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John Caldwell Calhoun was an American statesman who served as the Vice President of the United States, in office between 1825 and 1832. His political career started in the House of Representatives in 1810, where he distinguished himself as one of the leaders of the War Hawks. Calhoun became Secretary of War in the James Monroe administration and after a failed attempt to enter the presidential election of 1824, he was elected vice president during John Quincy Adams’ term as president. In 1828, when Andrew Jackson defeated John Q. Adams in the presidential election, Calhoun continued to serve as a vice president in the new administration. Because of his vehement support for South Carolina during the nullification crisis, Calhoun clashed with Andrew Jackson, which forced him to resign his position as vice president before the end of his term. From 1844 to 1845, Calhoun was Secretary of State in the John Tyler administration.
Later in life, Calhoun remained a fervent supporter of white Southern interests. He promoted states’ rights and opposition to high tariffs, and he was always in disagreement with Northern policies. Calhoun was a highly influential leader of the South and his political agenda was one of the main elements that inspired the South’s secession from the Union. Though Calhoun never wanted the South to break away from the United States, his life’s work would come to fruition a decade after his death in a war that would tear the very fabric of the nation.
Early Life and Education
John Caldwell Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, in Abbeville District, South Carolina. His parents, Patrick Calhoun and Martha Caldwell, were Scots-Irish immigrants who, after short stints in Pennsylvania and Virginia, finally settled in South Carolina. Calhoun’s father was a prosperous farmer and also an esteemed and ambitious politician who served a term in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate. Calhoun had three brothers and a sister.
Young John Calhoun had a natural disposition for academic learning, but the closest school in the region functioned intermittently. At the age of 14, his father died and since his three elder brothers were busy with their careers, Calhoun had to take care of the family’s plantation. Meanwhile, he discovered a strong passion for reading and spent his free time studying privately. When the local academy reopened, he resumed his formal studies with financial support from his siblings.
In 1802, Calhoun enrolled at Yale College, in Connecticut, where he found an effervescent intellectual climate. He became one of the protégés of the college’s president, Timothy Dwight, whom Calhoun admired for his brilliant intellect and erudition. Calhoun was very popular among students and possessed both discipline and academic curiosity. In 1804, he graduated from Yale and went on to study law at Tapping Reeve Law School, also in Connecticut.
In January 1811, Calhoun married Floride Bonneau Colhoun, who was from a wealthy and highly influential family from Charleston. Over the course of their long marriage, the couple had 10 children, three of whom died in infancy.
I am a planter - a cotton planter. I am a Southern man and a slaveholder - a kind and a merciful one, I trust - and none the worse for being a slaveholder.
— John C. Calhoun
House of Representatives
Calhoun’s career started when he won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1810. He quickly befriended Speaker of the House Henry Clay and became one of the most prominent figures among the War Hawks, a faction of young senators who fiercely wanted the U.S. to declare war against Britain, which they saw as a duty meant to restore American honor after Britain’s refusal to acknowledge American maritime rights. On June 18, 1812, Congress declared war upon Britain and Calhoun immediately made himself available wherever necessary. He struggled to recruit volunteers and to manage complicated logistics. Through his actions during the war, Calhoun proved himself capable of managing any distressful situation with a calm that inspired others. When the treaty of Ghent was signed in 1815 that ended the War of 1812, Calhoun declared, “I feel pleasure and pride in being able to say that I am of a party which drew the sword… and succeeded in the contest.” However, despite his energy, great organization skills, and a talent for public speaking that he cultivated intensely, Calhoun was not very popular due to his tendency to be aggressively blunt.
Secretary of War
In 1817, President Monroe found it difficult to appoint someone for the position of Secretary of War because the department needed a thorough reorganization, but Calhoun decided to take the opportunity. He served as Secretary of War from December 8, 1817, until 1825.
