Reference Entry

Calhoun, John C. (1782 - 1850), Political Figure, U.S. Vice President, Secretary of War, U.S. Senator

Chad Morgan

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Calhoun, John C. (1782 - 1850), Political Figure, U.S. Vice President, Secretary of War, U.S. Senator

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Calhoun did more than anyone else to chart the Slave South's increasingly defiant course from the 1830s onward; the trajectory of his career closely mirrors that of his region. Born into a family of ardent patriots and Revolutionary War veterans, Calhoun's early nationalism steadily gave way to the need to construct ever-moreelaborate defenses of the South's slave society. Ironically, in doing more than perhaps any other individual to set the stage for the Civil War, this “father of secession” and unapologetic slaveholder became a great practical force in the bringing about of Emancipation. John Caldwell Calhoun was born just outside the town of Abbeville in the South Carolina Upcountry. After studying at Yale and then the Litchfield Law School, Calhoun began his meteoric rise to political prominence with a promising stint in the South Carolina state legislature. In 1811 he married his cousin Floride Bonneau Colhoun [sic], a Lowcountry heiress whose frailties were not optimally suited to the role of wife of a political giant. That year the twenty-nine-year-old Calhoun entered Congress as a committed nationalist and war hawk. There followed an eight-year stint as a competent but frustrated secretary of war under James Monroe and two controversy-filled terms as vice president, first under John Quincy Adams and later under Andrew Jackson. His stellar résumé notwithstanding, Calhoun never realized his ambition of being president, in large part because he became the leading proponent and expositor of nullification—the idea that a state could refuse to enforce a national law within its borders—during his tenure in Jackson's administration. From 1829 to 1833 the central target of the nullifiers' venom had been the tariff. Were nullification to stand, it would not only vitiate the tariff but also undermine all national laws. Nullification, and Calhoun's later proposal that some laws require a concurrent majority, provided the theory for the ultimate protection of slavery—that the South could nullify or veto any law that threatened the institution. It was no accident that the North's first viable abolitionist movement emerged during the storm over nullification. Calhoun was keenly aware of the stakes; he resigned as vice president in protest of Jackson's policies, and in his subsequent career of nearly twenty years as a South Carolina senator—with a brief stint as secretary of state in President John Tyler's administration—he continued to fight against Jackson's Force Act, which explicitly endowed the chief executive with the power to enforce Congress's laws in all states. The nullification crisis marked the watershed in Calhoun's career. Thereafter he never wavered in his resistance to the twin demons of abolitionism and federal power. He opposed the Mexican-American War because he feared, correctly, that the war would lead to a political firestorm that would threaten slavery. When the Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot proposed to keep slavery out of the Mexican Cession, Calhoun came up with his Common Property Doctrine, later to be codified in the Dred Scott decision, which argued contra the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise that since the territories were the common possessions of all the states, no slave-owning American could legally be prevented from taking his chattel into them. Calhoun later lobbied unsuccessfully for the formation of a southern political party and published his impressive Disquisition on Government, attacking the perils of unchecked majority rule. By 1850 he could see little alternative to a sectional rupture. Even when his old adversaries Henry Clay and Daniel Webster plied him with a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law, the dying man refused to endorse a Unionsaving compromise. Calhoun did not live to see his greatest dream—and worst nightmare—realized a decade later, when his fellow South Carolinians followed his theories on state sovereignty to their logical conclusion by seceding from the Union, setting in motion the nation's terrible tragedy as well as, incidentally, the freeing of African American slaves. Not quite a contemporary, Frederick Douglass began his life as an abolitionist luminary during the twilight of Calhoun's career as the Slave South's foremost champion. Douglass naturally abhorred the man and his sophistries and spent his every energy exposing the brutality of the system Calhoun endorsed. See also Adams, John Quincy; Civil War; Clay, Henry; Douglass, Frederick; Dred Scott Case; Emancipation; Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; Laws and Legislation; Mexican-American War; Tyler, John; and Wilmot Proviso.

Reference Entry.  782 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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