John Caldwell Calhoun

Biography
VP under Andrew Jackson

JOHN C. CALHOUN - Biography

John Caldwell Calhoun, (1782-1850), kal-hoon', American statesman and political philosopher. From 1811 until his death he served in the federal government, successively as congressman, secretary of war, VICE PRESIDENT, senator, secretary of state, and again as senator. Always he was at the heart of the issues of his time, notably the nullification crisis and the conflict over slavery. Loyal to his nation, to his state of South Carolina, and, above all, to his principles, he sought to preserve the union while advancing Southern interests.

Early Career

Born in Abbeville district, S.C., on March 18, 1782, Calhoun grew up in an atmosphere of controversy and social change. The extension of cotton culture was bringing slavery into the up-country, where small farmers like his father were challenging the political dominance of the low-country planters. Calhoun was largely self-educated before he entered Yale as a junior in 1801. He graduated with honors in 1804; went on to law school, in Litchfield, Conn.; and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807.

Practicing in his native district, he quickly gained the reputation that took him to the state legislature. There, from 1809 to 1811, he helped establish an enduring balance of power between South Carolina's tidewater planters and piedmont farmers.

Calhoun's own future, both socially and economically, was assured by his marriage in 1811 to a wealthy cousin, Floride Bonneau Calhoun. The couple settled at Abbeville, moving in 1825 to the Fort Hill plantation near Pendleton, the future site of Clemson University.

National Politics

Calhoun entered CONGRESS in 1811. He was one of the group of young nationalists urging war with Britain to redeem America's honor. Calhoun introduced the war report of 1812, and throughout the contest he urged measures to strengthen the armed forces and to finance the war. When hostilities were over he proposed reconstruction measures and supported what came to be known as the "American System"--a combination of protective tariff, internal transportation, and national bank. As secretary of war in James Monroe's cabinet, he contributed significantly to the reorganization of the Army and to the extension of the Western frontier.

In 1824, Calhoun was elected vice president of the United States with support from both the Adams and Jackson factions. He served under the victorious John Quincy ADAMS, but in 1828 he supported Andrew JACKSON and was again elected to the vice presidency when Jackson won the presidency.

Between the close of the War of 1812 and the election of 1828, the American scene had changed radically. A postwar depression had aroused a hard core of hostility against the Bank of the United States and had brought the first of a long series of increases in the tariff. The perennial question of state versus national power had been reopened by a series of centralizing Supreme Court decisions, while the Missouri Compromise of 1821 revealed an unsuspected depth of sectional cleavage over slavery.

Although the cultivation of new lands contributed to overproduction and falling prices, the Southern cotton planters blamed their misfortunes on the tariff, which by raising the cost of manufactured goods tended to depress the foreign market for their own staple. In South Carolina, men talked ominously of calculating the value of the union. The very high Tariff of 1828 drove the cotton states to the verge of rebellion. Calhoun had turned against the tariff after 1824, but Jackson's position was equivocal. To advise the incoming president of what the South expected of him, the South Carolina legislature asked Calhoun to prepare a report. The resulting document, known as the South Carolina Exposition (1828), was the first explicit statement of Calhoun's unique political philosophy.

Nullification

The theory that a state might nullify--that is, refuse to obey--an act of Congress it believed unconstitutional had been implied as early as 1798 by MADISON and JEFFERSON in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition laws. The doctrine of states' rights, based on the concept that each of the states originally had been sovereign and independent, had been expounded for a generation. From these theories Calhoun derived his remedy. If the tariff were not reduced, he argued, the states might "interpose their sovereignty" to arrest the application of the law.

Congress failed to reduce the duties, and some South Carolinians were ready to put the theory to the test. To restrain the hotheads, Calhoun issued a further exposition of his doctrines, the Fort Hill Address of 1831. But when the Tariff of 1832 declared protection to be the fixed policy of the country, revolt broke out anew. Calhoun again amplified his doctrine, in a letter to Gov. James Hamilton, Jr., of South Carolina, but the time for words had passed. In November 1832 a special convention declared the tariff null and void within the state. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency to reenter the SENATE, where he could better defend South Carolina's action. Ultimately a compromise tariff was negotiated, largely by Henry Clay.

