John Caldwell Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) was a leading United States Southern politician and political philosopher from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. He is perhaps best known as the first Vice President to resign his office. Calhoun was an advocate of slavery, states' rights, limited government, and nullification. He was the first Vice President born as a U.S. citizen.
After a short stint in the South Carolina legislature, where he wrote legislation making South Carolina the first state to adopt universal suffrage for white men, Calhoun began his federal career as a staunch nationalist, favoring war with Britain in 1812 and a federal program of internal improvements afterwards. He reversed course in the 1820s, when the "Corrupt Bargain" of 1824 led him to renounce nationalism in favor of states' rights of the sort Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had propounded in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 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-iron man" for his staunch determination to defend the causes in which he believed, Calhoun pushed nullification, under which states could declare null and void federal laws 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. He was part of the "Great Triumvirate", or the "Immortal Trio", along with his colleagues Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.
Northerners believed that the United States Congress had the power to exclude slavery from the territories and should exercise that power. Southerners, not surprisingly, challenged the doctrine of congressional authority to regulate or prohibit slavery in the territories. In 1847 Calhoun claimed that citizens from every state had the right to take their "property" to any territory. Congress, he asserted, had no authority to place restrictions on slavery in the territories. If the Northern majority continued to ride roughshod over the rights of the Southern minority, the Southern states would have little option but to secede.
Calhoun held several high federal government 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 James Monroe and Secretary of State (1844–1845) under John Tyler.
When his father became ill, the 17-year-old Calhoun quit school to continue the family farm. With his brothers' financial support, he later returned to his studies, earning a degree from Yale College in 1804. After studying law at the Tapping Reeve Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut, Calhoun was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807.
In January 1811 Calhoun married his first cousin once removed, Floride Bonneau Colhoun, whose branch of the family spelled the surname differently than did his. The couple had 10 children over 18 years; three died in infancy. During her husband's second term as Vice President, Floride Calhoun was a central figure in the Petticoat Affair.
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. Calhoun's nationalism also manifested itself in his advice to Monroe to sign off on the Missouri Compromise, which most other Southern politicians saw as a distinctly bad deal; Calhoun believed that continued agitation of the slavery issue threatened the Union, so the Missouri dispute had to be concluded.
It should be noted that during this time period, Calhoun was perhaps the most tireless and selfless proponent of the nationalist agenda in American politics. As Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote in 1821, "Calhoun is a man of fair and candid mind, of honorable principles, of clear and quick understanding, of cool self-possession, of enlarged philosophical views, and of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted. Historian Charles Wiltse agrees, noting, "Though he is known today primarily for his sectionalism, Calhoun was the last of the great political leaders of his time to take a sectional position-later than Webster, later than Clay, later than Adams himself.
The Tariff of 1828 (also known as the Tariff of Abominations) aggravated the rift between Calhoun and the Jacksonians. Calhoun had been assured that Jacksonians would reject the bill, but Northern Jacksonians were primarily responsible for its passage. Frustrated, Calhoun returned to his South Carolina plantation to write South Carolina Exposition and Protest, an essay rejecting the nationalist philosophy he once advocated.
He 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 between Calhoun's arguments and those of Jefferson and Madison is that Calhoun explicitly argued for a state's right to secede from the Union, if necessary, instead of simply nullifying certain federal legislation. Madison rebuked the nullificationists and said that no state had the right to nullify federal law.
At the 1830 Jefferson Day dinner at Jesse Brown's Indian Queen Hotel (April 13, 1830), Jackson proposed a toast and proclaimed "Our federal Union, it must be preserved," to which Calhoun replied "the Union, next to our liberty, the most dear. In May 1830, the relationship between Jackson and Calhoun deteriorated further when Jackson discovered that Calhoun — while serving as Monroe's Secretary of War — had requested President Monroe to censure Jackson (at the time a General) for invading Spanish Florida in 1818 during the Seminole War without authorization from either Calhoun or President Monroe. Calhoun defended his 1818 request, stating it was the right thing to do. The feud between him and Jackson heated up as Calhoun informed the President that another attack from his opponents was not hard for others to see, and would have a series of argumentative letters sent to each other - fueled by Jackson's opponents - until Jackson stopped the correspondence in July 1830. By February, 1831, the break between Calhoun and Jackson was final after Calhoun - responding to inaccurate press reports about the feud - published the letters in the United States Telegram. More damage was done to Jackson and Calhoun's relationship after Floride Calhoun organized a coalition among Cabinet wives against Peggy Eaton, wife of Secretary of War John Eaton. It was alleged that John and Peggy Eaton had engaged in an adulterous affair while Mrs. Eaton was still legally married to her first husband, John B. Timberlake; the allegations allegedly drove Timberlake to suicide. The scandal, which became known as the Petticoat Affair or the Peggy Eaton Affair, resulted in the resignation of Jackson's Cabinet except for Postmaster General William T. Barry and Martin Van Buren who resigned as Secretary of State, but only in order to take an alternative position in Jackson's administration as United States Ambassador to Britain.
In 1832, the states' rights theory was put to the test in the Nullification Crisis after South Carolina passed an ordinance that nullified federal tariffs. The tariffs favored Northern manufacturing interests over Southern agricultural concerns, and the South Carolina legislature declared them to be unconstitutional. Calhoun had also formed a political party in South Carolina known as the Nullifier Party.
In response to the South Carolina move, 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. Tensions cooled after both sides agreed to the Compromise Tariff 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.
