ohn C. Calhoun, U.S. vice president, senator, secretary of war, and secretary of state,
was born in what became Abbeville, South Carolina, to Martha Caldwell Calhoun
and Patrick Calhoun. Recognizing their son's intellectual ability, his parents
saw that he got the best education possible. They sent him away to a private
academy in Appling, Georgia, where he studied Greek, Latin, mathematics,
history, and philosophy (particularly that of John Locke). In 1802 Calhoun
entered Yale as a junior, graduating two years later with academic honors. He
then briefly studied law under one of the top lawyers in Charleston, South
Carolina, before deciding to finish at a law school (Tapping Reeve's) in
Litchfield, Connecticut. Although his law teachers were Federalists, Calhoun
Completing his legal education in 1806, Calhoun returned to South Carolina and passed the state bar the next year. He
established a law practice but was soon elected to the state legislature in
1808. After one term, he won the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S.
House (1811-1817) as a Jeffersonian-Republican. Calhoun was among a small but
influential group of Congressional "War Hawks" agitating for war
against Great Britain, which was finally declared in June 1812. A few months
earlier, Calhoun assumed the chairmanship of the House Foreign Relations
Committee, and was a leading nationalist by the end of the war. In 1816 he
drafted the bill reestablishing a national bank and voted for a protective
In 1817 President James Monroe named Calhoun to
be secretary of war. The War Department was in disarray after years of
mismanagement, so Calhoun continued the reforms begun by the previous
acting-secretary, William Crawford. Secretary Calhoun pushed for the westward
migration of Cherokees from their homeland in Georgia, and he approved valuable
surveying expeditions in the Northwest. When General Andrew Jackson exceeded his
orders and seized Spanish Florida, Calhoun argued in a cabinet meeting for
repudiating and disciplining him. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, however,
convinced President Monroe to back up the general. Adams then used Jackson's
conquest to negotiate the purchase of Florida and other concessions from Spain.
In 1824 the Republican Congressional Caucus nominated Calhoun for president, but he dropped out of the race when other
candidates-Jackson, Adams, Crawford, and Henry Clay-proved to be more popular.
Instead, he sought the vice-presidency unopposed and was duly elected. When no
presidential candidate secured an electoral-college majority, the contest was
thrown into the House, which selected Adams over Jackson, even though the latter
had received the most electoral and popular votes. Although Calhoun was Adams'
vice president, the South Carolinian supported the disgruntled Jackson and his
new Democratic party. He engaged anonymously in a series of newspaper debates
over the proper role of a vice-president with an epistolary antagonist was
rumored to be President Adams. The exchange highlighted Calhoun's command of
political theory and forensics.
When Congress enacted a new tariff in 1828, many
Southerners, especially in South Carolina, concluded that the "tariff of
abominations" would be detrimental to the region's economy. Calhoun
anonymously wrote a political tract, "The South Carolina Exposition and
Protest," which argued that the federal Constitution was simply a contract
between sovereign states; that each state had the right to nullify within its
borders any federal law that violated its vital interest; and that any state had
the right to secede if it determined that its rights and interests were being
violated or ignored by the federal government.
Later in 1828 Calhoun was reelected vice
president, this time serving under President Andrew Jackson. When Calhoun's
authorship of the "Exposition" became known, it created a hostile
relationship between him and the new president, who was upholding federal
authority. Secretary of State Van Buren worked to widen the breech by reminding
Jackson of Calhoun's previous attempt to reprimand him for taking Spanish
Florida. Calhoun fell into further disfavor when his wife convinced other
cabinet wives to shun Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, for
allegedly having an affair with Eaton before her first husband died. The
president took the situation very personally since it conjured up memories of
allegations against his beloved late wife, Rachel. Van Buren convinced Jackson
to reshuffle his cabinet, replacing Calhoun partisans with Van Buren favorites.
When Congress reconvened in December 1831, it defeated Van Buren's appointment
as minister to Great Britain by Calhoun's tie-breaking vote.
In the 1832 presidential campaign, Jackson replaced Calhoun as his running-mate with Van Buren. Calhoun resigned from the
vice presidency and was elected by the South Carolina legislature to the U.S.
Senate. Meanwhile, Congress revised the tariff but not to the satisfaction of
South Carolinians, so a special state convention applied Calhoun's theory and
nullified the tariff within South Carolina. The governor also called up the
state militia to defend state interests. President Jackson threatened to use the
military to enforce the tariff, while Calhoun worked with Henry Clay to draft a
compromise tariff that lowered rates gradually over time. It passed Congress in
early 1833 and the "Nullification Crisis" was defused.
Underlying the tariff issue was the slavery
question. The antislavery movement was expanding in the United States and
Western Europe, and the failed Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 in Virginia raised
concerns among slaveholders throughout the South. Thus it seemed imperative to
Calhoun that the Southern economic system could not be tampered with by the
federal government. During his tenure in the U.S. Senate (1832-1843; 1845-1850),
Calhoun rigorously defended the institution of slavery and Southern interests
attendant to it. In 1844-1845 he served as secretary of state under President
John Tyler, completing final arrangements for the annexation of Texas, which he
favored as an addition of more slave territory to the Union.
Yet, back in the Senate in 1845, Calhoun opposed
the War with Mexico (1846-1848) because he feared that the possible annexation
of so much additional territory would exacerbate sectional tension over the
slavery issue to the breaking point. During debates over the free-soil Wilmot
Proviso and the admission of the free-soil states of Oregon (1848) and
California (1849), however, he sensed a shift in national power toward the
antislavery forces and therefore forcefully defended slavery to the point of
suggesting secession if Southern interests were not satisfied. In a February
1849 speech he outlined how a free-soil conspiracy was seeking to abolish
slavery in the entire nation. (In reality, most free-soilers were not
abolitionists.) His political tract, "Disquisition on Government"
(1850), set forth a political theory for protecting minority rights from
majority tyranny. He died before the Compromise of 1850 gave legislative
victories to both pro-slavery and antislavery forces and established a temporary
truce on the issue of slavery in national politics.