During his first year in the War Department, Calhoun clashed for the first time with Andrew Jackson, when Jackson engaged in an unauthorized war against Spain by attacking the Seminole tribes who sought shelter in Spanish Florida. Acting without direct approval from either President James Monroe or Secretary of War Calhoun, Jackson put both of them in a difficult position, using his popularity of a war hero as an excuse. Calhoun accused Jackson of not respecting the chain of command, but since President Monroe wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with the popular Jackson, the matter was never settled as Calhoun would have wanted. Jackson’s act of insubordination remained thus unpunished.
After the incidents in Spanish Florida, Calhoun felt that the U.S. Army was in desperate need of reorganization. He took it upon himself to strengthen the War Department by securing a stable, professional army. He also added steam frigates to the navy. To accomplish his goals as Secretary of War, Calhoun clashed repeatedly with other members of Congress, who thought that once the war with Britain had ended, a huge army was not necessary anymore. Eventually, on March 2, 1821, despite Calhoun’s concerns and protests, Congress approved the Reduction Act, which cut the number of soldiers by half.
Another major responsibility of Calhoun as Secretary of War was to manage relations with the Indian tribes. He helped eastern Indians preserve their autonomy by relocating the tribes to reservations in western territories, over which they had full control. Calhoun also led the negotiation for the signing of numerous treaties with the Indians. In 1824, Calhoun created the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 1824, John C. Calhoun was one of the five main candidates for the presidency of the United States, along with Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams. In spite of his hopes, Calhoun did not manage to win the support of his home state. At the suggestion of his supporters, he accepted to participate in the election for the vice presidency and was assured that he would win. The national Republican nominee John Quincy Adams won the presidency after a controversial race where he was accused of having made a “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay to win the office. Concerned about the way the presidential election had unrolled, Calhoun was suspicious of Adams and so his vice presidency began with a negative tone.
During Adam’s presidency, Calhoun found himself disagreeing with many of Adams’s policies, such as high tariffs and government centralization. Meanwhile, Adams saw Calhoun as an obstacle to his agenda. In the summer of 1826, disillusioned by Adams, Calhoun sent a letter to Andrew Jackson, offering him his full support for the 1828 presidential election. Even though Calhoun did not fully trust Jackson, he knew that he would have to give up his political ambitions if Adams were to win a second term. Jackson agreed to enter the presidential race with Calhoun as his running mate. As Jackson won the election, Calhoun became vice president again, but this time in a Democratic administration.
The cordial relationship between Andrew Jackson and Calhoun suffered due to an incident known as the Petticoat affair. Since Jackson was a widower, much of the social entertaining fell upon Calhoun’s wife, Floride, which included receiving courtesy visits from members of the president’s Cabinet and their wives. Encouraged by Floride Calhoun, some Cabinet wives rallied against Peggy Eaton, wife of John Eaton, who was Secretary of War at the time. The women claimed that Peggy, the former Margaret (Peggy) O’Neale Timberlake, the attractive daughter of a local saloonkeeper, had had an adulterous relationship with John Eaton while she was married to another man. Eaton was, however, a close friend of Jackson and his wife Peggy was also on friendly terms with the President. When Floride Calhoun refused to accept Peggy in the inner social circle of the administration, Calhoun supported his wife against Jackson and the Eatons. Since other wives had followed Floride’s example, Jackson accused Calhoun and his wife of being the main instigators of the conflict. The tension between Jackson and Calhoun grew dramatically and by the spring of 1831, Jackson had replaced almost all of his Cabinet members to limit Calhoun’s power.
The event that caused a definite split between Jackson and Calhoun was the nullification crisis. Calhoun supported vehemently the concept of nullification, by which, a state had the right to nullify any federal law it considered unconstitutional. On the other hand, President Jackson completely opposed nullification, considering it unpatriotic, although he supported states’ rights. Their divergence of opinions turned into an open conflict when South Carolina legislature, pushed by Calhoun, officially nullified the Tariff of 1832 and the Tariff of 1828 that Jackson had signed into law. President Jackson immediately sent a U.S. Navy force to Charleston harbor and threatened Calhoun with a trial for treason.
As the nullification crisis unfolded, Calhoun’s position in the Jackson administration became compromised. On December 28, 1832, he resigned as vice president with the goal of joining the Senate. Calhoun and Henry Clay worked on a new compromise tariff, which was passed into law after long negotiations. The Compromise Tariff was implemented in 1833, ending the nullification crisis.
John Calhoun Short Biographical Video
First Term in the Senate and Secretary of State
Back in South Carolina, the state legislature chose him to fill a recently vacated seat in the U.S. Senate. As a Senator, Calhoun had a powerful position to promote pro-Southern legislation. He served for several years but on March 3, 1843, he resigned from the Senate, seeking to win the Democratic nomination for the 1844 presidential election. Due to his direct involvement in the nullification crisis and other episodes of friction with Andrew Jackson and other important political figures, he was left with very few connections in any major party. Since his candidacy received very little support, Calhoun decided to drop out of the race.
Calhoun revived his career when he was named Secretary of State by President John Tyler. As Secretary of State, he found himself caught again in a major controversy during the negotiations and debates for the annexation of Texas. On April 22, 1844, Calhoun signed the treaty of annexation. The scandal emerged only days later when the details of the treaty negotiations were leaked to the press, exposing Calhoun’s ideas that the annexation campaign was meant to preserve and even expand slavery since Calhoun believed that the institution of slavery contributed to the stability of the states. Because of the link that was created between the annexation of Texas and the expansion of slavery, the U.S. Senate rejected the treaty. Calhoun became associated in the collective mentality with the radical proslavery movement.
During the 1844 presidential election, Calhoun endorsed James K. Polk, after being assured by Polk that he will support the annexation of Texas. Polk won the election and on December 29, 1845, he signed the bill that admitted Texas as the 28th state of the Union.
Second Term in the U.S. Senate
In 1845, Calhoun was reelected for a second term in the Senate. He quickly became one of the most vocal opponents of the Mexican-American War. He also played a significant role in solving the Oregon border dispute between the United States and Great Britain. The British kept British Columbia while the Americans Washington and Oregon. Along with President Polk and Secretary of State James Buchanan, Calhoun worked on the treaty that was ratified on June 18, 1846. At the end of 1845, Calhoun returned to his home in South Carolina, where he remained until his death.
Around 1850, senators Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas devised the Compromise of 1850, a series of measures aimed at settling the controversy over the status of slavery in the new territories acquired from Mexico. Many of the Southerners who were proslavery opposed the measures, and Calhoun took the responsibility of organizing the Nashville Convention, where the possibility of Southern secession could be discussed among the various factions. At age 68, Calhoun’s efforts were dwindled by his declining health. He had suffered bouts of tuberculosis repeatedly throughout his life and in 1850, he found himself in a critical stage of illness. Despite his frail state, Calhoun wrote a virulent speech which was read in the Senate by James Mason. In the speech, Calhoun emphasized once again the right of the South to leave the Union if a balance of power between North and South could not be achieved. Despite his poignancy, Calhoun’s cry of protest did not stop the compromise measures from being adopted. However, his speech attracted a lot of attention and many historians believe that Southern radicals eagerly adopted Calhoun’s ideas and used them to push for an extreme doctrine of states’ rights.
The day that the balance between the two sections of the country—the slaveholding States and the non-slaveholding States—is destroyed is a day that will not be far removed from political revolution, anarchy, civil war, and widespread disaster.
— John C. Calhoun
Death and Legacy
As his political persona crystallized, Calhoun became known as the "cast-iron man" for his rigid defense of white Southern principles and practices. His concept of republicanism emphasized approval of slavery and minority rights, as embodied by the Southern states. He owned several dozen slaves that worked his plantation in Fort Hill, South Carolina. Calhoun asserted that slavery, rather than being a "necessary evil," was a "positive good," benefiting both slaves and slave owners. Before his death, Senator Calhoun predicted the impending Civil War and the consequences his home state of South Carolina would suffer. As he grew older, he became obsessed with belief that a probable break-up of the Union would occur and said, “The dissolution of the Union is the heaviest blow that can be struck at civilization and representative government.” His doctor admonished him that he was “thinking himself into the grave.” John Caldwell Calhoun died on March 31, 1850, of tuberculosis. He had been staying at the Old Brick Capitol boarding house in Washington D.C. at the time of his death. His funeral was held in the Senate Chamber, and he was buried in Charleston, South Carolina at the churchyard of St. Philip’s Church. His wife Floride died on July 25, 1866, in Pendleton, South Carolina, in the presence of their children.
After his death Calhoun would remain a controversial figure. The Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton refused to speak at the April 5 memorial service in the Senate chamber. Benton lamented that Calhoun was "not dead," rather, "There may be no vitality in his body, but there is in his doctrines." Senator Daniel Webster, one of the official mourners chosen by the Senate to escort Calhoun's body to his home state of South Carolina, could not bring himself to perform this difficult and painful task; taking leave of the funeral party and Calhoun’s casket at the Virginia landing as the entourage departed for the South.
After a long political career during which he was both admired and detested, John C. Calhoun remains an influential historical figure mostly due to his role in devising the South’s political agenda. He provided Southerners with ideas, plans, arguments, and most importantly, encouragement. In 1957, a Senate Committee led by Senator John F. Kennedy selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest United States Senators of all time.
Yale University Removes the Name of Calhoun from a College
Yale University President Peter Salovey announced on February 11, 2017, that the university would rename Calhoun College, one of 12 undergraduate residential colleges, to honor one of Yale’s most distinguished graduates, Grace Hopper. Salovey said “The decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly, but John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.” In selecting a new name for the college Yale honors the life and legacy of Grace Murray Hopper. Hopper “was an exemplar of achievement in her field and service to her country,” said Salovey. She was a trailblazing computer scientist, brilliant mathematician and teacher, and dedicated public servant.
- Brands, H.W. Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants. Doubleday. 2018.
- Witcover, Jules. The American Vice Presidency from Irrelevance to Power. Smithsonian Books. 2014.
- Waldrup, Carole C. The Vice Presidents. McFarland & Company, Inc. 1996.
- Calhoun resigns vice presidency. A&E Television. History. Accessed May 8, 2018.
- John C. Calhoun, 7th Vice President (1825–1832). United States Senate. Accessed May 8, 2018.
- The South Carolina Nullification Controversy. U.S. History.org. Accessed May 8, 2018.
- Today in History: March 18, 1782 (John C. Calhoun). Library of Congress. Accessed May 8, 2018.
- Rafuse, Ethan S. John C. Calhoun: He Started the Civil War. June 12, 2006. Historynet. Accessed. May 7, 2018.
- Yale changes Calhoun College’s name to honor Grace Murray Hopper. February 11, 2017. Accessed September 14, 2020.
© 2018 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on May 13, 2018:
Thanks for the comment. I didn't realize either how key Calhoun was to fanning the flames of the Civil War. Slavery had been a point of contention since the drafting of the Constitution and it would take like pro-slavery men like Calhoun and the abolitionists, like John Quincy Adams, to bring to turn heated talk into outright warfare. I always enjoy reading and writing about history as it helps me understand the world today.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on May 13, 2018:
Interesting article, Doug. He's one of those figures in our history that really set the back drop to such events as the Civil War. I knew of the man, but not in such detail. As always, informative and without bias; a hallmark of your writing, Doug.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on May 12, 2018:
Readmikenow on May 12, 2018:
Very well done article. He is one of those historical figures I knew of but didn't know much about. I enjoyed reading this. It was well written.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on May 12, 2018:
Thanks for the comments. I didn't really know that much about the man until I started to write about him. Apparently, he was a big political figure during the first half of the 19th century. His views on slavery seem so foreign to us now. America was a much different place then.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 12, 2018:
You included some things I never knew about Calhoun and Jackson. It is interesting to read some leaders' decisions and the negotiations around it.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 12, 2018:
That was really interesting to read. I've never heard of him before, so learned a lot about him from reading this, thankyou.