John Caldwell Calhoun

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 6,914 words
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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About this Person
Born: March 18, 1782 in Abbeville, South Carolina, United States
Died: March 31, 1850 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Vice president (Government)
Other Names: Calhoun, John Caldwell
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Calhoun, John Caldwell (Mar. 18, 1782 - Mar. 31, 1850), was secretary of war, vice-president, senator, secretary of state, and political philosopher, Three Scotch-Irish brothers Colquhoun, Colhoun or Calhoun, in the unstable spelling of the time, entered Pennsylvania about 1733, and moved southward by stages. By 1746 one of them, James, was dwelling with Catherine his wife, four sons and a daughter in Bath County on the Virginia frontier. Driven thence by the Indian disorders after Braddock's defeat, this family and some of its kinsfolk founded the "Calhoun settlement" in the South Carolina uplands near the Savannah River. James appears to have died in peace, but Catherine was killed by a party of Cherokees in 1760 at a spot which her youngest son Patrick marked with a slab. The four sons clung to their steadings through foul times and fair, supporting the American cause against Great Britain and attaining considerable repute. Patrick in particular was for many years a member of the South Carolina legislature. As a pronounced individualist in political philosophy, he opposed the ratification of the Federal Constitution. Having lost a first wife without surviving issue, he married Martha Caldwell and by her had a daughter and four sons, of whom the youngest but one was named for an uncle whom Tories had murdered, John Caldwell.

After a normal childhood in a family prosperous enough to possess a score or two of slaves when slaves were few in that primitive region, the youth went in his fourteenth year to become a pupil of his brother-in-law, the talented Moses Waddel, in Columbia County, Ga. But Mrs. Waddel's death soon caused the academy to suspend, and young Calhoun returned home, where his father's death in the same year, 1796, cast some of the burdens of the farm upon him. Here he continued at work and at play till the turn of the century. Then an elder brother, who was in business at Charleston, prompted him to prepare for a profession. John returned for a time to Waddel's academy, then entered the junior class at Yale College, graduated in 1804, studied law in Tapping Reeve's school at Litchfield, Conn., and in Henry W. DeSaussure's office at Charleston, was admitted to the bar in 1807, and opened an office at Abbeville near his native home. Though quickly acquiring a substantial practise, he found the pursuit uncongenial and resolved to abandon it as soon as opportunity should permit. This came within a few years through his marriage and his entrance into public life.

John Ewing Calhoun, cousin of Patrick, had attained wealth and distinction in the South Carolina lowlands, partly through his marriage to Floride Bouneau, who inherited from her Huguenot family a plantation on Cooper River. After her husband's death in 1802, the widow continued a practise, fairly common among grandees of the "rice coast," of spending the summers at Newport and the winters at Charleston or on the plantation. John C. Calhoun became a protégé of hers and an intimate of her household. Friendship with her daughter Floride, who was ten years his junior, ripened into love which led to a happy marriage in January 1811. His bride brought him a modest fortune, which, because of his objection to the lowland custom of marriage settlements, was put under his control. This property when added to his own patrimony and savings made Calhoun financially independent, though the increase of his family (nine children all told) kept a degree of frugality expedient. Calhoun enlarged his landholdings and in 1825 established a commodious plantation homestead in his native district. Named "Fort Hill" from its having been a fortified spot in days of Indian warfare, the dwelling still stands on what is now the campus of Clemson College.

Calhoun's interest in public affairs doubtless began at his father's knee, and his Republicanism was intensified by his encounters with Federalists during his years at New Haven and Litchfield. His own political career began in 1807 with a speech at a public meeting in Abbeville denouncing British aggressions upon American maritime rights. In the next year he was elected to the South Carolina legislature, in time to share in the revision of representation to give numerical preponderance in the lower house to the uplands of the state while the control of the Senate was left with the lowlands. This device of "concurrent majorities" or mutual checks was one which he was eventually to propose for the relief of sectional apprehensions in the United States. But at the time of his election to Congress in 1810, and for long thereafter, his federal program had quite another direction.

