John C. Calhoun
John Caldwell Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) was an American statesman and political theorist from South Carolina. He held every major post except president, serving in the House, Senate and vice presidency, as well as secretary of war and state. A powerful intellect, Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, from 1812 to 1850, but is best known for his intense and original defense of slavery as a positive good and for pointing the South toward secession from the Union. He usually affiliated with the Democrats, but flirted with the Whig Party and considered running for the presidency in 1824 and 1844. Starting as a leading nationalist and modernizer, after 1828 Calhoun reversed directions and became the foremost spokesman for states rights and slavery. Devoted to the principle of liberty and fearful of corruption, Calhoun expanded the notion of republicanism to include the need to protect minority rights against majority rule; his approach was the "concurrent majority." Increasing distrustful of democracy, he minimized the role of the Second Party System in South Carolina. The leaders of the secession movement in the decade after his death looked to Calhoun as a hero.
- 1 Personal life
- 2 War Hawk
- 3 Secretary of War: 1817-25
- 4 Vice president
- 5 Nullification
- 6 Democratic politics
- 7 Rejects Compromise of 1850
- 8 The evils of war and political parties
- 9 Slavery
- 10 Political philosophy
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Calhoun was born in Abbeville, South Carolina, 1782 into a Scotch-Irish family that had emigrated from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1733, then moved down the Appalachian Mountain valley into the South Carolina back country in the 1760s. His father became rich, owning lands and 20 to 40 slaves in a region where slaves were not yet common. Life was still raw and rough on the frontier, and violence was very much part of people's memories: his father's mother had been killed by Cherokee Indians in 1760, and his mother's brother, John Caldwell, after whom he was named, had been murdered by Loyalists during the American Revolution. His father, who had survived the Indian massacre of 1760, had a stubborn independence and, as Calhoun recalled, "a certain degree of contempt for the forms of civilized life." He had a passion for liberty and a deep dislike of far-removed government; he opposed ratification of the federal Constitution on the grounds that "we ought never to give others the power to tax us." His father died in 1795 when John was only 13. In a very unusual move for the era, the young man went to New England to attend Yale College, graduating in 1804, then studied law at one of the nation's first law schools, that run by Tapping Reeve at Litchfield, Connecticut. After further training in Charleston, South Carolina, he was admitted to the bar in 1807 and began practice near his family home. In 1811 he married Floride Bonneau Colhoun, a wealthy second cousin who provided entree to high society in Charleston. They had nine children and lived at "Fort Hill", a cotton plantation he built,and operated by a white overseer and dozens of slaves. He had a substantial but routine law practice and was soon bored. He was elected as a Jeffersonian Republican to the state legislature in 1808 and to Congress in 1810.
Like so many ambitious young politicians who came of age after the Constitution took effect in 1789 (including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Quincy Adams), Calhoun was profoundly shaped by the Founding Fathers' faith in the potential of republican government.
Calhoun, probably a Deist, never joined a church; he closely followed the austere moralism of his Scotch-Irish Presbyterian ancestors, and was never tempted to gamble, womanize, or drink to excess. He was a faithful, if often self-absorbed, partner in a sometimes stormy marriage to Floride. Despite his austere image he was a loving and surprisingly permissive father. Calhoun, was also an exemplary slaveholder, who "probably lived up to the just master's ideal as well as anyone."
Although he had little charisma or charm, Calhoun was a brilliant orator and strong organizer, and immediately became a leader of the "war hawks," along with Speaker Henry Clay and South Carolina congressmen William Lowndes and Langdon Cheves. They disregarded European complexities in the wars between Napoleon and Britain, and brushed aside the vehement objections of New Englanders, and demanded war against Britain to preserve American honor and republican values. Clay made Calhoun the acting chairman of the powerful committee on foreign affairs. On June 3, 1812, Calhoun's committee called for a declaration of war in ringing phrases. The episode spread Calhoun's fame nationwide. War -- the War of 1812 -- was declared but it went very badly for the poorly organized Americans, whose ports were immediately blockaded by the British Royal Navy. An attempted invasion of Canada was a total fiasco.
