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General History and Description
to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861
19th Century, 1801-1845
|John C. Calhoun
U.S. Congressman, Secretary of War, U.S. Senator, Vice-President, Secretary of State
John Caldwell Calhoun was born in Abbeville District (now Mount Carmel, McCormick County), South Carolina, on March 18, 1782, the fourth child (third son) of Scotch-Irish immigrant Patrick Calhoun, a well-to-do landowner, farmer, state legislator, anti-Federalist political activist, and slave owner, and his second wife Martha Caldwell. Although his family could afford to provide John with a good education, there were very few schools in the area so his early schooling was sporadic. In 1795, he was sent to a private school run by the Rev. Moses Waddel in Appling, Georgia, but the school closed after a few months. John tried to continue his education on his own, but the death of his father forced him to return to the family farm, where he remained until 1800, when his relatives decided to allow him to return to Waddel's school, which had since reopened. In 1802, he passed the entrance exam into Yale College, from which he graduated with honors in 1804. He then studied law under Judge Tapping Reeve and James Gould at the Litchfield (Connecticut) Law School until July of 1806, after which he continued his training under, first, Judge Henry W. DeSaussure in Charleston and, then, George Bowie in Abbeville. He was admitted to the South Carolina bar in December of 1807 and became a partner in Bowie's firm, but only practiced a short time before entering politics.
Calhoun's first brush with politics came on August 3, 1807, when he organized a public rally in Abbeville to protest the British warship Leopard's attack on the American frigate Chesapeake off the Virginia coast in June of 1807. The speech he gave that day gained him many admirers, and, in 1808, he was elected to represent Abbeville District in the South Carolina Legislature; he served there until 1809.
After completing his term in the State Legislature, Calhoun briefly returned to his farm. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810, he served in that body from March 4, 1811 to November 3, 1817. During this period, he was known as an ardent nationalist and one of the strong supporters of the War of 1812. After the war, he supported most of President James Madison's post-war program, including a protective tariff, a national bank, and an enlarged army and navy.
Calhoun resigned from the House to accept the position of Secretary of War in James Monroe's Cabinet, in which capacity he served from December 8, 1817 to March 3, 1825. In this position, Calhoun improved the organization of both the Army and West Point, oversaw treaty negotiations with many Indian nations, sought a censure of General Andrew Jackson for overstepping his authority during the Seminole War by invading Spanish Florida in 1818, and worked for the development of coastal fortifications. He also personally supported the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Monroe Doctrine.
In 1824, Calhoun surprised many of his contemporaries by announcing his desire to run for President. Although he sincerely believed he was the best man for the job, he was dissuaded from running by the huge field of potential candidates that already included Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay, all of whom enjoyed a great deal of popular and/or party favor. Seeing that he had little chance of getting party support, he grudgingly agreed to run for Vice-President with both Adams and Jackson instead (at that time, candidates for President and Vice-President were voted on separately). Calhoun won the vice-presidential election by a landslide, but the vote for President was split between Jackson, Adams, and Crawford, and that election had to be decided by the House of Representatives. When the House ultimately awarded the presidency to Adams and Adams then made Clay his Secretary of State, both Jackson and Calhoun cried "Foul!" and charged that Adams and Clay had engaged in backroom negotiations to insure that Adams got the presidency. Although he and Adams differed greatly on most political issues, Calhoun fulfilled his duties as Vice-President admirally, and history remembers him as being the only Vice-President to be elected both overwhelmingly (he received more popular and electoral votes than the three top contenders for the presidency combined) and in his own right, as opposed to riding on the coattails of a popular presidential candidate.
