John Calhoun Biography
CALHOUN, kăl-hōōn', John Caldwell (1782Ė1850). A distinguished American statesman, born in Abbeville District, S. C., on March 18, 1782; of Scotch-Irish descent, the third son of Patrick Calhoun, his mother having been before marriage Martha Caldwell. Calhoun early showed that he possessed a thoughtful turn of mind, and, though he had little teaching when a boy, he began to study law at the age of 18, supplementing this with other reading which enabled him to enter the junior class at Yale College in 1802. While at college he was known as a hard student, especially of political and historical subjects, and graduated in 1804 with high honors. He then resumed the study of law, in Litchfield, Conn., and in a law office in Charleston, and was admitted to the bar in 1807, beginning practice at Abbeville, S. C. In 1808 he was sent to the State Legislature, where he attracted so much attention as to secure an election to Congress in 1811. In the same year he married his cousin, Floride Calhoun, who had a moderate fortune, and this enabled him to pursue for a time an independent course in national politics. During this period Calhoun took a broader view of the American Constitution than that with which his name is now identified. American political parties were then in a transition period; and Calhoun, chafing at the arrogance of Great Britain, ranged himself with Henry Clay (q.v.) and favored a warlike policy, so that he and Clay were popularly known as "the War Hawks." His intense personality, when joined with Clay's magnetic qualities, forced Madison's administration into a declaration of war on Great Britain, and throughout that war he both spoke and voted for its vigorous prosecution. Later, in 1816, he favored the establishment of a national bank, an increase of the navy, extensive internal improvements at the national cost, especially in providing great highways with the express purpose of uniting more closely all the members of the American Republic. He even advocated a protective tariff. All this was wholly inconsistent with his later views of strict construction and separatism; but it showed him at that period of his career to have had a wise and far-seeing conception of national unity.
In March 1817, Calhoun was appointed Secretary of War by President Monroe. The War of 1812 had left the department in great disorder. This gave Calhoun an opportunity of showing his admirable qualities as an administrator, and he soon established system in place of chaos. He prepared, for submission to the House, extremely able reports on the subject of highways and canals and on Indian affairs. Although the army was reduced from 10,000 to 6000 men, it was made more efficient than it had ever been before, and Calhoun insisted upon expenditures that were almost lavish, but that showed his conception of an effective military establishment. Furthermore, during his tenure of this office every cent was honestly expended, and not a single defalcation occurred. When he retired from the secretaryship, his chief subordinates in an address (1825) said: "The degree of perfection to which you have carried the several branches of this department is believed to be without parallel"; and Joseph Story had already written (1823): "I have great admiration for Mr. Calhoun, and think few men have more large and liberal views of the true policy of the national government." He conceded the right of the United States to regulate slavery in the territories at the time of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (q.v.), indicating a spirit of Nationalism which he retained up to the tariff agitation of 1827. In 1824 Calhoun received 182 electoral votes for Vice President as against 79 scattering ballots, and was elected. No one having a majority of votes for the presidency, the election devolved upon the House of Representatives, and John Quincy Adams was made President. In 1828 Calhoun was reŽlected under Jackson as President, and now became an extreme advocate of States' rights, because a protective tariff had been passed, some of whose features were injurious to the agricultural interests of South Carolina. This so-called "Tariff of Abominations" led to the preparation by Calhoun of an elaborate document setting forth the principle of State sovereignty in an extreme form. This was approved and issued by the Legislature of South Carolina and is known as "The South Carolina Exposition." Three years later his doctrine was expanded to include the theory that each State had the right to nullify any United States law which the State might regard as unconstitutional. Calhoun had already broken off all personal relations with President Jackson, who regarded him as treacherous both to himself and to the country. A policy of pin pricks widened the breach between Jackson and Calhoun, and their personal animosity was intensified by the notorious Eaton affair. (See Eaton, Margaret.) From this time Calhoun's chance for election to the presidency was extinguished, since Jackson, "the Hero of New Orleans," so dominated the nation as to enable him to choose his successor in the person of Martin Van Buren (q.v.).
On Aug. 28, 1832, Calhoun wrote to Governor Hamilton of South Carolina a final statement of the theory of nullification (q.v.) in these words: "There is no direct and immediate connection between the individual citizens of a State and the general government," adding somewhat paradoxically that nullification is the great conservative principle of union. President Jackson with characteristic grimness threatened to hang Calhoun and at a public banquet uttered the memorable words: "The Union must and shall be preserved." When another South Carolina convention, on Nov. 24, 1832, passed an ordinance nullifying the tariff, Calhoun immediately resigned the vice presidency and entered the Senate. By a compromise, arranged by Clay, an armed conflict was avoided. South Carolina won the particular point as to the tariff, but failed to secure the establishment of nullification as a principle. Acting with the Whigs, but still independent, Calhoun now became a scathing critic of Jackson's administration, though suppressing in his public utterances any personal animus. He condemned severely Jackson's removal of the government deposits from the United States Bank and his development of the spoils system. Foreseeing more clearly than any one else the conflict between the North and the South on the slavery question, he sought to avert it by checking all discussion of the issue. When, after the financial crisis of 1837, Van Buren proposed the so-called subtreasury scheme, by which the United States should avoid all connection with banks and should control its own deposits, Calhoun supported the President, much to the chagrin of the Whigs, with whom he had been acting. He was in favor of Van Buren's reŽlection and secured for him the vote of South Carolina. When Tyler, who became President on the death of William H. Harrison, vetoed the bill for rechartering the United States Bank, Calhoun defended him. He denounced the tariff of 1842 and supported the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (q.v.). After having declined reŽlection to the Senate in 1843, he was, in March of the next year, through a clever move on the part of Henry A. Wise, appointed Secretary of State by Tyler and was chiefly instrumental in bringing about the annexation of Texas in order to extend slave territory, thus practically necessitating the Mexican War, which he strove later to avert. In 1845 he was again elected to the Senate. In order to check the antislavery movement at the North he proposed in 1847 a convention of Southern States to prevent Northern commerce from entering their ports. Slavery he had come to advocate as a positive good. In 1849 he proposed a Southern convention to set forth the grievances of the slave States, looking towards "dissolving the partnership," if the only course left open seemed submission. His last speech in connection with the Compromise of 1850 was read, on account of his weakness, by another Senator. In this he asserted that an amendment to the Constitution would be necessary to restore a proper political equilibrium. He died on March 31, 1850, having spent his last few months in writing his "Disquisition on Government," and his "Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States," probably the most remarkable discussion ever written on the rights of minorities.
Calhoun's personality was attractive, and his morals were irreproachable. His power of logical analysis seems to entitle him to rank as one of the most original of American political theorists. He was probably too much of a political theorist and philosopher to be regarded as a statesman of the first order. It must be conceded, however, that throughout his long political career he impressed both friends and foes as none but a man of extraordinary powers can do, and it is quite clear that he believed that the only way to preserve the Union was to reduce its strength almost to the vanishing point.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. IV (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 326-327.