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|
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.
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 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 bank, internal improvements (such as canals and ports), and other nationalist policies that he later repudiated because the ends had been accomplished.
|President James Monroe|
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.
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.
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|
|Senator John Calhoun|
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.
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.
|$100 bill issued by Confederate States of America, bearing image of Calhoun, November 1862|
|Anna Maria Calhoun Clemson|