Monday, March 18, 2013

John Calhoun, born March 18, 1782



John Caldwell Calhoun was born in 1782, the fourth child and third son of Patrick Calhoun and his second wife, Martha Caldwell, in Abbeville District, South Carolina.  His father had joined the Irish immigration from County Donegal  to America.  The Calhouns had arrived in Pennsylvania during the 1730s and moved steadily southward until 1756, when Patrick reached the South Carolina backcountry.  Patrick Calhoun was a leader in local politics; he served in the South Carolina legislature from 1768 to 1774. During the late 1760s, he was a Regulator, one of the self-appointed vigilantes whose well-intentioned but rough efforts to impose justice on a crime-racked frontier wholly lacking in judicial institutions finally prompted the South Carolina legislature to establish circuit courts in the backcountry.

Calhoun was shaped by his father, a prosperous planter who supported Independence during the American Revolutionary War, but opposed ratification of the federal Constitution. His father was one of the largest slaveowners in the area, 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. Slaveholding was a badge of civilization.  Calhoun believed that the spread of slavery into the back country of his own state had improved public morals by ridding the countryside of the shiftless poor whites who had once held the region back. He further believed that slavery instilled in the whites 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 raised a Calvinist, and remained a philosophical Calvinist in his firm work ethic, his resistance to such simple pleasures as dancing, and his bleak view of human nature. 

His father, who was 55 years old when John Calhoun was born, died in 1796.  John, who was 17 years old,  quit school to work on the family farm. 

He was born a year before the Revolutionary War ended, and died 11 years before the Civil War began.
Portrait of John Calhoun in 1822, at the age of 40
With his brothers' financial support, he later returned to his studies, earning a degree from Yale College in 1804. After studying law at the Tapping Reeve Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut, he was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807.


After graduation, he spent a month at the Newport, Rhode Island, summer retreat of Floride Bonneau Colhoun. Mrs. Colhoun was the widow of the Calhoun's cousin, Senator John Ewing Colhoun; her daughter, also named Floride, was attractive, well-connected in South Carolina lowcountry circles, and socially accomplished. 

John C. Calhoun married his young cousin in 1811. The union conferred wealth and social prestige on the earnest young upcountry lawyer, but Calhoun was also attracted to Floride's "beauty of mind . . . soft and sweet disposition," and "amiable and lovable character. "

The couple had 10 children over 18 years, including five sons and five daughters, although three daughters died in infancy.

The Calhouns settled first in Long Cane and later near Pendleton in the upper corner of South Carolina on a plantation called Fort Hill, where Calhoun divided his attention between his three passions of politics, farming, and family. Cotton was the main crop at Fort Hill, and slaves did much of the farming and household management.
Floride Calhoun

Floride was an active Episcopalian and Calhoun often accompanied her to church. However he was a charter member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., in 1821 signing his name right next to John Quincy Adams and remaining a member for all his life. He rarely mentioned religion; a Presbyterian in his early life, historians believe he was closest to the informal Unitarisanism typified by Thomas Jefferson.  Calhoun's closest quote about religion would be; "Do our best, our duty for our country, and leave the rest to Providence" in a letter to his daughter, Anna Maria. 

Calhoun was "a high-strung man of ultra intellectual cast,", and unlike Henry Clay or Andrew Jackson, he was not noted for charisma or charm,  But he was a brilliant intellectual and orator and strong organizer. 

With a base among the Irish, Calhoun won his first election to Congress in 1810.   He immediately became a leader of the  "War Hawks",  along with Speaker Henry Clay and South Carolina congressmen Williams Lowndes and Langdon Cheves.  They 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. Several attempted invasions of Canada were fiascos, but the U.S. did seize control of western Canada and broke the power of hostile Indians in battles in Canada and Alabama.  British and American diplomats (Clay and John Quincy Adams among the American delegation) signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814. Before the treaty reached the Senate for ratification, and even before news of its signing reached New Orleans, a massive British invasion force was  defeated at the Battle of New Orealns, making a national hero out of General Andrew Jackson. The mismanagement of the Army during the war distressed Calhoun, and he resolved to strengthen the War Department so it would never fail again.  Calhoun aggressively pushed for protective tariffs (to build up industry), a national bankinternal improvements (such as canals and ports), and other nationalist policies that he later repudiated because the ends had been accomplished. 

President James Monroe
In 1817, President James Monroe appointed Calhoun. aged 35, as Secretary of War, where he served until 1825. Calhoun continued his role as a leading nationalist during the "Era of Good Feeling". 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.

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. Although no presidential candidate received a majority in the Electoral College and the election was ultimately resolved by the House of Representatives, the Electoral College elected Calhoun vice president by a landslide. Calhoun served four years under John Quincy Adams, and then in 1828, won re-election as Vice President running with Andrew Jackson. He thus became one of two vice presidents to serve under two different presidents.

Calhoun opposed an increase in the protective tariff. While Vice President in the John Quincy Adams administration (1825–1829), Andrew Jackson's supporters devised a high tariff legislation that placed burdensome duties on selected New England imports. Frustrated, Calhoun returned to his South Carolina plantation to write "South Carolina Exposition and Protest", an essay rejecting the centralization philosophy.  Calhoun proposed the theory of a concurrent majority through the doctrine of nullification —- "the right of a State to interpose, in the last resort, in order to arrest an unconstitutional act of the General Government, within its limits."
President Andrew Jackson

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, as a last resort, in order to protect the liberty and sovereignty. James Madison rebuked supporters of nullification, stating that no state had the right to nullify federal law.