Calhoun's service in national halls began with the convening of the Twelfth Congress which the "war hawks" were to make famous. Regardless of consequences in Europe and impatient of opposition from New England, these young men were resolute for war with Britain. Clay as speaker made the most effective use of the copious talent available in committee assignments, and Calhoun soon became acting chairman of the committee on foreign affairs. After months of labor to gain a favorable majority in the House, he presented on June 3, 1812, a report in ringing phrase recommending a declaration of war. Since James Monroe's authorship of this (American Historical Review, XIII, 309, 310) was kept secret, the episode spread Calhoun's fame afar.

As long as the war continued he wrought constantly to raise troops, to provide funds, to speed the service of supply, to improve the currency, to regulate commerce, to do everything in short which he thought conducive to military success. Disasters to American arms made him double his legislative efforts to wring victory from defeat. He was in the thick of every important debate, laboring to overcome the obstructionism of Randolph and Webster alike but occasionally separating himself from the bulk of his customary associates to find other allies wherever he might. A. J. Dallas called him, in happy phrase, "the young Hercules who carried the war on his shoulders."

Calhoun was sufficiently a supporter of the administration to indorse the treaty of Ghent; but its inconclusive character as concerned the issues which had provoked the war gave him an expectation that the peace would prove but a truce and left him with a continued zeal for promoting American strength. In a speech of Jan. 31, 1816, he advocated as the first consideration 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 (Works, II, 135-53). In the further course of the session he spoke for a national bank and again for internal improvements and protective tariff, deprecating sectional spirit and "refined arguments on the constitution" (Works, II, 101, 192), and asserting his own preference for "that erectness of mind which in all cases is disposed to embrace what is in itself just and wise." There can be no doubt that in this period Calhoun's early Republicanism in so far as it connoted allegiance to state rights was in eclipse. The word "nation" was often on his lips, and his conscious aim was to enhance national unity which he identified with national power.

Calhoun was at this time described as "the most elegant speaker that sits in the House. . . . His gestures are easy and graceful, his manner forcible, and language elegant; but above all, he confines himself closely to the subject, which he always understands, and enlightens everyone within hearing; having said all that a statesman should say, he is done" (letter of J. C. Jewett, in William and Mary Quarterly, XVII, 143). His talent for public speaking seems to have been acquired by systematic effort. A later critic, remarking the sharp contrast between his talking and speaking tones, said that Calhoun "had so carefully cultivated his naturally poor voice as to make his utterance clear, full, and distinct in speaking and while not at all musical it yet fell pleasantly on the ear" (H. S. Fulkerson, Random Recollections of Early Days in Mississippi, 1885, p. 63).

But his power in debate did not incline Calhoun to remain always in legislative halls. Before the end of his third term in Congress he accepted appointment as secretary of war in Monroe's cabinet. His conspicuous concern with military affairs made him an obvious choice for this post; and during the seven and a half years of his tenure he discharged its functions with marked capacity, improving the organization of the army in general and establishing in particular the useful bureaux of the surgeon-general, commissary-general, and quartermaster-general.

In the cabinet Crawford and Calhoun were in habitual disagreement, but Adams and he were for some years in close accord. As late as the fall of 1821 Adams wrote in his diary: "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" (Adams, Memoirs, V, 361). But with the Federalist party dead and Monroe reëlected for a final term in the presidency there now began a free-for-all race for the succession. Crawford was the candidate of the reviving state-rights school now styled Radicals; Adams and Clay, Lowndes and Calhoun became rivals for the leadership of the nationalists; while Jackson turned from military to civilian campaigning as the candidate of those who were more interested in popular power than with details of policy. The homes of these candidates lay in an arc reaching from Massachusetts through Kentucky and Tennessee to Georgia and South Carolina. The choice among them must needs lie with the states of the middle seaboard. Lowndes's death left Calhoun the favorite son of his state; Pennsylvania for a while gave promise of support because of his advocacy of tariff protection, and he had hopes also of New York and some lesser states. But the nominating convention in Pennsylvania gave its indorsement to Jackson for the first office and to Calhoun for the second. Thereupon Calhoun lowered his ambition for the time being and was elected vice-president in 1824 by a large majority. For the presidency Jackson had a plurality in the electoral college, but Clay's influence gave Adams the victory at the hands of the House of Representatives. Adams's appointment of Clay as secretary of state in sequel to this gave Jackson a mighty grudge, spurred Randolph to seek new epithets, and caused Calhoun to remark that it created a most dangerous precedent which the people would presumably reprove at the next election (Correspondence, p. 231).