Calhoun labored to raise troops, to provide funds, to speed logistics, to improve the currency, and to regulate commerce to aid the war effort. Disasters on the battlefield made him double his legislative efforts to overcome the obstructionism of John Randolph and Daniel Webster and other opponents of the war. Once Napoleon had been sent off to exile in Elba, the two nations had no further cause to fight, and peace was achieved at Ghent on Christmas, 1814. Before that news reached New Orleans, a massive British invasion force was utterly defeated at the Battle of New Orleans, which made a national hero out of General Andrew Jackson.
Secretary of War: 1817-25
Calhoun continued his role as a leading nationalist during the "Era of Good Feeling" during the Monroe administration, 1816-25. He proposed an elaborate program of national reforms to the infrastructure that would speed economic modernization. His first priority was an effective navy, including steam frigates, and in the second place a standing army of adequate size; and as further preparation for emergency "great permanent roads," "a certain encouragement" to manufactures, and a system of internal taxation which would not be subject like customs duties to collapse by a war-time shrinkage of maritime trade. He spoke for a national bank, for internal improvements (such as harbors, canals and river navigation) and a protective tariff that would help the industrial Northeast and, especially, pay for the expensive new infrastructure. The word "nation" was often on his lips, and his conscious aim was to enhance national unity which he identified with national power.
One observer commented that Calhoun was "the most elegant speaker that sits in the House. . . . His gestures are easy and graceful, his manner forcible, and language elegant; but above all, he confines himself closely to the subject, which he always understands, and enlightens everyone within hearing; having said all that a statesman should say, he is done." His talent for public speaking required systematic self-discipline and practice. A later critic noted the sharp contrast between his hesitant conversations and his fluent speaking styles, adding that Calhoun "had so carefully cultivated his naturally poor voice as to make his utterance clear, full, and distinct in speaking and while not at all musical it yet fell pleasantly on the ear."
After the war ended in 1815 the "Old Republicans" in Congress, with their Jeffersonian ideology for economy in the federal government, sought at every turn to reduce the operations and finances of the war department. In 1817, the deplorable state of the war department led four men to turn down requests to fill the secretary of war position before Calhoun finally accepted the task. Political rivalry, namely, Calhoun's political ambitions as well as those of William H. Crawford, the secretary of the treasury, over the pursuit of the 1824 presidency also complicated Calhoun's tenure as war secretary.
Calhoun proposed an expansible army similar to that of France under Napoleon, whereby a basic cadre of 6,000 officers and men could be expanded into 11,000 without adding additional officers or companies. Congress wanted an army of adequate size in case American interests in Florida or the west led to war with Britain or Spain. However the nation was satisfied by the diplomacy that produced the Convention of 1818 with Britain and the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 with Spain, the need for a large army disappeared, and Calhoun could not prevent cutbacks in 1821.
As secretary, Calhoun's had responsibility for management of Indian affairs. A reform-minded modernizer, he attempted to institute centralization and efficiency in the Indian department, but Congress either failed to respond to his reforms or responded with hostility. Calhoun's frustration with congressional inaction, political rivalries, and ideological differences that dominated the late early republic spurred him to unilaterally create the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824. He supervised the negotiation and ratification of 38 treaties with Indian tribes.
Calhoun sought the presidency in 1824, but settled for second place under John Quincy Adams, and played a minor role as vice president. In 1828 he supported Andrew Jackson, and was again elected vice president. The broke in 1831.
Calhoun aggressively championed nullification, which allows individual states to cancel a federal law it considers unconstitutional. It derives from and goes beyond the "Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions" of 1798, written by Jefferson and Madison, that had been a bedrock principle throughout the South; James Madison said Calhoun went too far. He was the secret author of South Carolina Exposition and Protest, a document that advocated the nullification of the Tariff of 1828. The tariff was so high that it was "unconstitutional, unequal and oppressive; and calculated to corrupt public virtue and destroy the liberty of the country." The Exposition was submitted to the South Carolina legislature as a resolution, but it was not passed.
Nullification Crisis: 1833
In 1832, the South Carolina legislature passed a resolution that declared the federal tariff of 1828 void. President Andrew Jackson was incensed and the Congress passed the Force Bill, threatening military intervention. The issue, as Jackson saw it, was not the tariff but obedience to federal law. He threatened to call out the troops and to hang Calhoun "higher than Haman," if he got hold of him. Calhoun resigned the vice-presidency, accepted election as senator from South Carolina, and returned to Washington. No one was hanged as Henry Clay brokered a compromise between Jackson and Calhoun. No southern state stood by South Carolina.
