wedge between Calhoun and his president.

The Tariff of 1828, also known as the Tariff of Abominations aggravated this rift between Vice President Calhoun and the Jacksonians. Calhoun had been assured that Jacksonians would reject the bill, but the Northern Jacksonians were primarily responsible for its passage. Frustrated, he returned to his South Carolina plantation to write South Carolina Exposition and Protest, an essay rejecting the nationalist philosophy he once advocated.

Calhoun now supported the theory of concurrent majority through the doctrine of nullification — that individual states could override federal legislation they deemed unconstitutional. Nullification traced back to arguments by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, which proposed that states could nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jackson, who supported states rights, but believed that nullification threatened the union, opposed it. The difference, however, between Calhoun's arguments and those of Jefferson and Madison, is that Calhoun explicitly argued for the state's right to secede from the Union if necessary, instead of simply nullifying certain federal legislation.

In 1832, the states rights theory was put to the test in the Nullification Crisis after South Carolina passed an ordinance that claimed to nullify federal tariffs. The tariffs favored Northern manufacturing interests over Southern agricultural concerns, and the South Carolina legislature declared them to be unconstitutional.

In response, Congress passed the Force Bill, which empowered the president to use military power to force states to obey all federal laws, and Jackson sent US Navy warships to Charleston Harbor. South Carolina then nullified the Force Bill. But tensions cooled after both sides agreed to the Compromise of 1833, a proposal by Senator Henry Clay to change the tariff law in a manner which satisfied Calhoun, who by then was in the Senate.

During the Nullification Crisis, President Jackson said in a famous toast, "Our federal Union—it must and shall be preserved." In Vice President Calhoun's toast, he replied, "The Union; next to our liberty most dear!" The humor in this is that Calhoun argued for the Doctrine of Nullification, which had gone as far as to suggest secession, anonymously, making his true opinions unknown to Jackson. The break between Jackson and Calhoun was complete, and, in 1832, Calhoun ran for the Senate rather than remain as Jackson's Vice President. Calhoun had always held aspirations to be president, and had become Jackson's vice-president in the hope that Jackson's frail health would give out.

U.S. Senate and the slavery debate

In December 1832, Calhoun accepted election to the United States Senate from his native South Carolina, becoming the first Vice President to resign from office in U.S. history. He would achieve his greatest influence and most lasting fame as a senator.

Calhoun led the pro-slavery faction in the Senate in the 1830s and 1840s, opposing both abolitionism and attempts to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories. He was also a major advocate of the Fugitive Slave Law, which enforced the co-operation of Free States in returning escaping slaves.

Calhoun couched his defense of the institution of slavery in terms of (white male) Southerners' liberty and self-determination. And whereas other Southern politicians had excused slavery as a necessary evil, in a famous February 1837 speech on the Senate floor, Calhoun went further, asserting that slavery was a "positive good." He rooted this claim on two grounds—white supremacy and paternalism. All societies, Calhoun claimed, are ruled by an elite group which enjoys the fruits of the labor of a less-privileged group.

Calhoun's fierce defense of slavery and support for the Slave Power played a major role in deepening the growing divide between the Northern and Southern states on this issue, wielding the threat of Southern secession to back slave-state demands.

After a one year break as Secretary of State, Calhoun returned to the Senate in 1845, participating in the epic Senate struggle over the expansion of slavery in the Western states that produced the Compromise of 1850. But his health deteriorated and he died in March 1850, of tuberculosis in Washington, DC, at the age of 68, and was buried in St. Phillips Churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina.


Calhoun's legacy as one of the leading defenders of slavery in American history made him a highly controversial figure. On the other hand his original and articulate argument in defense of minority rights has became the legal basis of much of the civil rights movement.

During the Civil War, the Confederate government honored Calhoun on a one-cent postage stamp, which was printed but never officially released.

Calhoun was also honored by his alma mater, Yale University, which named one of its undergraduate residence halls "Calhoun College." (In recent years some students have called for the residence hall to be renamed, either by dropping the name of the slavery defender entirely or by hyphenating Calhoun's name with the name of a civil rights leader. Their efforts have not been successful, but the issue flares periodically.) The university also erected a statue of Calhoun in Harkness Tower, a prominent campus landmark.

Clemson University is also part of Calhoun's legacy. The campus occupies the site of Calhoun's Fort Hill plantation, which he bequeathed to his wife and daughter, who promptly sold it to a relative along with 50 slaves, receiving $15,000 for the 1100 acres and $29,000 for the slaves. When that owner died, Thomas Green Clemson foreclosed the mortgage as administrator of his mother-in-law's estate, thus regaining the property from his in-laws' widow. Clemson's chief claim to fame, prior to founding the university in his will, was having served as ambassador to Belgium — a post he obtained through the influence of his father-in-law, who was Secretary of State at the time. In 1888, after Calhoun's daughter had died, Clemson wrote a will bequeathing his father-in-law's former estate to South Carolina on the condition that it be used for an agricultural university to be named "Clemson." A nearby town named for Calhoun was renamed "Clemson" in the 1930s.

Calhoun is also the namesake for Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama and Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, MN. John C. Calhoun Drive, a well known street named after him, is located in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In 1957, United States Senators honored Calhoun as one of the "five greatest senators of all time."