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John Caldwell Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) was the seventh Vice President of the United Statesmarker and a leading Southern politician from South Carolinamarker during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun was an advocate of slavery, states' rights, limited government, and nullification. He was the second man to serve as Vice President under two administrations (as a Democratic-Republican under John Quincy Adams and as a Democrat under Andrew Jackson), the first Vice President to have been born after the American Revolution, and the first Vice President to resign from office. Calhoun briefly served in the South Carolina legislature. There he wrote legislation making South Carolina the first state to adopt universal suffrage for white men.

Although Calhoun died nearly 11 years before the start of the American Civil War, he was an advocate of secession. Nicknamed the "cast-iron man" for his determination to defend the causes in which he believed, Calhoun supported state's rights and nullification, under which states could declare null and void federal laws which they deemed to be unconstitutional. He was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he famously defended as a "positive good" rather than as a "necessary evil". His rhetorical defense of slavery was partially responsible for escalating Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting abolitionist sentiment in the North. Calhoun was one of the "Great Triumvirate" or the "Immortal Trio" of statesmen, along with his Congressional colleagues Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Calhoun served in the House of Representatives (1810–1817) and the United States Senate (1832–1843). He was appointed Secretary of War (1817–1824) under James Monroe and Secretary of State (1844–1845) under John Tyler.

Origins and early life

An 1822 portrait of John C.
Calhoun, aged 40
Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, the fourth child of Patrick Calhoun and his wife Martha (née Caldwell). His father was an Ulster-Scot who emigrated from County Donegalmarker to the Thirteen Colonies where he met Martha, daughter of a Protestant Scots-Irish immigrant father .

When his father became ill, the 17-year-old Calhoun quit school to work on the family farm. With his brothers' financial support, he later returned to his studies, earning a degree from Yale Collegemarker, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1804. After studying law at the Tapping Reeve Law Schoolmarker in Litchfield, Connecticutmarker, Calhoun was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807.

Marriage and family

In January 1811, Calhoun married Floride Bonneau Colhoun, a first cousin once removed. Her branch of the family spelled the surname differently than did his. The couple had 10 children over 18 years; three died in infancy. During her husband's second term as Vice President, Floride Calhoun was a central figure in the Petticoat affair.

Early political career

In 1810, Calhoun was elected to Congress, and became one of the War Hawks. Led by Henry Clay, they argued for what became the War of 1812. Calhoun made his public debut in calling for war after the Chesapeake-Leopard affair in 1807.

After the war, Calhoun and Clay sponsored a Bonus Bill for public works. With the goal of building a strong nation that could fight future wars, Calhoun aggressively pushed for high protective tariffs (to build up industry), a national bank, internal improvements, and many other policies he later repudiated.

In 1817, President James Monroe appointed Calhoun Secretary of War, where he served until 1825. Belko (2004) argues that Calhoun's actions in this capacity proved his nationalism. His opponents were the "Old Republicans" in Congress, with their Jeffersonian ideology for economy in the federal government; they often attacked the operations and finances of the War Department. Calhoun was a reform-minded executive, who attempted to institute centralization and efficiency in the Indian department. Congress either failed to respond to his reforms or rejected them. Calhoun's frustration with congressional inaction, political rivalries, and the ideological differences that dominated the late early republic spurred him to unilaterally create the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Calhoun expressed his nationalism in advising Monroe to approve the Missouri Compromise, which most other Southern politicians saw as a distinctly bad deal. Calhoun believed that continued agitation on the slavery issue threatened the Union, so he wanted the Missouri dispute to be concluded.

As Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote in 1821,
"Calhoun is a man of fair and candid mind, of honorable principles, of clear and quick understanding, of cool self-possession, of enlarged philosophical views, and of ardent patriotism.
He is above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted."
Historian Charles Wiltse agrees, noting, "Though he is known today primarily for his sectionalism, Calhoun was the last of the great political leaders of his time to take a sectional position-later than Daniel Webster, later than Henry Clay, later than Adams himself."

Vice Presidency


Calhoun originally was a candidate for President of the United States in the election of 1824. After failing to win the endorsement of the South Carolina legislature, he decided to be a candidate for Vice President. As no presidential candidate received a majority in the Electoral College, the election was ultimately resolved by the House of Representatives. Calhoun was elected Vice President in a landslide. Calhoun served four years under Adams, and then, in 1828, won re-election as Vice President running with Andrew Jackson.

