John C. Calhoun

The Man

“I hold the duties of life to be greater than life itself, and that in performing them, even against hope, our labor is not lost. I regard this life very much as a struggle against evil, and that to him who acts on proper principal, the reward is on the struggle more than in victory itself.”

Many thanks to past President, Steve Richey (ET 63-68 Blue), who researched and authored “The Man”.

JOHN C. CALHOUN – The Cast Iron Man

John Caldwell Calhoun, (1782-1850), kal-hoon’, American statesman and political philosopher. From 1811 until his death he served in the federal government, successively as congressman, secretary of war, vice president, senator, secretary of state, and again as senator. Always he was at the heart of the issues of his time, notably the nullification crisis and the conflict over slavery. Loyal to his nation, to his state of South Carolina, and, above all, to his principles, he sought to preserve the union while advancing Southern interests.

To understand John C. Calhoun, it becomes necessary to understand the times in which he lived and where his loyalties, convictions and principles lay. John C. Calhoun’s father was Patrick Calhoun Jr. Patrick was born on the 11th of June 1727 in Donegal County, Ireland, and died on the 15 of January, 1796 in Abbeville District of South Carolina.

Patrick Calhoun first settled near Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. It was here he married Jane Craighead in 1750. There was no issue from this marriage. They then settled on the border of Cherokee country along the Long Canes Creek in the South Carolina Upcountry, near present day Abbeville, in 1756. Four years later Patrick’s wife, brother and two aunts were slain in the Long Canes Massacre, one of the bloody skirmishes accompanying the French and Indian war (1754-1763). An account of the immigration and fighting follows:

“The Calhoun clan came from Donegal, Ireland in 1733 and dwelled in western Pennsylvania. John C. Calhoun was a five year old boy. They were Scotch-Irish, taught by Calvinistic Presbyterianism to regard life as a battle against evil. Growing up on the frontier, fighting Indians most of his adult life, Patrick embodied the rough and resolute character of the race. Driven by Indian warfare and drawn by the vision of a land of plenty over the horizon, the Calhoun’s moved steadily southward along the mountain barrier, down the Shenandoah Valley to Augusta, to the New River in southwest Virginia, then to the Waxhaws at the border separating the Carolinas. He married his first wife, Jane Craighead in 1750. The saga of the Calhoun migration ended in 1756 when Patrick, his brothers, and their families settled in the Long Canes Creek region bordering Cherokee country. In 1760, during the French and Indian war, Patrick Calhoun and a handful of companions fought off a Cherokee raiding party for many hours, until finally forced to retreat before overwhelming numbers. Returning to bury the dead three days later, Patrick found among the massacred bodies, his widowed mother and eldest brother. Several women and children of the settlement had been carried into captivity. When peace came, Patrick gave up fighting for surveying and farming.” (Note: other sources indicates Patrick’s first wife was killed in the massacre).

Later, he becomes the first Upcountry representative in a provincial assembly dominated by Lowcountry interests. The 55 members of the Constitutional Convention begin the work of hammering out a Constitution for the new nation. Patrick Calhoun, still an Upcountry political force, opposes the document because “it permitted people other than those of South Carolina to tax the people of South Carolina, and thus allowed taxation without representation, which was a violation of the fundamental principle of the revolutionary struggle. This position of states rights was not lost on his son in later years.

In the year 1793, two events occurred that transformed the economy of the lower South. One was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, and the other was the “Fugitive Slave Law, requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their owners was passed. Patrick Calhoun marries Martha Caldwell in June of 1770. They were to have one daughter and four sons.

Early Career

John Caldwell Calhoun, the third son of Patrick and Martha Caldwell Calhoun, is born in Abbeville district, S.C., on March 18, 1782. Calhoun grew up in an atmosphere of controversy and social change. The extension of cotton culture was bringing slavery into the up-country, where small farmers like his father were challenging the political dominance of the low-country planters. The Sedition Act is passed in 1798, sparking a constitutional debate that eventually results in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, written by Jefferson and James Madison. The resolutions, which argue that individual states may find the new nation’s laws unconstitutional, are to become essential to JCC’s political philosophy.

After JCC has run the family farm for five years, his elder brother James agrees to take over for seven years so that Calhoun may enter one of the “learned” professions. JCC immediately sets out for Waddels now-famed Willington Academy.

JCC departs for Yale College, in New Haven, Connecticut, where he excels in Latin and mathematics and makes the acquaintance of the Lowcountry heiress Floride Colhoun, widow of his first cousin, the late Sen. John Ewing Colhoun and the mother of the lady (Floride) he will marry. Calhoun was largely self-educated before he entered Yale as a junior in 1801. He graduated with honors in 1804; JCC begins law studies at Judge Tapping Reeve’s famous Litchfield Connecticut Law School, and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807. Practicing in his native district, he quickly gained the reputation that took him to the state legislature.