In presiding over the Senate Calhoun was meticulous, attending assiduously but confining his participation within the positive specifications of the Constitution. His abstinence from interrupting Randolph's vituperations of Adams and Clay, except when a senator raised a point of order, involved him in a newspaper controversy in which the president himself was his putative opponent. Another episode of some salience arose from a journalist's charge that Calhoun while secretary of war had participated in the profits of a fortification contract. Calhoun asked the House of Representatives to investigate the matter as a "grand inquest of the nation," and he discontinued his attendance upon the Senate until a House committee had cleared him. Conspicuously cherishing his repute, he was shaping his course for the White House, though the Adams-Jackson battle clearly postponed the goal for him for another quadrennium. For the time being he chose the Jackson alliance and was elected in 1828 on the Jackson ticket for a second term as vice-president. His hope now was to succeed to the presidency after a single term of Jackson.

But the next four years brought events great and small which impinged heavily upon Calhoun's career and upon the course of American history. Jackson's predilection for Van Buren whom he put at the head of the cabinet was itself ominous; and Eaton's appointment as secretary of war, followed by his indiscreet marriage and Mrs. Calhoun's exclusion of his wife from social recognition, brought a strain between the President and Vice-President. Close upon this came Crawford's betrayal of the fact that in Monroe's cabinet in 1818 Calhoun had censured the capture of Spanish posts by Jackson during his campaign against the Seminoles. Jackson's egotistic sense of outrage now produced a breach which Calhoun found irreparable.

Meanwhile developments in South Carolina, which for some years had followed an ominous course, were producing a national crisis. Successive measures in Congress enhancing and proposing further enhancement of protection to favored industries caused increasingly stringent opposition, coming as they did in a decade of declining cotton prices. By the middle of the twenties this opposition movement was spreading widely in the South and was becoming linked with a denial of the constitutional power of Congress in the premises. Calhoun was an object of censure in anti-tariff publications because of his formerly conspicuous and still unrecanted protectionism. He confronted a grave dilemma. If he held his course South Carolina would repudiate him, and if he changed it he would lose his following in Pennsylvania. But his personal fortunes, whether as a cotton planter or a presidential aspirant, were of smaller concern than the national prospect. Early in 1827 he defeated the Woollens Bill by his casting vote in the Senate; and before the end of the year he was deprecating the project of a higher-tariff convention as tending to place the great geographical interests in hostile array, to promote political plundering, and eventually "to make two of one nation." He was now finding it "a great defect of our system; that the separate geographical interests are not sufficiently guarded." But these reflections were expressed only in a confidential letter (Correspondence, pp. 250, 251). At the beginning of the next year he joined in a jockeying project to divide the eastern and western groups of protectionists to the defeat of both; but the plan was thwarted by Van Buren and the result was the "tariff of abominations" (Works, III, 48-51).