The Adams administration

Calhoun believed that the outcome of the 1824 presidential election, in which the House made Adams President despite the greater popularity of Andrew Jackson, demonstrated that control of the federal government was subject to manipulation by Adams and Henry Clay. Calhoun resolved to thwart Adams' and Clay's nationalist program. He opposed it even as he held office with them. In 1828, Calhoun ran for reelection as the running mate of Andrew Jackson. He thus became one of two vice presidents to serve under two presidents (the other was George Clinton in the early 19th century).

The Jackson administration

Under Andrew Jackson, Calhoun's Vice Presidency was also controversial. In time he developed a rift over policy with President Jackson, this time about hard cash, or policy which he considered to favor Northern financial interests. Calhoun opposed the Tariff of 1828 (also known as the Tariff of Abominations.) Calhoun had been assured that Jacksonians would reject the bill, but Northern Jacksonians were primarily responsible for its passage. Frustrated, Calhoun returned to his South Carolina plantation to write "South Carolina Exposition and Protest", an essay rejecting the nationalist philosophy he once advocated.

He supported the theory of a concurrent majority through the doctrine of nullification—that individual states could override federal legislation they deemed unconstitutional. Nullification traced back to arguments by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. They had proposed that states could nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Jackson, who supported states' rights but believed that nullification threatened the Union, opposed it. Calhoun differed from Jefferson and Madison in explicitly arguing for a state's right to secede from the Union, if necessary, instead of simply nullifying certain federal legislation. James Madison rebuked supporters of nullification, stating that no state had the right to nullify federal law.

At the 1830 Jefferson Day dinner at Jesse Brown's Indian Queen Hotel, Jackson proposed a toast and proclaimed, "Our federal Union, it must be preserved." Calhoun replied, "the Union, next to our liberty, the most dear."

In May 1830, Jackson discovered that Calhoun had asked President Monroe to censure then-General Jackson for his invasion of Spanish Florida in 1818. Calhoun was then serving as James Monroe's Secretary of War (1817–1823). Jackson had invaded Florida during the Seminole Warmarker without explicit public authorization from Calhoun or Monroe. Calhoun's and Jackson's relationship deteriorated further.

Calhoun defended his 1818 position. The feud between him and Jackson heated up as Calhoun informed the President that he risked another attack from his opponents. They started an argumentative correspondence, fueled by Jackson's opponents, until Jackson stopped the letters in July 1830.

By February 1831, the break between Calhoun and Jackson was final. Responding to inaccurate press reports about the feud, Calhoun had published the letters in the United States Telegraph.

More damage was done when conservative Floride Calhoun organized Cabinet wives against Peggy Eaton, wife of 13th Secretary of War John Eaton. They alleged that John and Peggy Eaton had engaged in an adulterous affair while Mrs. Eaton was still legally married to her first husband John B. Timberlake. Some critics believed that the affair had contributed to Timberlake's suicide in 1828.

The scandal, which became known as the Petticoat affair or the Peggy Eaton affair, resulted in the resignation of all Jackson's Cabinet except for Postmaster General William T. Barry and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. Van Buren resigned as Secretary of State but only to take a position as United States Ambassador to Britain (1831–1832).

Nullification crisis

Sketch of John C.
In 1832, the states' rights theory was put to the test in the Nullification Crisis, after South Carolinamarker passed an ordinance that nullified federal tariffs. The tariffs favored Northern manufacturing interests over Southern agricultural concerns. The South Carolina legislature declared them unconstitutional. Calhoun had formed a political party in South Carolina explicitly known as the Nullifier Party.

In response to the South Carolina move, Congress passed the Force Bill, which empowered the President to use military power to force states to obey all federal laws. Jackson sent US Navy warships to Charlestonmarker harbor. South Carolina then nullified the Force Bill. Tensions cooled after both sides agreed to the Compromise Tariff of 1833, a proposal by Senator Henry Clay to change the tariff law in a manner which satisfied Calhoun, who by then was in the Senate.