In 1828, Calhoun was again elected Vice-President, this time as Andrew Jackson's running mate. Although he had more in common with Jackson politically than with Adams, the two men disagreed on two key issues, as Calhoun had turned away from nationalism and had become a very vocal opponent of protective tariffs, which he saw as protecting the rich merchants of New England at the expense of the South. The disagreement over tariffs began boiling in 1828, before the two were sworn into office, when Calhoun anonymously published "South Carolina Exposition" and "Protest" for the South Carolina Legislature, in which he declared that, since the United States was a compact between individual states, each state had the right to refuse to follow any federal laws it believed to be unconstitutional. He reiterated that belief in his "Fort Hill Address: On the Relation which the States and General Bear to Each Other," which he publicly released on July 26, 1831. Tensions between the two were further strained when the wives of several Cabinet members refused to socialize with Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, because of questionable circumstances surrounding the death of her first husband. Having just gone through the trauma of seeing his beloved wife being socially ridiculed until she broke, Jackson ordered his Cabinet members to force their wives to "make nice" with Mrs. Eaton; and, since Calhoun's wife seemed to be the principal instigator of the social snobbery, Jackson was especially furious at his Vice-President for being unable to "control his wife." This conflict drove a wedge between Calhoun and Jackson that was constantly driven deeper by disagreements over tariffs and other issues. In 1831, Calhoun used his constitutional authority as tie-breaker in the Senate to block the confirmation of Martin Van Buren as Minister to England, driving the wedge even deeper.
The tariff issue remained at low boil until 1832, when a new, even more restrictive tariff, was enacted by Congress. On November 24, 1832, the South Carolina Legislature declared the Tariff Act of 1832 "unauthorized by the Constitution" and made it a crime for anyone to try and collect such a tariff in the state. President Jackson responded by declaring that any opposition to the tariff was equivalent to treason and, on December 10, he asked Congress for permission to use federal troops to collect the tariff in South Carolina; that permission was granted in early-1833. The Nullification Crisis was the final breaking point between Calhoun and Jackson, and, on December 28, 1832, he became the first Vice-President to resign his office.
One day after leaving the vice-presidency, Calhoun entered the U.S. Senate as the elected representative of South Carolina; incumbent Senator Robert Y. Hayne had resigned his seat during the crisis to allow the State Legislature to put its most eloquent anti-tariff spokesman in a position where he could do the most good. Soon after taking his seat, Calhoun reluctantly helped Henry Clay draft a compromise tariff bill so that peace could be restored and bloodshed avoided. Calhoun ultimately served until March 3, 1843, when he resigned in order to make another bid for the presidency. He did not put much effort into his campaign, however, and ended up withdrawing from the nomination process that summer.
On April 1, 1844, Calhoun was sworn in as John Tyler's Secretary of State, replacing Abel P. Upshur, who had been killed in an explosion aboard a Navy warship on February 28, 1844. Issues he addressed during his tenure included the dispute between the United States and Great Britain concerning the border between Oregon Territory and Canada and the annexation of Texas. For the first time in his career, Calhoun had the pleasure of serving under a President with whom he shared many political views, and he and Tyler worked well together.
After Tyler lost his re-election bid, Calhoun was returned to the Senate, this time serving from November 26, 1845 to his death. During this last tenure, he was a strong supporter of slavery and its extension, and of the annexation of Texas; and an opponent of the Mexican War, the Wilmot Proviso, and the Compromise of 1850. His last Senate speech was read by Senator James Mason of Virginia on March 4, 1850, because Calhoun was too sick from tuberculosis to deliver the speech himself. He died in Washington on March 30, 1850, and was buried in St. Philip's Churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina.
John Calhoun married his cousin Floride Colhoun in 1811. The couple had nine children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. In 1825, the family moved onto Fort Hill Plantation near Pendleton, South Carolina, which at the time was owned by Floride's mother. John Calhoun inherited the property upon Floride's mother's death in 1836 (under the laws then in effect, all properties acquired during the course of a marriage, whether by purchase or inheritance, belonged to the husband), and Floride became the sole owner of it upon John's death. When Floride Calhoun died in 1866, portions of Fort Hill went to her and John's only surviving child, Anna Marie, who in turn willed it to her husband Philadelphia engineer Thomas Clemson, who inherited it upon her death in 1875. Clemson in turn donated the land to South Carolina for use as a public university, and Clemson University was the result.
The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Middle 19th Century, 1845-1861 >> Individual Biography, A-Z
This page was last updated on March 18, 2017.