There, from 1809 to 1811, he helped establish an enduring balance of power between South Carolina’s tidewater planters and piedmont farmers. Calhoun’s own future, both socially and economically, was assured by his marriage in 1811 to a his cousin, the daughter of widow Floride Colhoon, (Floride Bonneau Colhoon) and the late Senator John Ewing Colhoon. The daughter was named Floride Bonneau after her mother. The couple settled at Abbeville, moving in 1825 to the Fort Hill plantation near Pendleton, the future site of Clemson University. They would go on to have nine children. National Politics Calhoun entered Congress in 1811. He was one of the group of young nationalists urging war with Britain to redeem America’s honor. Calhoun introduced the war report of 1812, and throughout the contest he urged measures to strengthen the armed forces and to finance the war.

When hostilities were over he proposed reconstruction measures and supported what came to be known as the “American System”–a combination of protective tariff, internal transportation, and national bank. As secretary of war in James Monroe’s cabinet, he contributed significantly to the reorganization of the Army and to the extension of the Western frontier.

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In 1824, Calhoun was elected vice president of the United States with support from both the Adams and Jackson factions. He served under the victorious John Quincy Adams, but in 1828 he supported Andrew Jackson and was again elected to the vice presidency when Jackson won the presidency. Between the close of the War of 1812 and the election of 1828, the American scene had changed radically. A postwar depression had aroused a hard core of hostility against the Bank of the United States and had brought the lon long series of increases in the tariff. The perennial question of state versus national power had been reopened by a series of centralizing Supreme Court decisions, while the Missouri Compromise of 1821 revealed an unsuspected depth of sectional cleavage over slavery.

Although the cultivation of new lands contributed to overproduction and falling prices, the Southern cotton planters blamed their misfortunes on the tariff, which by raising the cost of manufactured goods tended to depress the foreign market for their own staple. In South Carolina, men talked ominously of calculating the value of the union. The very high Tariff of 1828 drove the cotton states to the verge of rebellion. Calhoun had turned against the tariff after 1824, but Jackson’s position was equivocal. To advise the incoming president of what the South expected of him, the South Carolina legislature asked Calhoun to prepare a report. The resulting document, known as the South Carolina Exposition (1828), was the first explicit statement of Calhoun’s unique political philosophy.

Calhoun was secretary of war under President James Monroe from 1817 to 1825 and ran for president 1824 election along with four others, John Q. Adams, Henry Clay, Crawford and Andrew Jackson. However, Calhoun withdrew from the race and ran for vice president unopposed. Calhoun was vice-president in the 1824 under John Quincy Adams and was re-elected in 1828 under Andrew Jackson. Jackson was for the Tariff of 1828 and this caused Calhoun to be opposed to Jackson and directly led to Calhoun’s resignation in 1832. Because he could not do anything about Jackson’s views toward tariffs, which benefited on the industrial North and hurt the slaveholding south, John C. Calhoun the only vice president to ever resign.

Calhoun wrote an essay about this conflict, “The South Carolina Exposition and Protest”, in which he asserted nullification of federal laws, and in 1832 the South Carolina legislature did just that. The next year in the Senate Calhoun and Daniel Webster opposed each other over slavery and states’ rights in a famous debate. In 1844 President John Tyler appointed Calhoun secretary of state. In later years he was reelected to the Senate, where he supported the Texas Annexation and defeated the Wilmot Proviso.


The theory that a state might nullify–that is, refuse to obey–an act of Congress it believed unconstitutional had been implied as early as 1798 by Madison and Jefferson in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition laws. The doctrine of states’ rights, based on the concept that each of the states originally had been sovereign and independent, had been expounded for a generation. From these theories Calhoun derived his remedy. If the tariff were not reduced, he argued, the states might “interpose their sovereignty” to arrest the application of the law.

Congress failed to reduce the duties, and some South Carolinians were ready to put the theory to the test. To restrain the hotheads, Calhoun issued a further exposition of his doctrines, the Fort Hill Address of 1831. But when the Tariff of 1832 declared protection to be the fixed policy of the country, revolt broke out anew. Calhoun again amplified his doctrine, in a letter to Gov. James Hamilton, Jr., of South Carolina, but the time for words had passed. In November 1832 a special convention declared the tariff null and void within the state. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency to reenter the Senate, where he could better defend South Carolina’s action. Ultimately a compromise tariff was negotiated, largely by Henry Clay.

By this time Jackson and Calhoun were sharply at odds. The president had now learned that Calhoun, when secretary of war, had opposed Jackson’s pursuit of marauding Seminoles into Spanish Florida. After the nullification episode the gulf became unbridgeable, as Jackson fervently opposed that doctrine. When Jackson removed the government deposits from the Bank of the United States in 1833, Calhoun, though not a strong Bank supporter, joined the Whig opposition in censure of the president. He did not return to the Democratic Party until the late 1830’s.