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 First Seminole War without explicit public authorization from Calhoun or Monroe. Calhoun's and Jackson's relationship deteriorated.  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.
More upheaval came when Calhoun's wife Floride organized Cabinet wives against Peggy Eaton, wife of Secretary of War John Eaton.  The scandal, which became known as the "Petticoat affair" or the "Peggy Eaton affair", ripped apart the cabinet and created an intolerable situation for Jackson.

Mrs. Calhoun, the unofficial arbiter of Washington society, had thrown the capital into turmoil with her deliberate snub of Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, Peggy. Peggy Eaton was a lively and attractive woman of dubious reputation and a special favorite of the president. The daughter of an innkeeper, she was clearly not the social equal of the haughty and highly critical Floride. She had married Eaton, a boarder at her father's hotel, soon after her first husband had died at sea—Washington scandalmongers hinted that he had taken his life in despair after learning of Peggy's affair with Eaton. Floride's reputation as an accomplished hostess, her husband's position, and the fact that both President Jackson and Martin Van Buren were widowers, gave her enormous influence in Washington society. When she refused to return Peggy Eaton's calls, several of the cabinet wives followed suit.

Floride's actions put her husband in an awkward position, but he acquiesced in her decision because he regarded social protocol as her rightful sphere of authority and because he knew that nothing he did or said would shake her resolve. The president, who considered Eaton "more like a son to me than anything else"—and later pronounced Peggy "chaste as a virgin"—was sorely offended. His outrage was compounded by memories of his late wife, Rachel, who had suffered a fatal heart attack after hearing the vicious attacks on her character that the Adams camp had circulated during the presidential campaign.

The "Petticoat War" split the cabinet for well over a year, with Van Buren emerging the winner. The shrewd and gallant widower had conspicuously entertained the Eatons and orchestrated the cabinet's resignation to resolve the impasse.


 Jackson saw attacks on Eaton stemming ultimately from the political opposition of Calhoun, and he used the affair to consolidate control over his cabinet, forcing the resignation of several members and ending Calhoun's influence in the cabinet. Calhoun was the first vice president in U.S. history to resign from office, doing so on December 28, 1832.
In 1832, states' rights theory was put to the test in the Nullification Crisis, after South Carolina 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 Charleston harbor, and even talked of hanging Calhoun. 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. 
Henry Clay
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. Whig Party leader Henry Clay sided with Daniel Webster on these issues.
Daniel Webster



















Following Calhoun's resignation as Vice President and election to the United States Senate, his wife, Floride, to their plantation, "Fort Hill," resuming her former status as a plantation mistress.  His daughter, Anna Maria,  moved to Washington, D.C. in 1835 to be a copyist for her father.  Before her marriage to Thomas Clemson, Anna said to a house maid, “You who know my idolatry, for my father, can sympathize with my feelings.” 

Fort Hill Plantation House
Map of Fort Hill Plantation
Calhoun achieved his greatest influence and most lasting fame as a Senator.  In his fifties when he began his Senate career, 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 required the co-operation of local law enforcement officials and citizens in free states to return escaped slaves.
Senator John Calhoun
Whereas other Southern politicians had excused slavery as a necessary evil, in a famous speech on the Senate floor on February 6, 1837, 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. Senator William Rives of Virginia earlier 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 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... 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 Whigs 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 last Senate speech was delivered on March 4, 1850, by Senator James Mason of Virginia. Calhoun, dying of tuberculosis, was too ill to read his own speech. He had to be helped into the Senate chamber to listen to his friend Mason. At that time, Congress was involved in a long debate over the admission to statehood of California and several issues relating to slavery.

Even senators who had long considered Calhoun a disunionist were shocked when Mason pronounced his ultimatum: if the northern states were unwilling to reconcile their differences with the South "on the broad principle of justice and duty, say so; and let the States we both represent agree to separate and part in peace." Three days later, Senator Webster delivered his famous "Seventh of March" speech, a ringing plea for compromise and Union that Calhoun interrupted with a resolute, "No sir! the Union can be broken"—one of his last utterances in the Senate.

Calhoun died of tuberculosis  at a boarding house in Washington, D.C. in March 1850.  He was   sixty-eight years old. 

Senator Thomas Hart Benton refused to speak at the April 5 memorial service in the Senate chamber; Calhoun was "not dead," he maintained. "There may be no vitality in his body, but there is in his doctrines." Senator Daniel Webster, one of the official mourners chosen by the Senate to accompany Calhoun's body to South Carolina, could not bring himself to perform this awkward and painful task. He took his leave from Calhoun at the Virginia landing as the funeral party departed for the South.
Calhoun Grave
He was interred at the St. Philip's Churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina
$100 bill issued by Confederate States of America, bearing image of Calhoun, November 1862
Anna Maria Calhoun Clemson
The Clemson University campus in South Carolina occupies the site of Calhoun's Fort Hill plantation.  Thomas Green Clemson, who was married to Calhoun's daughter Anna Maria,  bequeathed the property to the state for use as an agricultural college to be named after him.    The Fort Hill house still stands at the center of Clemson University’s campus. 


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