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Congressional Lions: John C. Calhoun


Of the members of the “Great Triumvirate” in the United States Senate during the nineteenth century, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina appears the most distant to us now. I discuss his turbulent life and career my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.

He is remembered as an ardent apologist for state rights and slavery. Because ultimately he landed on the wrong side of history, his legacy is tainted. Why couple with him celebrated legislative giants such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster? Calhoun was simply another crass, heartless, self-interested southerner dressing up his racist views under a blanket of constitutional niceties that, when stripped away, do not survive serious scrutiny, or so his detractors, then and now, have charged.

It wasn’t always that way. The early Calhoun was a nationalist who sought to improve America’s position in, and preparedness for, world affairs. He never questioned the legitimacy of slavery as a defensible institution, it is true, but few white Americans of the time argued against the existence of the institution. At the start of his long career, Calhoun was not quite the zealous pro-slavery advocate and state rights champion he was to become. Time and circumstances changed him.

He was born in the Abbeville District, South Carolina, on March 18, 1782, the fourth of five children born to Patrick Calhoun, a farmer, planter, and eventual member of the South Carolina state legislature, and his wife, Martha. Patrick fought in the American Revolution, but opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution because he feared it would strip too much power from the states, an anti-centralist position his son later adopted. In 1796, Patrick Calhoun died, leaving 13-year-old John to help operate the family business since his siblings already had left home.

As a child of the South Carolina frontier, Calhoun’s life was difficult, and his future appeared bleak. Yet he refused to accept his lot in life. Aside from working to support his family, he read and studied mostly on his own, although he briefly attended an academy in Georgia. It was obvious that the young man was gifted. His brothers recognized his potential, and they decided to cultivate it by sending him to Yale College in Connecticut. The opportunity forever altered the trajectory of his life and career.

Calhoun remained in Connecticut after college to study at Litchfield Law School, the first school of its kind in the United States. He returned to South Carolina and became a member of the bar in 1807. Although Calhoun did not especially enjoy practicing law, he developed a knack for it. His arguments were logical, and his manner serious. Like the other members of the Great Triumvirate, he was known for his superior oratorical style. He was not quite a match for Webster or Clay in eloquence, but Calhoun established a reputation for logical reasoning and tightly argued opinions. He possessed a pleasant baritone voice and a self-confident, arguably arrogant public persona that impressed and often intimidated others. He was truly a “cast-iron man,” as contemporaries called him.

Calhoun threw himself into politics, his lifelong passion. Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1810, he arrived in Washington, D.C. the same year that Henry Clay became a congressman, and two years before Daniel Webster. Although he and Clay would differ on many political issues in subsequent years, in 1811 they were united in their calls for the United States to declare war against Great Britain. The war hawks, a faction of which Clay and Calhoun were leading members, believed that Great Britain’s attacks on American shipping threatened the health of the nation and undermined its values. Calhoun helped prepare the Report on Foreign Relations as well as the War Report of 1812, two documents that laid the groundwork for an armed confrontation with the English. He also served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which played an instrumental role in pushing the country toward war.

Because he was so tied to the war, Calhoun’s reputation suffered with every battlefield defeat during the War of 1812. His fortunes improved at war’s end, however. With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, and General Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans the following month, the war became more popular. American public opinion swung in Calhoun’s favor. The war years had been a dark time, but the cessation of hostilities revealed a proud, undefeated nation. Calhoun’s stock rebounded.

He had been dismayed by the poor management of the war. Calhoun witnessed firsthand the hazards of decentralization when it came to conducting national affairs, especially with the military. After their experience under oppressive British rule during the colonial period, Americans had distrusted a standing army, preferring instead to rely on a voluntary militia system. The system had failed during the War of 1812, Calhoun believed, and he thought he saw the solution. The United States needed a professional army. It also needed a system of permanent, high-quality roads as well as a central bank of the United States to handle financing. In short, he became a powerful voice for national authority.