Sectional Strife

By that time party politics, for Calhoun, had been superseded by sectional interests. As the antislavery crusade gained momentum in the North, he became preoccupied with the political defense and intellectual justification of the “peculiar institution” on which Southerners generally believed their whole economy rested. He supported the Independent Treasury plan proposed by President Martin Van Buren as an alternative to a national bank and opposed Whig attempts to restore the tariff, but for the most part the last 15 years of his life were devoted to the promotion of Southern unity.

In the Senate, Calhoun engineered passage of the gag rule that precluded discussion of slavery. As secretary of state in the last year of John Tyler’s administration (1844), he arranged the annexation of Texas, which he justified on the ground that it would enlarge the area open to slavery and so help preserve sectional balance in the union. Back in the Senate in 1846, he led the battle against the Wilmot Proviso, which would have excluded slavery from territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War. He was still insisting upon the right of the slaveholders to take their human chattels into any territory of the United States when he denounced the Compromise of 1850 almost with his last breath (too ill to speak, JCC faints three times in the lobby of the Senate).

Calhoun sat in the Senate while his final exhortation was read on March 4, 1850. His last appearance there was on March 7, when he heard and approved Daniel Webster’s appeal for sectional peace. He died in Washington on March 31, 1850, just thirteen days after his 68th birthday. He and was buried in St. Phillips Churchyard in Charleston. In 1957, United States Senators honored Calhoun as one of the five greatest senators of all time.


The substance of Calhoun’s last speech was an argument for restoration of the sectional equilibrium that had existed from the earliest days of the republic by giving to each section, through its own majority, a veto on the acts of the federal government. This doctrine of the concurrent majority had been implicit in his nullification papers. It was amplified in the 1840’s in a Disquisition on Government, intended as an introduction to a larger Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. The Discourse and its prologue were published by the state of South Carolina shortly after his death. Although he was one of the intellectual progenitors of the Southern Confederacy, Calhoun never sought that solution. His tragedy was that his defense of an indefensible institution led him to reject democracy itself. His doctrine of representation by major interest groups influenced the functional federalism of a later day but in his own time only prepared the way for the destruction of the Union he loved.

What Others Had to Say

No dignity could be more supreme than Mr. Calhoun’s. His voice was not musical; it was the voice of a professor of mathematics and suited his didactic discourse admirably. He made few gestures, but those nervous, gentlemanly hands seemed to point the way to empire. He always appealed to me rather as a moral and mental abstraction than a politician, and it was impossible, knowing him well, to associate him with mere personal ambition. His theories and his sense of duty alone dominated him. V.H. Davis, Jefferson Davis I (New York: 1890), 210-11

Calhoun is now my principal associate and he is too intelligent, too industrious, too intent on the struggle of politics to suit me except as an occasional companion. There is no relaxation in him. Lewis to Richard Cralleé, March 20, 1840. In Publications of the Southern History Association VII:03, 355.

He cannot bear contradiction….He thinks any difference of opinion from him proves a man hostile, and is ready to open his batteries on him. Hence, again, his want of able friends. He drives off every man who has the ability to think for himself….Pre-eminent as he was intellectually above all the men of this age as I believe, he was so wanting in judgment in the managing of men, was so unyielding and unpersuasive, that he could never consolidate sufficient power to accomplish anything great, of him-self and in due season…and jealousy of him–his towering genius and uncompromising temper, has had much effect in preventing the South from uniting to resist. In “Letters on the Nullification Movement in South Carolina, 1830-34”: American Historical Review VI:02, 741.

Charles E. Lester wrote that because Calhoun was “born during the Revolutionary struggle he was taught to venerate liberty, and that lesson became the guide of his life. In youth, he laid himself on the altar of the Republic, and his life has been a self-immolation.” Charles E. Lester, The Gallery’s

“A brilliant orator and strong supporter of southern opinion…”Arthur E. Schmalz Conrad (1907 – 1975)


1. Groliers Encyclepedia; The American Presidency: Charles M. Wiltse, Dartmouth College
2. Capers, Gerald M. John C. Calhoun–Opportunist: A Reappraisal. Gainesville, U of Florida, 1968.
3. Eibling, Harold H., et al., eds. History of Our United States. 2nd edition. River Forest, Ill: Laidlaw Brothers, 1968.
4. Ford Jr., Lacy K. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
5. Peterson, Merrill. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. New York: Oxford, 1987.
6. Robert E. Gustavson for From Revolution to Reconstruction – an .HTML project.
7. Source: “The South Carolina Magazine of Ancestral Research”, Vol. XX, No.2, Spring 1992, pgs. 65-66. “Notices From the Greenville Mountaineer”, Issues of April 5, 26; May 3, 17.