By this time Jackson and Calhoun were sharply at odds. The president had now learned that Calhoun, when secretary of war, had opposed Jackson's pursuit of marauding Seminoles into Spanish Florida. After the nullification episode the gulf became unbridgeable, as Jackson fervently opposed that doctrine. When Jackson removed the government deposits from the Bank of the United States in 1833, Calhoun, though not a strong Bank supporter, joined the Whig opposition in censure of the president. He did not return to the DEMOCRATIC PARTY until the late 1830's.

Sectional Strife

By that time party politics, for Calhoun, had been superseded by sectional interests. As the antislavery crusade gained momentum in the North, he became preoccupied with the political defense and intellectual justification of the "peculiar institution" on which Southerners generally believed their whole economy rested. He supported the Independent Treasury plan proposed by President Martin VAN BUREN as an alternative to a national bank and opposed Whig attempts to restore the tariff, but for the most part the last 15 years of his life were devoted to the promotion of Southern unity.

In the Senate, Calhoun engineered passage of the gag rule that precluded discussion of slavery. As secretary of state in the last year of John TYLER's administration (1844), he arranged the annexation of Texas, which he justified on the ground that it would enlarge the area open to slavery and so help preserve sectional balance in the union. Back in the Senate in 1846, he led the battle against the Wilmot Proviso, which would have excluded slavery from territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War.

He was still insisting upon the right of the slaveholders to take their human chattels into any territory of the United States when he denounced the Compromise of 1850 almost with his last breath. Too ill to speak, Calhoun sat in the Senate while his final exhortation was read on March 4, 1850. His last appearance there was on March 7, when he heard and approved Daniel Webster's appeal for sectional peace. He died in Washington on March 31, 1850.

Philosophy

The substance of Calhoun's last speech was an argument for restoration of the sectional equilibrium that had existed from the earliest days of the republic by giving to each section, through its own majority, a veto on the acts of the federal government. This doctrine of the concurrent majority had been implicit in his nullification papers. It was amplified in the 1840's in a Disquisition on Government, intended as an introduction to a larger Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. The Discourse and its prologue were published by the state of South Carolina shortly after his death.

Although he was one of the intellectual progenitors of the Southern Confederacy, Calhoun never sought that solution. His tragedy was that his defense of an indefensible institution led him to reject democracy itself. His doctrine of representation by major interest groups influenced the functional federalism of a later day but in his own time only prepared the way for the destruction of the Union he loved.

Charles M. Wiltse
Dartmouth College

For Further Reading:

Coit, Margaret L., John C. Calhoun (Berg 1977)
Lander, E. M., Reluctant Imperialists: Calhoun, the South Carolinians,
and the Mexican War (La. State Univ. Press 1980)
Peterson, M. D.,The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay and Calhoun
(Oxford 1987)
Wiltse, Charles M., John C. Calhoun, 3 vols. (Bobbs 1944-1951)


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John Caldwell Calhoun was born March 18, 1782, the son of Patrick Calhoun and Margaret Caldwell. The place of his birth was then called Abbeville District, near Calhoun Mills, but is known today as Mount McCormick in McCormick County, South Carolina. His father was a slave holder, having more than a dozen slaves on his plantation. It is probably no surprise, therefore, that John would grow up as a pro-slavery politician.

John attended and graduated from Yale University in 1804. His studies continued in the field of law and he was admitted to the bar in 1807 and began practice in Abbeville, SC. He became a member of the state House of Representatives, serving from 1808 to 1809. He married Floride Bouneau in 1811 and eventually had nine children. He was elected (as a Republican) to the US Congress and served from March 4, 1811 through November 3, 1817, when he resigned to serve as Secretary of War in the Cabinet of President James Monroe, 1817-1825.

He desired to succeed Pres. Monroe to the Presidency, but when support proved to be
insufficient, ran as Vice President and served in that position under John Quincy Adams. In
1828, he was re-elected to that position with Andrew Jackson and served until December, 1828,
when he retired. Several reasons for his retirement are suggested. But it would seem that he
had wanted to have more of an influence as Vice President but had been unable to affect
legislation concerning the enactment of tariffs (John was in favor of high tariffs as a form of
protectionism). When Robert Y. Hayne resigned, John saw a chance to leave the Presidency
and filled that vacated position from December 29, 1832 until he again resigned effective March
3, 1843.

He served as Secretary of State in the cabinet of John Tyler from 1844-1845. Again elected to
the United States Senate, he served from November 26, 1845 until his death on March 31, 1850.