During the congressional recess of 1828, which Calhoun spent as usual at his plantation home, he painstakingly informed himself of the South Carolina situation. He was already acquainted with the legislature's resolutions of 1825 and 1827 denying the constitutionality of protective tariffs and with the turbulent writings of Thomas Cooper, R. J. Turnbull, and sundry others. Reaching now the conviction that without mitigation of grievances desperate recourses were in train, he complied with a request of W. C. Preston and wrote a report for a committee of the legislature. The result, modified by the committee, was the "South Carolina Exposition" (Works, VI, 1-57), embodying the doctrine which was to become famous as nullification. After asserting the unconstitutionality of the protective tariff and maintaining the power of a state within its own area to estop the enforcement of an unconstitutional act, the document concluded by recommending that decisive steps be deferred in the hope that reflection by the people and Congress might bring abandonment of the obnoxious policy. The legislature ordered the report printed in a large edition, and it adopted resolutions asking the sister states to express their sentiments in the premises. The Exposition was a warning of what might be done should the protectionist program be pursued. Its promulgation did not commit the state to a course of action; and in particular it committed Calhoun to nothing, for he kept his authorship confidential until the middle of 1831.

Having thus devised a plan for use in a contingency, Calhoun sought in various ways to prevent the contingency from coming. For a while he pinned his faith to Jackson; then he nursed a project for a complete intersectional accord. The West, by a constitutional amendment, was to be given a great public-land fund for internal improvements; the South was to procure a reduction of the tariff in the main to a revenue basis; but the North was to be placated by sundry special tariff concessions (American Historical Review, VI, 741-45, conversation reported by J. H. Hammond). But events proceeded otherwise. The systematically protective tariff of 1832 was enacted by Congress and approved by Jackson in July, whereupon Calhoun hastened home to guide proceedings there.

In August he published his famous letter to Gov. Hamilton (Works, VI, 144-93), containing the final embodiment of nullification doctrine. This is a superb piece of rigorous reasoning. Premising the possession of sovereignty by the people and the trustee character of all governments, and asserting that in the American federal system the central and state governments alike are mere organs of popular power, it argued, on the basis of the records of the Federal Convention, that "with us the people mean the people of the several states," whose delegates and conventions framed and ratified the Constitution creating the general government as their common agent. The ratification by any state bound all its citizens to obey the Constitution although some of them might individually have opposed it. The purpose of any constitution is at once to empower and to restrain the government; and if the general government should exceed its powers against the will of the people of a state it is within their legitimate power, by means of a convention though not by act of the legislature, to declare the congressional act null and to require the state government to prohibit enforcement within the limits of the state. "It is the constitution that annuls an unconstitutional act. Such an act is itself void and of no effect." Any court may proclaim such nullity, but the people of a state retain a similar power which no federal agency may override. Indeed, the general government in all its branches must acquiesce in such declaration of nullity, so far as enforcement within the state is concerned; or, as an escape, it may apply to the states to obtain a grant of the disputed power in the form of an amendment to the Constitution. But if the amendment should fail of ratification, "no alternative would remain for the general government but a compromise or its permanent abandonment." Nullification would give no ground for clash of arms; it would be "a conflict of moral, and not physical force," a trial before courts and juries. The rights of nullification and secession inhere in the sovereign states; but the two programs are poles apart in their purposes and effects. The object of secession is to withdraw a member from the Union; while the object of nullification is to confine the general government within its prescribed limits of power in order to perpetuate the Union on an equable basis. Nullification may indeed be followed by secession in case a proposed amendment should be ratified by the sister states to such effect as to defeat the object of the Union so far as the nullifying member is concerned. The power of nullification, it is true, tends to weaken the general government; but the power of amendment is an adequate offset. The two powers establish a system of mutual checks, in effect a system of government requiring agreement by concurrent majorities in critical issues, and as such it is in the line which genuinely free institutions have followed ever since the Tribunate in ancient Rome. Such a system, which inheres in the Federal Constitution as thus interpreted, maintains "the ascendency of the constitution-making authority over the law-making--the concurring over the absolute majority." It maintains a power, essential for liberty and the general welfare, "to compel the parts of society to be just to one another by compelling them to consult the interest of one another."

Affairs now marched rapidly. A legislature was elected in South Carolina with an overwhelming majority favorable to nullification; this was called into special session and in turn it ordered the election of delegates to a convention of the state; the convention adopted an ordinance nullifying the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832; and the legislature thereupon enacted sundry laws to make the ordinance effective. Thus by the beginning of December 1832 the schedule was complete, though by its own terms the ordinance was not to take effect until the first day of February following.

