The American statesman John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850) became the most effective protagonist of the antebellum South. It was his tragedy to be come the spokesman for the dying institution of slavery.
John C. Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, in the uplands of South Carolina, the son of Patrick and Martha Caldwell Calhoun. The family was Scotch-Irish and Calvinist and was relatively wealthy; his father owned twenty or more slaves, was a judge, and served in the state legislature. John graduated from Yale in 1804. He studied in the law school of Tapping Reeves in Litchfield, Conn., and in an office in Charleston, S.C., and was admitted to the bar in 1807. He quickly established a practice in Abbeville near his family home.
In 1811 Calhoun married a distant cousin, Floride Bouneau, by whom he had nine children. The marriage brought him a modest fortune. He enlarged his holdings and in 1825 established a plantation, called Fort Hill, in his native area.
Handsome in early life and with a commanding presence and piercing eyes all his life through, Calhoun had a striking personality. He had a gracious manner, and Daniel Webster and others not his partisans paid tribute to his character and integrity. In later years he struck observers as a "thinking machine," speaking very rapidly and always terribly in earnest. The picture is conveyed in Harriet Martineau's phrase that Calhoun was a "cast-iron man who looks as if he had never been born and could never be extinguished." He was concerned almost exclusively with ideas, politics, and business; he had little humor and no broad, cultural interests. One Senate colleague said there was no relaxation with the man, and another complained that to be with Calhoun was to be made to think all the time and to feel one's inferiority.
Calhoun was elected to the South Carolina Legislature in 1808 and 2 years later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Henry Clay made him chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Calhoun and other "War Hawks" moved the country to the unsuccessful War of 1812 against Great Britain. Calhoun led the effort in the House to supply and strengthen the Army, and after the war he continued to work for a stronger military establishment. He advocated measures which he would later denounce as unconstitutional: Federal encouragement of manufactures by means of a protective tariff, and internal improvements to "bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals." To objections that the Constitution did not authorize such Federal expenditures, Calhoun replied that "the instrument was not intended as a thesis for the logician to exercise his ingenuity on. It ought to be construed with plain, good sense…"
Calhoun was secretary of war in James Monroe's Cabinet (1817-1825). He became less and less militaristic through his life. In 1812 he had said that "a war, just and necessary in its origin, wisely and vigorously carried on, and honorably terminated," would establish "the integrity and prosperity of our country for centuries." But in 1846 he refused to vote for the declaration of war against Mexico; he asserted that the grounds for war given by the President were false and said simply, "I regard peace as a positive good, and war as a positive evil."
In Monroe's Cabinet, Calhoun was a nationalist. In 1821 John Quincy Adams appraised Calhoun as "a man of fair and candid mind … of enlarged philosophic views, and of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional and factional prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union…. " Calhoun was Adams's vice president (1825-1829) and was elected to the office again in 1828 under Andrew Jackson. He had expectations of becoming president following Jackson's tenure, but there was a rupture between them during Jackson's first term. The social contretemps over Peggy Eaton was involved, but more important was Jackson's discovery that Calhoun had criticized his invasion of Florida in 1818. Even without these irritants the clash would have come. Calhoun had anonymously written the "South Carolina Exposition" in response to the so-called Tariff of Abominations of 1828. He argued the right of a state to "nullify" a Federal enactment injurious to its interests if the state believed the law to be unconstitutional. By 1830 Calhoun was known as the author of the doctrine, and at a Jefferson's birthday dinner that year Jackson glared at Calhoun and proposed the toast, "Our Federal Union—it must be preserved!" Calhoun replied, "The Union—next to our liberty, the most dear!"
Jackson threatened military force to collect the duties in South Carolina, and in 1832 Calhoun in an unprecedented action resigned from the vice presidency and was elected by South Carolina to the Senate to defend its cause. Henry Clay brought forth a compromise, which Calhoun supported, to lower the tariff gradually over a decade; the crisis subsided for a time.