Calhoun's followers believed republican values were safe only at the state level, but he ignored the tyranny of the majority at the state level. He did not champion the rights of the individual. Daniel Webster argued in contrast that republican values were secure only at the national level.
Most historians argue that nullification (and, in 1860) secession) were reactionary efforts to turn back the abolitionist assault on slavery. Wood (2003) rejects the assumption that Calhoun and his followers were un-American because they resorted to nullification. Woods argues that the longstanding conservative Southern interpretation of republican ideology and its persistence in the South and says the "Nullifiers" viewed their attempts at nullification and secession as well within the framers' views of republicanism. The Constitution produced by the federal convention of 1787 and the structure of the new government that was formed after the Bill of Rights in 1791 further illuminate the significance of the connection between states' rights, nullification, and republicanism.
To restore his national stature, Calhoun cooperated with Jackson's success, Martin Van Buren, who became president in 1837. Democrats were very hostile to national banks, and the country's bankers had joined the opposition Whig Party. The Democratic replacement was the "Independent Treasury" system, shich Calhoun supported and which went into effect. Calhoun, like Jackson and Van Buren, raged against finance capitalism, which he saw as the common enemy of the Northern laborer, the Southern planter, and the small farmer everywhere. His goal, therefore, was to unite these groups in the Democratic Party, and to dedicate that party to states' rights and agricultural interests as barriers against encroachment by government and big business.
When Whig president William Henry Harrison died after a month in office in 1841, vice president John Tyler took office. Tyler was a Democrat and broke botterly with the Whigs, and named Calhoun Secretary of State in 1844. Public opinion was inflamed about the Oregon country, claimed by both Britain and the U.S. Calhoun compromised by splitting the area down the middle at the 49th parallel, ending the wear threat. Tyler and Calhoun were eager to annex the independent Republic of Texas, which wanted to join the Union. Texas was slave country and anti-slavery elements in the North denounced annexation as a plot to enlarge the Slave Power (that is, the excess political power controlled by slave owners). When the Senate could not muster a 2/3 vote to pass a treaty of annexation with Texas, Calhoun devised a joint resolution of the Houses of Congress, requiring only a simple majority; Texas joined the Union. Mexico had warned all along that it would go to war if Texas joined the Union; war broke out in 1846.
Rejects Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850, devised by Clay and Democratic leader Stephen A. Douglas was designed to solve the controversy over the status of slavery in the vast new territories acquired from Mexico. Calhoun, back in the Senate but too feeble to speak, wrote a blistering attack on the compromise. A friend read his speech, calling upon the Constitution, which upheld the South's right to hold slaves; warning that the day "the balance between the two sections" was destroyed would be a day not far removed from disunion, anarchy, and civil war. Could the Union be preserved? Yes, easily; the North had only to will it to accomplish it; to agree to a restoration of the lost equilibrium of equal North-South representation in the Senate; and to cease "agitating" the slavery question. Calhoun had precedent and law on his side of the debate. But the North had time and rapid population growth due to industrialization, and the Compromise was passed. With the annexation of Texas, the South had almost reached the limits of farmlands suitable for cotton or other plantations.
The evils of war and political parties
Calhoun was consistently opposed to the war with Mexico from its very beginning, arguing that an enlarged military effort would only feed the alarming and growing lust of the public for empire regardless of its constitutional dangers, bloat executive powers and patronage, and saddle the republic with a soaring debt that would disrupt finances and encourage speculation. Calhoun feared, moreover, that southern slave owners would be shut out of any conquered Mexican territories.