December brought a battle of proclamations between President Jackson and the governor of South Carolina, and a mustering of military forces. But these things had somewhat of a sham character, for the concrete issue was the tariff, which could only be handled by Congress. In the Senate R. Y. Hayne had proved not letter-perfect in the nullification doctrine, and he was now shifted to the governor's chair to make room for Calhoun who resigned the vice-presidency and appeared on the floor of the Senate at the turn of the year. Jackson soon sent a message to Congress asking to be empowered in case of need to use armed force to execute the laws. A bill introduced in response, commonly known as the Force Bill, brought Calhoun into debate with Webster in which he opposed argument to eloquence with better effect than Hayne had done two years before. Meanwhile Calhoun joined hands with Clay in support of a tariff bill to reduce duties by degrees and put the customs on a revenue basis at the end of a decade. This bill, which repealed the tariff act of 1832, was passed and became law on the same day as the Force Bill.

In South Carolina an informal meeting of the leading nullifiers had postponed the effectuation of the ordinance, and Gov. Hayne had called a second meeting of the convention for Mar. 11, 1833. Calhoun hastened to Columbia to persuade the members to accept the compromise tariff as a settlement of the essential issue. B. W. Leigh as commissioner from Virginia to South Carolina aided these efforts; and the convention repealed the ordinance nullifying the tariff but adopted another nullifying the Force Bill. Thus every one saved his face. The result of the contretemps as a whole was in South Carolina the virtual destruction of Calhoun's opponents and an eclipse of his own lieutenants; in the United States an alignment of new parties with Calhoun holding himself and South Carolina somewhat aloof from both.

For some years the advocates of Clay's "American system" had maintained a rudimentary organization as National Republicans to oppose the administration. And now state-rights adherents in many Southern states reacted so strongly against Jackson's proclamation and the Force Bill that they were disposed to embrace an alliance against the President. Hence the coalition in the middle thirties to form the Whig party opposing the Democratic. It was under this régime that the final phase of Calhoun's career took form. In sequel to the recent clash he retained his repugnance toward Jackson and his favorites. At the same time he distrusted Clay and held Webster in low esteem except for oratory, and he was not disposed to make a "choice of evils" (Correspondence, p. 330). He revived his presidential ambitions ere long and acted as an auxiliary of the Whigs. But no sooner was Jackson succeeded in the White House by the mild-mannered Van Buren than Calhoun began to shift to the Democratic side. In the Senate he was constantly attentive to the public business; and whatever were his views upon banking, public lands, or foreign relations, he voiced them in a manner which proved his concern with sound government for the whole country. The growth of his prestige gave him a following in all parts of the South and rehabilitated him in many Northern quarters. But the rise of the abolition agitation made impossible for him any return to nationalistic paths.

In the premises of negro slavery the South was more conspicuously marked as a distinct community with a minority status than in regard to the tariff; and the menace of a hostile domination was reckoned to involve not mere shrinkage of income but destruction of capital and a precipitation of social chaos. Organization and strategy were widely demanded in Southern defense, and Calhoun came to be regarded as the main source of plans, arguments, and inspiration. His devices were manifold: to suppress agitation, to praise the slaveholding system; to promote Southern prosperity and expansion; to procure a Western alliance; to frame a fresh plan of government by concurrent majorities; to form a Southern bloc; to warn the North of the dangers of Southern desperation; to appeal for Northern magnanimity as indispensable for the saving of the Union. A devoted lieutenant, Dixon H. Lewis of Alabama, wrote in 1840: "Calhoun is now my principal associate, and he is too intellectual, too industrious, too intent in the struggle of politics to suit me except as an occasional companion. There is no relaxation in him. On the contrary, when I seek relaxation in him, he screws me only the higher in some sort of excitement" (Hunt, Calhoun, p. 228).