Calhoun had earlier suggested that the doctrine of nullification could lead to secession. In his 1828 essay "South Carolina Exposition and Protest", Calhoun argued that a state could veto any law it considered unconstitutional.

U.S. Senator and views on slavery

John C.
With his break with Jackson complete, in 1832, Calhoun ran for the Senate rather than continue as Vice President. Because he had expressed nullification beliefs during the crisis, his chances of becoming President were very low. After the Compromise Tariff of 1833 was implemented, the Nullifier Party, along with other anti-Jackson politicians, formed a coalition known as the Whig Party. Calhoun sided with the Whigs until he broke with key Whig Senator Daniel Webster over slavery, as well as the Whigs' program of "internal improvements". Many Southern politicians opposed these as improving Northern industrial interests at the expense of Southern interests. Whig party leader Henry Clay sided with Daniel Webster on these issues.

On December 28, 1832, Calhoun accepted election to the United States Senate from his native South Carolina. He was the first vice president in U.S. history to resign from office. He achieved his greatest influence and most lasting fame as a Senator.

Calhoun led the pro-slavery faction in the Senate in the 1830s and 1840s, opposing both abolitionism and attempts to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories. He was a major advocate of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which enforced the co-operation of law enforcement in free states to return people who escaped from slavery. Calhoun couched his defense of the institution of slavery in terms of liberty and self-determination for residents of Southern states.

Whereas other Southern politicians had excused slavery as a necessary evil, in a famous February 1837 speech on the Senate floor, Calhoun asserted that slavery was a "positive good." He rooted this claim on two grounds—white supremacy and paternalism. All societies, Calhoun claimed, are ruled by an elite group which enjoys the fruits of the labor of a less-privileged group.

In that speech, he stated: "I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse."

After a one-year break as the 16th United States Secretary of State, (April 1, 1844 – March 10, 1845) under President John Tyler, Calhoun returned to the Senate in 1845. He participated in the epic political struggle over the expansion of slavery in the Western states. Regions were divided as to whether slavery should be allowed in the formerly Imperial Spanish — Mexican lands. The debate over this issue culminated in the Compromise of 1850.

Calhoun died in in Washington, D.C.marker in March 1850 of tuberculosis, at the age of 68. He was buried in St. Philip's Church yard in Charleston, South Carolinamarker.

Calhoun's fierce defense of states' rights and support for the Slave Power had influence beyond his death. Southern supporters drew from his thought in the growing divide between Northern and Southern states on this issue. They wielded the threat of Southern secession to back slave state demands.

The Calhoun Doctrine

Southerners challenged the doctrine of congressional authority to regulate or prohibit slavery in the territories. In 1847 Calhoun claimed that citizens from every state had the right to take their property to any territory. Congress, he asserted, had no authority to place restrictions on slavery in the territories. If the Northern majority continued to ride roughshod over the rights of the Southern minority, the Southern states would have little option but to secede.


A photograph of John C.
Calhoun in his final years.

During the Civil War, the Confederate government honored Calhoun on a one-cent postage stamp, which was printed but never officially released (as seen below).

Calhoun was also honored by his alma mater, Yale Universitymarker, which named one of its undergraduate residence halls "Calhoun College" and erected a statue of Calhoun in Harkness Towermarker, a prominent campus landmark.

Clemson Universitymarker campus, South Carolina, occupies the site of Calhoun's Fort Hill plantation, which he bequeathed to his wife and daughter. They sold it and its 50 slaves to a relative, for which they received $15,000 for the and $29,000 for the slaves. (They were valued at about 600 USD apiece.) When that owner died, Thomas Green Clemson foreclosed the mortgage. He later bequeathed the property to the state for use as an agricultural college to be named after him.

A wide range of places, streets and schools were named after Calhoun, as may be seen on the above list. The "Immortal Trio" were memorialized with streets in Uptown New Orleans. Calhoun Landing, on the Santee-Cooper River in Santee, South Carolinamarker, was named after him. The Calhoun Monument was erected in Charleston, South Carolinamarker. The USS John C. Calhoun was a Fleet Ballistic Missile nuclear submarine, in commission from 1963 to 1994.

In 1957, United States Senators honored Calhoun as one of the "five greatest senators of all time."