Many northerners saw the war as a southern conspiracy to expand slavery; Calhoun saw a conspiracy of Yankees to destroy the South. By 1847 he decided the Union was threatened by a totally corrupt party system. He believed that in their lust for office, patronage and spoils, politicians in the North pandered to the antislavery vote, especially during presidential campaigns, and politicians in the slave states sacrificed southern rights in an effort to placate the northern wings of their parties. Thus, the essential first step in any successful assertion of southern rights had to be the jettisoning of all party ties. In 1848-49, Calhoun tried to give substance to his call for southern unity. He was the driving force behind the drafting and publication of the "Address of the Southern Delegates in Congress, to Their Constituents." It listed the alleged northern violations of the constitutional rights of the South, then warned southern voters to expect forced emancipation of slaves in the near future, followed by their complete subjugation by an unholy alliance of unprincipled northerners and blacks, and a South forever reduced to "disorder, anarchy, poverty, misery, and wretchedness." Only the immediate and unflinching unity of southern whites could prevent such a disaster. Such unity would either bring the North to its senses or lay the foundation for an independent South. But the spirit of union was still strong in the region and fewer than 40% of the southern congressmen signed the address, and only one Whig.
Southerners believed his warnings and read every political news story from the North as further evidence of the planned destruction of the southern way of life. The most notable case was the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which led immediately to the secession of South Carolina, followed by six other cotton states. They formed the new Confederate States of America, which, in accord with Calhoun's theory, did not have any political parties.
Calhoun was shaped by his own father, Patrick Calhoun, a prosperous backcountry slaveholder who supported the war but opposed ratification of federal Constitution. The father was a model of republican virtue who taught his son that one's standing in society depended not merely on one's commitment to the ideal of popular self government but also on the ownership of a substantial number of slaves. Flourishing in a world in which slaveholding was a badge of civilization, Calhoun saw little reason to question its morality as an adult; he never visited Europe. Calhoun had seen in his own state how the spread of slavery into the back country improved public morals by ridding the countryside of the shiftless poor whites who had once terrorized the law abiding middle class. Calhoun believed that slavery instilled in the white who remained a code of honor that blunted the disruptive potential of private gain and fostered the civic-mindedness that lay near the core of the republican creed. From such a standpoint, the expansion of slavery into the backcountry decreased the likelihood for social conflict and postponed the declension when money would become the only measure of self worth, as had happened in New England. Calhoun was thus firmly convinced that slavery was the key to the success of the American dream. 
On February 6, 1837, John C. Calhoun took the floor of the Senate to declare that slavery was a "positive good." Senator William Rives of Virginia had referred to slavery as an evil that might become a "lesser evil" in some circumstances. Calhoun believed that conceded too much to the abolitionists: "I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. . . . I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other." A year later in the Senate (January 10, 1838), Calhoun repeated this defense of slavery as a "positive good": "Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world." Calhoun rejected the belief of Southern moderates such as Henry Clay that all Americans could agree on the "opinion and feeling" that slavery was wrong, although they might disagree on the most practicable way to respond to that great wrong. Calhoun's constitutional ideas acted as a viable conservative alternative to Northern appeals to democracy, majority rule, and natural rights.
Cheek (2001) distinguishes between two strands of American republican thought—the puritan tradition, based in New England, and the agrarian or South Atlantic tradition. Cheek argues that Calhoun is best understood as a representative of the South Atlantic tradition of agrarian republicanism. While the New England tradition stressed a politically centralized enforcement of moral and religious norms to secure civic virtue, the South Atlantic tradition relied on a decentralized moral and religious order based on the idea of "subsidiarity" (or localism). Cheek locates the fundamental principles of Calhoun's republicanism in the "Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions" (1798) written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Calhoun emphasizes the primacy of the idea of subsidiarity: popular rule is best expressed in local communities that are nearly autonomous while serving as units of a larger society.
Calhoun's basic concern for protecting the diverse interests of local communities is expressed in his chief contribution to political science—the idea of a concurrent majority as distinguished from a numerical majority. According to the principle of a numerical majority, the will of the more numerous citizens should always rule, regardless of the burdens on the minority. Such a principle tends toward a consolidation of power in which the interests of the absolute majority always prevail over those of the minority. Calhoun believed that the great achievement of the American constitution was in checking the tyranny of a numerical majority through institutional procedures that required a concurrent majority, such that each important interest in the community must consent to the actions of government. To secure a concurrent majority, those interests that have a numerical majority must compromise with the interests that are in the minority. A concurrent majority requires a unanimous consent of all the major interests in a community, which is the only sure way of preventing majority tyranny. This idea supported Calhoun's doctrine of interposition or nullification, in which the state governments could refuse to enforce or comply with a policy of the Federal government that threatened the vital interests of the states.