Was the conflict irrepressible? Calhoun feared it might prove so, but he hoped and labored unceasingly to find means for its avoidance. If he turned again and again to formul', that was the ingrained bent of his mind. He could never consent to mere "muddling through."

Reluctantly he faced the slavery issue. In 1815 he had expressed shame at the record of South Carolina in having caused the Constitution to forbid for twenty years any congressional prohibition of the foreign slave trade (Works, II, 133). In 1820 the stringency of debate on the Missouri question caused him to remark that he could "scarcely conceive of a cause of sufficient power to divide this Union, unless a belief in the slaveholding states, that it is the intention of the other states gradually to undermine their property in their slaves and that a disunion is the only means to avert the evil. Should so dangerous a mode of believing once take root, no one can calculate the consequences" (Hunt, Calhoun, p. 54). In the next year he expressed relief at the prospect "that a question which has so deeply agitated this country will be settled forever" (Correspondence, p. 181). But Garrison's work revived his apprehensions and set his feet upon their final path. At the close of his debate with Webster in February 1833, he said that slavery might give the South greater reason than the tariff to cherish state-rights.

Within the next two years the increase of antislavery activities and a turbulent counter-agitation in the South determined him to meet the issue "on the frontier"; and he became the most thoroughgoing advocate of the exclusion of incendiary publications from the mails and of antislavery petitions from Congress. His own devices in these premises were too technical to procure much indorsement, though the essential purposes were attained for the time being by other means. There was virtually no Southern dissent from his declaration in 1836 that abolition "strikes directly and fatally, not only at our prosperity, but our existence as a people. . . . The door must be closed against all interference on the part of the general government in any form, whether in the District of Columbia, or in the states or territories. The highest grounds are the safest" (Niles' Weekly Register, L, 432).

By the next year he had followed Governors Miller and McDuffie of South Carolina and the Rev. James Smylie of Mississippi toward asserting that slavery was a positive good: "Our fate, as a people, is bound up in the question. If we yield we will be extirpated; but if we successfully resist, we will be the greatest and most flourishing people of modern time. It is the best substratum of population in the world; and one on which great and flourishing Commonwealths may be most easily and safely reared" (Correspondence, p. 369; see also Works, III, 179, 180). And by 1838 he was even contemplating a separation of the Union, though resolved still to labor for less drastic programs (Correspondence, p. 391).

The issue, ramifying endlessly, involved the mathematics of equilibrium in the Senate, the admission of new states, the organization of territories as prospective states, and the cherishing of sectional prestige for the sake of morale. In premises which he considered unessential Calhoun deprecated controversy. Thus he suppressed a movement in South Carolina to nullify the tariff of 1842; and on sundry other matters he was conciliatory in this period when his hopes were high for the presidency through a Democratic nomination. But in the main, and upon every issue which he thought vital, he was disposed to force the fighting, to lead a campaign of aggressive defense of "Southern rights."

He had spoken in favor of the annexation of Texas immediately after the battle of San Jacinto in 1836. But his assertions from the outset that the slaveholding states had a special interest in the question operated rather to delay than to speed the achievement. At length A. P. Upshur, secretary of state under Tyler, negotiated a treaty; and upon Upshur's death a maneuver by H. A. Wise carried Calhoun into that office to complete the proceedings. In the department Calhoun found a note from Mr. Pakenham communicating a dispatch from Lord Aberdeen to the effect that the British government desired to see slavery abolished in Texas and throughout the world, but that it had no purpose to disturb the domestic tranquillity of the slaveholding states of the Union. Calhoun seized the occasion to write and publish a reply to Pakenham saying that abolition in Texas would necessarily impinge upon the domestic security of the states adjacent, and proceeding to praise negro slavery in terms even stronger than he had previously used (Works, II, 333-339). This again was bad strategy. The treaty was defeated in the Senate by anti-slavery votes; and only after months of further delay was annexation accomplished by joint resolution of Congress.