Given his desire to see improvements in the military, it was only natural that Calhoun joined the cabinet. In this case, a new president, James Monroe, found that few men of promise desired to manage the War Department when the administration commenced in 1817. Monroe finally offered the position to Calhoun, and he accepted. He now was well-placed to enact his program, calling for an improved navy and a system of internal taxation to finance it.

Calhoun’s tenure was stormy. He and Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford, both of whom harbored presidential aspirations, became rivals within the Monroe administration. Perhaps more damaging to Calhoun’s quest to improve wartime preparations than Crawford’s opposition, Americans were wary of spending money on military affairs in the aftermath of the War of 1812. State rights advocates, fearing any federal interference with slavery, urged Calhoun and Crawford to resist promoting policies that would strengthen the central government. In March 1821, Congress reflected this mistrust of big government by passing a new law, the Reduction Act, to cut the number of enlisted men in half as well as trim the officer corps. Despite his fear that Americans had learned nothing about military preparedness from the war, Calhoun also understood that his future political prospects required him to placate state right advocates. He acquiesced when the Reduction Act passed.

When the 1824 presidential election season commenced, Calhoun threw his hat into the ring. His rivals, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay, could claim broader political support than he. It soon became obvious that Calhoun could not win the nomination, but he was a consensus choice for the vice presidency. When the presidential election ended in a stalemate, the election went into the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams, a Massachusetts man, emerged as the victor. Calhoun was his second.

During these years, the South was becoming ever more isolated from the North as the slavery issue took center stage. Fearful that northern men would support policies to limit the extension of slavery into new territories, southern representations became ever more vocal in their support for state rights. Calhoun had voiced support for national laws, but he owed his political viability to the South. He could not afford to alienate his constituents. As the South moved away from supporting national policies, Calhoun followed along. Whether his political evolution was as principled as he later argued is a matter of debate.

What is not disputed is Calhoun’s estrangement from the Adams administration. Anyone watching political developments during John Quincy Adams’s presidency clearly saw the animosity building among the Democrats who believed that their man Andrew Jackson had been denied his place in the executive mansion. Sensing the shifting political tides, in 1826 Calhoun wrote a letter to Jackson offering his support in the next presidential election. It was an audacious act for a sitting vice president to throw his allegiance to someone other this his chief, but, then again, John C. Calhoun was an audacious man.

Just as Calhoun had never been close to Adams, he was not a thoroughgoing Jacksonian. The uneducated backwoodsman with the populist rhetoric was the antithesis of the Yale-educated South Carolinian and his well-developed sense of manners and propriety. A southern man with an aristocratic bent simply did not behave as Jackson did. Still, Calhoun understood how to practice politics as well as anyone. Jackson upheld southern values and state rights far better than Adams, who hailed from the antislavery North. Jackson owned slaves and was amenable to imposing his will on non-whites. The opportunistic Calhoun believed, with some justification, that Jackson would offer a better deal than Adams. Their divergent opinions on nullification and the Union were some years in the future.

In the election of 1828, Jackson won the presidency, resoundingly defeating Adams. Calhoun once again became vice president, making him only the second man in American history to serve as vice president under two separate presidents. If Calhoun had hoped to enjoy better relations with Jackson than he had with Adams, however, he was badly mistaken. From the outset, their relationship was strained, and it only grew worse with time.

Jackson and Calhoun broke off cordial relations in 1830 when the president learned that while Calhoun served as secretary of war, he had favored censuring Jackson for the general’s 1818 decision to invade Florida without presidential approval. Contemporaneous letters left little doubt that Calhoun had supported the censure despite his subsequent assurances to the contrary. The news enraged Jackson, who believed that his vice president had betrayed him. Their relationship never recovered from the revelation.

As vice president under Adams, Calhoun was angry that an 1828 tariff had been pushed through Congress over southern opposition. He anonymously produced an essay, “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” denouncing the Tariff of Abominations and arguing for a strict interpretation of the United States Constitution. He became a vocal champion of nullification, which allowed a state to nullify, or void, a federal law that harmed the interests of the state, as determined by state legislatures. He also argued on behalf of concurrent majorities, the right of a state’s majority—although a minority of the whole nation—to oppose a tyranny of the majority on the federal level.