In the Senate in the 1830s, Calhoun attacked the abolitionists, demanding that their publications be excluded from the mails, that their petitions not be received by Congress, and finally that a stop be put to agitation against slavery in the North as had been done in the South. By 1837 he was defending slavery as "a positive good" and had become an advocate for the suppression of open discussion and a free press.
Calhoun's shift from a national to a sectional position had virtually destroyed his chances for the presidency, but he continued to aspire to that office. He declared his candidacy in 1843 but withdrew to accept appointment as secretary of state for the last year of John Tyler's term. In his efforts for the annexation of Texas, Calhoun wrote a famous letter to the British minister in Washington, arguing that annexation was necessary to protect slavery in the United States and asserting (against the position of the British government, which was urging the emancipation of slaves throughout the world) that freed African Americans tended to be deaf, blind, and insane in far higher proportions than those in slavery. The letter did not help his cause in Congress. The treaty of annexation which he negotiated with the Republic of Texas was rejected by the Senate, where it was impossible to muster the required two-thirds vote in its favor. Calhoun then supported the device, of doubtful constitutionality, of admitting Texas by a joint resolution of Congress.
Calhoun returned to the Senate in 1845, where he first opposed the war against Mexico and then the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in all the territories acquired from Mexico by that war. He denounced the Compromise of 1850, which did not guarantee the right of Southerners to take their slaves into all territories of the Union. He did not live to see that compromise adopted, dying on March 31, 1850. His last words were, "The South! The poor South!"
The political theory Calhoun had developed from the time of the Nullification Crisis of 1828 he began to organize in a formal treatise in the middle 1840s. His two works, Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, were published posthumously. Calhoun argued that government by mere numbers must inevitably result in despotism by the majority, a proposition supported by the men who drew up the Constitution. He also insisted that the Constitution should be based upon the "truth" of the inequality of man and on the principle that people are not equally entitled to liberty.
Calhoun said the U.S. Constitution lacked the necessary restraints to prevent the majority from abusing the minority. He proposed to give the minorities (the minority he had in mind was the Southern slaveholders) a veto power over Federal legislation and action by means of what he called the "concurrent majority." In the Discoursehe proposed the device of dual executives for the Union, each to be chosen by one of the great sections of the country, with the agreement of both necessary for Federal action.
The 20th-century experience of the dangers of centralized governmental power has brought a renewed interest in Calhoun's proposals for the protection of minority rights. But although Calhoun's critical analysis was perceptive, his proposed solutions have not been regarded as serious contributions to the problem. Indeed, as critics have pointed out, although he spoke in general terms and categories, he was really interested only in defending the rights of a specific propertied minority—the slaveholding South.
Further Reading on John Caldwell Calhoun
Calhoun's own A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, originally published in 1851, are now available together in several editions. The Works of John C. Calhoun, edited by Richard K. Crallé (6 vols., 1851-1856), has been the basic published collection of his writings. However, a more recent, definitive collection of Calhoun's writings is The Papers of John C. Calhoun, edited by Robert L. Meriwether (4 vols., 1959-1969).
A representative collection of essays by Calhoun scholars is John L. Thomas, ed., John C. Calhoun: A Profile (1968). It provides an excellent introduction to the literature on Calhoun. The comprehensive biography is Charles M. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun (3 vols., 1944-1951); however, it denigrates his rivals and justifies Calhoun's actions throughout his career. The best one-volume biography, with a better interpretive balance, is Margaret L. Coit, John C. Calhoun: American Portrait (1950). For a more critical account see Gerald M. Capers, John C. Calhoun, Opportunist: A Reappraisal (1960). Richard N. Current, John C. Calhoun (1963), provides a good analysis of Calhoun's political theory.
To examine the changing interpretations of Calhoun over the last century see the biographies by John S. Jenkins, The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun (1852); H. von Holst, John C. Calhoun (1882); Gaillard Hunt, John C. Calhoun (1908); William M. Meigs, The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun (2 vols., 1917); and Arthur Styron, The Cast Iron Man: John C. Calhoun and American Democracy (1935).