Disquisition on Government
The Disquisition on Government was a book that incorporated Calhoun's reasoned views on government as seen from the point of view of the permanent minority (the South). Begun in 1843, and virtually finished in 1848, it elaborates the doctrine of his South Carolina Exposition and Protest. Its keynote is the idea of a concurrent majority. Simple majority government always results in despotism over the minority unless some way is devised to secure the assent of all classes, sections, and interests. The argument is close-knit and convincing if one accepts the belief of Calhoun that the states retain absolute sovereignty over the Constitution and can do with it as they wish. This doctrine could be made effective by nullification. But Calhoun believed that the clear recognition of rights on the part of the states on the one hand and of the national majority on the other would prevent matters ever coming to a crisis. South Carolina and other southern states, in the three decades preceding the Civil War, had provided legislatures in which the vested interests of land and slaves dominated in the upper houses, while the popular will of the numerical majority prevailed in the lower houses. This was done in conscious acceptance of the doctrine of the Disquisition. The Disquisition was published shortly after his death as was his other book, Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States.
- Bartlett, Irving H. John C. Calhoun: A Biography (1994), 413pp, the best one-volume scholarly biography; Bartlett, while hostile to slavery, portrays Calhoun as a principled, consistent, and often admirable champion of slavery and the South.
- Calhoun, John C. John C. Calhoun: Selected Writings and Speeches edited by H. Lee Cheek, (2003) excerpt and text search
- Capers, Gerald M. John C. Calhoun, Opportunist: A Reappraisal (1960) online edition
- Coit, Margaret, L John C. Calhoun: American Portrait 620pp; prize winning popular historyexcerpt and text search
- Current, Richard N. John C. Calhoun (1966), short biography by a scholar
- Ford, Lacy K. Jr. "Republican Ideology in a Slave Society: The Political Economy of John C. Calhoun," Journal of Southern History 54 (1988): 405-24; in JSTOR
- Freehling, William W. "Spoilsmen and Interests in the Thought and Career of John C. Calhoun," Journal of American History 52 (1965): 25-42. in JSTOR
- Hofstadter, Richard. "The Marx of the Master Class" in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, (1948), influential essay on Calhoun. online in ACLS E-Book
- Meigs, William Montgomery. The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun, ( 2 vol 1917), old but solid scholarship; complete text online
- Niven, John. John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography (1993) excerpt and text search
- Peterson, Merrill D. Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1987), comparison of three key leaders excerpt and text search
- Capers says it was caused by opportunism; when Calhoun realized his ultra nationalist programs were getting him nowhere, he decided about 1827 to build a southern base by allying himself with Jackson and attacking the nationalism of Adams and Clay. The tactic failed completely when Jackson broke with him in 1831. Capers (1948) pp 41-48.
- Bartlett, John C. Calhoun (1994) p. 285. Bartlett notes the falsity of the rumor that Calhoun was the father of Abraham Lincoln, since the real mother lived in a different state.
- Margaret Kinard Latimer, "South Carolina - a Protagonist of the War of 1812." American Historical Review 1956 61(4): 914-929. in Jstor emphasizes protection of the growing cotton industry.
- Norris W. Preyer, "Southern Support of the Tariff of 1816 - a Reappraisal." Journal of Southern History 1959 25(3): 306-322. in Jstor
- Michael S. Fitzgerald, "Rejecting Calhoun's Expansible Army Plan: the Army Reduction Act of 1821." War in History 1996 3(2): 161-185. Issn: 0968-3445
- William S. Belko, "John C. Calhoun and the Creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs: an Essay on Political Rivalry, Ideology, and Policymaking in the Early Republic." South Carolina Historical Magazine 2004 105(3): 170-197. Issn: 0038-3082
- David F. Ericson, "The Nullification Crisis, American Republicanism, and the Force Bill Debate." Journal of Southern History 1995 61(2): 249-270. in Jstor
- W. Kirk Wood, "In Defense of the Republic: John C. Calhoun and State Interposition in South Carolina, 1776-1833." Southern Studies 2003 10(1-2): 9-48. Issn: 0735-8342
- The British area became British Columbia; the American area became Washington and Oregon.
- Irving Bartlett, John C. Calhoun (1994) p. 228