Calhoun believed that his notions of federal-state relations were a natural extension of Jeffersonian theories of limited government. He cited arguments developed by Jefferson and Madison in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions opposing the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. If a minority did not possess the authority to resist a majority, it would be possible for the federal government to become ever more centralized, eventually eclipsing the states altogether and making a mockery of the carefully crafted system of federalism established by the Founders.

Jackson initially appeared to be a state rights advocate, but he and Calhoun parted ways over nullification. Jackson recognized, even if Calhoun turned a blind eye, that allowing a state to nullify federal laws would only lead to chaos and disorder. The proper method of opposing federal control was through participation in federal lawmaking. Replacing the tyranny of the majority with the tyranny of the minority was not a viable solution to the crises of the 1820s and 1830s.

Calhoun finally resigned as vice president in December 1832. It had been a long time coming. He was a philosophical proponent of nullification in an administration that vigorously opposed the concept. As Jackson prepared to enter his second term with a new vice president, Martin Van Buren, Calhoun had only three months left in office. He decided not to wait, resigning from the vice presidency before the end of his term. A day later, stepped into his new role as a United States senator representing South Carolina.

Now that he could speak freely as a South Carolina man once again, Calhoun was liberated. Recognizing that the presidency probably was beyond his reach, he need not pull his punches, or moderate his views. He came out strongly against many of Jackson’s actions, including the president’s decision to remove federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States and deposit them into state banks. He also voted to censure Jackson for removing the funds, which contributed to the economic downturn known as the Panic of 1837.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Calhoun evolved into a fierce proponent of slavery and state rights. After serving briefly as secretary of state under President John Tyler, he ended his career as a United States senator. He was as outspoken and iconoclastic as ever.

Although Calhoun remained an integral participant in national affairs during this time, his health declined as he entered his sixties. A recurring bout of tuberculosis left him sidelined. His last major act as a public figure occurred shortly before his death, when Congress debated a series of laws known as the Compromise of 1850. He was 68 years old when the measures came before the Senate. Although he was too short of breath to speak, he wanted his views made known. On March 4, 1850, Calhoun’s friend and colleague, Senator James Mason of Virginia, agreed to read a statement on the South Carolinian’s behalf.

Calhoun argued that the only way to save the Union was for the North to stop assailing the South about slavery. “The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take,” he said. “She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make. She has already surrendered so much that she has little left to surrender. Such a settlement would go to the root of the evil, and remove all cause of discontent, by satisfying the South that she could remain honorably and safely in the Union, and thereby restore the harmony and fraternal feelings between the sections which existed anterior to the Missouri agitation. Nothing else can, with any certainty, finally and forever settle the question at issue, terminate agitation, and save the Union.”

It was his most famous speech. It was also his last. Calhoun died of tuberculosis on March 31, 1850. He did not live long enough to see the outcome of the 1850 debate. Henry Clay’s compromise eventually passed after Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois pushed through parts of the package as individual bills during the late summer and early fall. Clay, with Douglas’s able assistance, had done it again, even over Calhoun’s objections. The Union was preserved, at least temporarily.

Following his death, Calhoun’s legacy was difficult to assess. Southerners saw him as a giant among political philosophers and statesmen. Aside from his defense of state rights and slavery, he was cognizant of the need to protect minority rights in a system constructed on majority rule. His logical arguments favoring liberty over Union especially appealed to the Fire-eaters, those extreme southern partisans who urged the South to secede a decade after Calhoun had passed from the scene.

For northerners—and for subsequent generations of Americans—he was too wedded to outdated notions. His preference for state rights, his tolerance of the abominable institution of slavery, and his willingness to inflame passions at a time when cooler heads were needed made him part of the problem, not the solution. Calhoun simply could not grasp the need for a living constitution to evolve as societal standards evolved. He was a relic of a bygone era.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez