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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.


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.


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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