Cora Calhoun, a descendant of John C. Calhoun, was the grandmother of renowned African-American actress and singer Lena Horne.


  1. Slavery a Positive Good, John C. Calhoun, February 6, 1837
  3. Historical Figures: John C. Calhoun, ‘’’’, accessed Oct 9, 2009
  4. Wiltse (1944) vol 1 ch 8-11
  5. Adams, Diary, V, 361
  6. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun: Nationalist, 234
  7. Rutland, Robert Allen. (1997) James Madison: The Founding Father, p.248–249.
  8. Niven 173
  9. John C. Calhoun, 7th Vice President 1825-1832,, accessed Oct 9, 2009


  • Catherine Drew Gilpin Faust,The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South, (Louisiana State University Press, 1982) ISBN 978-0807116067

  • James L. Roark Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback), October 1978, Louisiana University, ISBN 0393009017 ISBN 9780393009019)

  • Belko, William S. 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

Primary sources

  • The Papers of John C. Calhoun Edited by Clyde N. Wilson; 28 volumes, University of South Carolina Press, 1959-2003. [8405]; contains all letters, pamphlets and speeches by JCC and most letters written to him.
  • speech in the Senate, January 13, 1834, -- "fanatics and madmen of the North"  "No, Sir, State rights are no more."
  • speech on the bill to continue the charter of the Bank of the United States, March 21, 1834
  • speech on the Senate floor September 18, 1837, on the bill authorizing an issue of Treasury Notes
  • speech on his amendment to separate the Government and the banks, October 3, 1837
  • reply to Clay March 10, 1838, the Clay-Calhoun debate -- "Whatever the Government receives and treats as money, is money"
  • Slavery a Positive Good, speech on the Senate floor, February 6, 1837.
  • Calhoun, John C. Ed. H. Lee Cheek, Jr. Calhoun: Selected Writings and Speeches (Conservative Leadership Series), 2003. ISBN 0-89526-179-0.
  • Calhoun, John C. Ed. Ross M. Lence, Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, 1992. ISBN 0-86597-102-1.
  • "Correspondence Addressed to John C. Calhoun, 1837-1849," Chauncey S. Boucher and Robert P. Brooks, eds., Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1929. 1931

Academic secondary sources

  • Bartlett, Irving H. John C. Calhoun: A Biography (1993)
  • Brown, Guy Story. "Calhoun's Philosophy of Politics: A Study of A Disquisition on Government"
  • Capers; Gerald M. John C. Calhoun, Opportunist: A Reappraisal 1960.
  • Capers Gerald M., "A Reconsideration of Calhoun's Transition from Nationalism to Nullification," Journal of Southern History, XIV (Feb., 1948), 34-48. online in JSTOR
  • Cheek, Jr., H. Lee. Calhoun And Popular Rule: The Political Theory Of The Disquisition And Discourse. (2004) ISBN 0-8262-1548-3
  • Ford Jr., Lacy K. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800-1860 (1988)
  • Ford Jr., Lacy K. "Republican Ideology in a Slave Society: The Political Economy of John C. Calhoun, The Journal of Southern History. Vol. 54, No. 3 (Aug., 1988), pp. 405–424 in JSTOR
  • Ford Jr., Lacy K. "Inventing the Concurrent Majority: Madison, Calhoun, and the Problem of Majoritarianism in American Political Thought," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Feb., 1994), pp. 19–58 in JSTOR
  • Gutzman, Kevin R. C., "Paul to Jeremiah: Calhoun's Abandonment of Nationalism," in _The Journal of Libertarian Studies_ 16 (2002), 3-33.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. "Marx of the Master Class" in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948)
  • Niven, John. John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (1988)
  • Peterson, Merrill. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1987)
  • Rayback Joseph G., "The Presidential Ambitions of John C. Calhoun, 1844-1848," Journal of Southern History, XIV (Aug., 1948), 331-56. online in JSTOR
  • Wiltse, Charles M. John C. Calhoun, Nationalist, 1782-1828 (1944) ISBN 0-8462-1041-X; John C. Calhoun, Nullifier, 1829-1839 (1948); John C. Calhoun, Sectionalist, 1840-1859 (1951); the standard scholarly biography

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