The irony in this is that Calhoun (anonymously, making his true opinions unknown to Jackson) argued for the doctrine of nullification, which had gone as far as to suggest secession. Calhoun had written the 1828 essay South Carolina Exposition and Protest, arguing that a state could veto any law it considered unconstitutional. The break between Jackson and Calhoun was complete, and in 1832, Calhoun ran for the Senate rather than remain as Vice President; because he exposed his nullification beliefs during the nullification crisis, his chances of becoming President were very low. After the Compromise Tariff of 1833 went into effect, the Nullifier Party, along with other anti-Jackson politicians, formed a coalition known as the Whig Party. Calhoun sided with the Whigs until he broke with key Whig Senator Daniel Webster over slavery as well as the Whigs' program of "internal improvements", which many Southern politicians believe improved Northern industrial interests at the expense of Southern interests. Whig party leader Clay sided with Webster on these issues.
On December 28, 1832, Calhoun accepted election to the United States Senate from his native South Carolina, becoming the first Vice President in U.S. history to resign from office, and the third Vice President to relinquish the office prior to its full term (Vice Presidents George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry both died in office). 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 Southern states' right to preserve the institution of slavery in terms of liberty and self-determination. Whereas other Southern politicians had excused slavery as a necessary evil, in a famous February 1837 Slavery a Positive Good, 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. But unlike in the North and in Europe, where the laboring classes were cast aside to die in poverty by the aristocracy when they became too old or sick to work, in the South slaves were cared for even when no longer useful.
Calhoun's fierce defense of states' rights and support for the Slave Power played a major role in deepening the growing divide between 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, D.C., at the age of 68, and was buried in St. Philips Churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina.
John C. Calhoun viewed the interactions with the American Indians as fundamental to protecting the United States. He felt that having a separate, distinct culture within the borders of the United States would create problems in such areas as land usage, interracial relationships, and trade. His beliefs that Indians were inferior steered Calhoun to support a policy of the removal of the Indians in the eastern United States. His position in the American political system as Secretary of War and later the Vice-President allowed for Calhoun’s policies to be implemented in the United States, resulting in a nationalistic stance that did not permit the American Indian culture from existing inside the boundaries of what Calhoun saw as “white civilization.”
Calhoun saw the Indians as savages that lived outside the culture of the white-dominated, market philosophy. He saw this difference between societies as a dominate versus subordinate relationship. This furthered his position: either assimilate the Indians into American culture or move them West so they are separated from white American society. Calhoun thought that the period for the Indian to be calmly assimilated had ended by the time he was appointed to the position of Secretary of War in 1817. For Calhoun this meant that in the best interests of both parties, the United States and the Indians, the Indians should move westward into the area west of Lake Michigan or into the area of the Louisiana Purchase. This, in his opinion, would allow the government to control the interactions between the Indians and the white Americans. It would discourage interracial relationships as well as control the economy for the Indians through the factory system.
In Calhoun’s writings, his position is clear that he feels that the Indians would cease to exist if the United States did not take policies to remove them from the land that was coveted by the white Americans. As savages, their society could not survive. There seemed to be urgency in Calhoun’s writing. He felt it his duty, as an enlightened person in power, to “help” the Indians become civilized.
As Secretary of War under James Monroe, Calhoun and his department were authorized to make what they considered generous offers to Eastern tribes in exchange for their moving west of the Mississippi River. Some groups, such as some Cherokees accepted these offers. Other tribes, especially those that were not nomadic and had a connection to a specific area, refused the offers. These tribes were eventually relocated through removal. See:Trail of Tears Calhoun also established posts or forts for trading with the Indians and created an American presence in the Indian West. The goal was to cut off the Indians’ trade with the British and allow the United States to monopolize the fur trade. Calhoun established the Bureau of Indian Affairs as part of the War Department in 1824; he did this without congressional authorization. Congress did authorize a Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1832 after Calhoun had left the War Department. This gave the War Department authority over all federal expenditures concerning Indians. In particular, they controlled the funds for the civilization of the Indians. Many of Calhoun’s policy ideas were implemented during his tenure as Secretary of War and Vice-President. He believed that government interference in the lives of Indians was essential because the Indians were too ignorant and uncivilized to be allowed to make their own decisions and live as they chose.
Calhoun was also honored by his alma mater, Yale University, which named one of its undergraduate residence halls "Calhoun College". 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 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 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 1943.
Calhoun is also the namesake for Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama, and Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many streets in the South, such as John C. Calhoun Drive in Orangeburg, South Carolina and the John C. Calhoun Expressway in Augusta, GA, are named in his memory. Calhoun County, Georgia, Calhoun County, Illinois, Calhoun County, Iowa , Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Calhoun County, Michigan are also named in his honor. In 1957, United States Senators honored Calhoun as one of the "five greatest senators of all time."
Calhoun Middle School in Denton, Texas, is named after John C. Calhoun.
Calhoun also has a landing on the Santee-Cooper River in Santee, South Carolina, named after him. Calhoun Monument stands in Charleston, South Carolina. Calhoun Street, a large thoroughfare in Charleston was also named after Calhoun and the USS John C. Calhoun was a Fleet Ballistic Missile nuclear submarine, in commission from 1963 to 1994.
Calhoun was rumored to have been involved in a duel with Revolutionary War hero and Whiskey Rebellion mastermind Logan "Charlie Two-Shirts" Morland. The fight infamously ended in a draw when the pair, both already embroiled over their insults to each other, were further dishonored by an affront from none other than Charles Lindbergh's ancestor, Gunther Lindbergh. According to legend, Calhoun and Morland forgot their own quarrels, turned their weapons on Lindbergh, and mortally wounded him after he shouted, "Duels are the sport of cowards, Indian-appeasers, and Frenchmen." Most scholars, however, treat the tale as pure myth and conjecture.