John Caldwell Calhoun was a very outspoken individual with definite political ideas, though those
did seem subject to adjustment from time to time. In 1957, the United States Senate voted him
one of the five greatest US Senators of all time. No less than eleven states now have counties
named in honor of Mr. Calhoun and a life size statue of him can be found in the east central hall
of the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

John Caldwell Calhoun was apparently very proud of his Caldwell heritage, and is reported to have had in his possession, a copy of the history of the Caldwell name.

(submitted by Micheal Ross Caldwell)


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On a small plantation in Abbeville County, South Carolina, John Caldwell Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782. He studied at Waddel's Academy in Georgia, graduated with honors from Yale in 1804, studied at Tapping Reeve's Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut, and was admitted to the bar in 1807. He practiced briefly in Abbeville before pursuing a political career. After one year in the state House of Representatives, he served from 1811 to 1817 in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming a leader of the "war hawks" and a staunch nationalist. Calhoun resigned to become President Monroe's secretary of war.

He subsequently was elected to two successive terms as vice president, serving under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Resigning in 1832 because of political differences with Jackson, Calhoun was elected to the U.S. Senate and served until 1843. Appointed President Tyler's secretary of state, he secured the annexation of Texas. Elected again to the U.S. Senate in 1845, he served until his death.

A powerful orator, Calhoun became the leading spokesman for the South during attempts to resolve politically the conflict between the sections. Calhoun, a brilliant theoretician, advocated a fine balance of nullification and the use of "concurrent majorities" to prevent the dissolution of the Union. His political treatises, published posthumously, were influential in America and abroad. Calhoun died on March 31, 1850, in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Charleston, South Carolina.

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John graduated Yale University 1802-1804-Law School at Litchfield, CT in 1805. He was admitted to the bar in 1807; elected to the House of Representatives from SC in 1807; 1808 appointed to staff of Gov. Drayton; elected to Congress 1810, 1812, 1814, 1816; in 1817 he was selected Secretary of War by President Monroe until 1825; he was Vice President of the United States, resigning from that office in 1832; he was elected Senator from SC and re-elected 1834 and 1840, resigning in 1842-43.
In 1844, he was a candidate for US president, but withdrew and was appointed Secretary of State by President Tyler; served one year and again elected to Senate. He died in Washington, DC at age 86.
Facts
  • 18 Mar 1782 - Birth - ; South Carolina
  • 31 Mar 1850 - Death - ; South Carolina
Ancestors
   
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John Caldwell Calhoun
18 Mar 1782 - 31 Mar 1850
  
 
  
William Findley Caldwell
1 Feb 1704 - 1761
 
 
Martha Caldwell
1750 - 15 May 1801
  
  
  
Rebecca PARKS (PARQUE)
ABT 1707 - 1806
 
Family Group Sheet - Child
PARENT (M) Patrick Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriageto LIVING
Marriageto Martha Caldwell
Father?
Mother?
PARENT (F) Martha Caldwell
Birth1750ub Creek, Lunenburg (Charl
Death15 May 1801 Abbeville Distri, SC
Marriageto Patrick Calhoun
FatherWilliam Findley Caldwell
MotherRebecca PARKS (PARQUE)
CHILDREN
FCatherine Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriageto LIVING
MJames Calhoun
Birth
Death
MPatrick Jr. Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriageto LIVING
MWilliam Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriage30 Jan 1805to CATHERINE JENNER DEGRAFFENREID
MJohn Caldwell Calhoun
Birth18 Mar 1782South Carolina
Death31 Mar 1850South Carolina
Marriage8 Jan 1811to Floride Colhoun
Family Group Sheet - Spouse
PARENT (M) John Caldwell Calhoun
Birth18 Mar 1782South Carolina
Death31 Mar 1850 South Carolina
Marriage8 Jan 1811to Floride Colhoun
FatherPatrick Calhoun
MotherMartha Caldwell
PARENT (F) Floride Colhoun
Birth
Death
Marriage8 Jan 1811to John Caldwell Calhoun
FatherLIVING
Mother?
CHILDREN
MAndrew Pickens Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriageto LIVING
Marriageto LIVING
FAnna Maria Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriageto LIVING
MPatrick Calhoun
Birth
Death
MJohn Caldwell Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriageto LIVING
Marriageto LIVING
FMartha Cornelia Calhoun
Birth
Death
MJames Calhoun
Birth
Death
MWilliam Lowndes Calhoun
Birth
Death
Marriageto LIVING
Marriageto LIVING
Descendancy Chart