Where Calhoun sat in cabinet, there was the head of the table. In this Tyler acquiesced; but Polk, wishing to be chief of his own administration, did not invite Calhoun to continue in office. Most of the year 1845 was accordingly spent by the latter in private life, though not without participation in public projects. He had long desired to see a system of railroads linking the West with the South, preferably a connection from Charleston across Georgia as against Hayne's plan of piercing the Blue Ridge in a line to Cincinnati. As a culmination of similar meetings, a large railroad and waterway convention was held at Memphis in November which Calhoun was persuaded to attend as a delegate from South Carolina. After a journey signalized by thronged public entertainment at every stopping-place, he was chosen to preside over the sessions. The address he delivered urged his railroad program and in addition argued that Congress had constitutional power to improve the navigation of the Mississippi because the Father of Waters, washing the shores of many states, was virtually an inland sea. The splitting of a logical hair seemed expedient in behalf of the desired alliance of sections.

This interlude was abbreviated by a summons once more into the public service. With war clouds lowering on two horizons, Calhoun was urgently needed in the national councils. D. F. Huger willingly resigned his seat in the Senate, and the legislature elected Calhoun unanimously to fill the vacancy. Arrived in Washington, his positions on the Oregon and Texas boundary questions proved much alike, for he advocated conciliation toward both Great Britain and Mexico. The Oregon issue resulted as he wished; but to his dismay and against his vehement opposition, the war with Mexico was precipitated.

Wilmot's proposal to prohibit slavery in all areas to be acquired by this war set Calhoun to spinning his last fine theory and involved him in the most desperate of his struggles. Aware as he was that the region was unsuited to plantation industry and slave labor (The Diary of James K. Polk, 1910, II, 283-84), he took the Proviso to be a gratuitous affront to the South, an index of aggressive disposition by Northern Democrats, and a culminating ground of Southern apprehension. To make state sovereignty applicable he framed a new series of syllogisms: that all territories were an estate owned by the states in common, to be administered by the central government only as a trustee for them; that any citizen of any state had full right to emigrate to any territory, carrying with him whatever property he possessed in his own state, and was entitled to Federal protection in the enjoyment of that property in his new home until the community should itself become a state. Therefore, whether his migration be to California, New Mexico, or Oregon, no slaveholder could be debarred from the transport and continued use of his slaves (Works, IV, 344-49). In short, notwithstanding the precedents of the ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise act, which he now considered erroneous, Congress was estopped from restricting the spread of slaveholding. He was perhaps willing to be outvoted in the organization of Oregon if he could carry his point as concerned the more southerly regions; but a sense that this hope was forlorn drove him to two devices which he had held somewhat in reserve. For permanent purposes he sped his pen to complete his treatises on government in general and the Federal Constitution in particular; and to meet the present exigency he strove to rouse and organize the South with a view to its issue of an ultimatum.

His treatises, destined to have only a posthumous publication, embodied his final philosophy. In the "Disquisition on Government" (Works, I, 1-107) he declares that society is essential to mankind, and government necessary to preserve and perfect society by curbing individual selfishness. But government itself must be held in check by constitutions in order that public agents may be prevented from abusing their power whether by self-aggrandizement or by promoting majority interests through the spoliation of minorities. The problem here, he said, is extremely difficult. No plan devised abstractly can suffice, but a satisfactory system can arise only as the product of an intelligent community seeking in the light of experience to meet its own conscious needs. On the one hand authority must be adequate to meet external emergencies by summoning the whole strength of the community. In domestic affairs, on the other hand, apparatus must be available by which minorities may compel majorities to compromise issues between them. That the two requirements are not mutually exclusive is shown by the common success of the jury system in forcing unanimous verdicts and by the long duration of the Polish Kingdom despite the possession of a veto by every member of its Diet. Far better designed, however, and therefore more lasting, were the constitutions of ancient Rome and modern England embodying less extreme examples of automatic check upon authority. The elements of aristocracy and monarchy embodied in them were wholesome in correcting the tendency of numerical majorities to tyrannize; but such elements are not indispensable, for a democracy may combine equity with efficiency if it avoid the "great and dangerous error" of considering all people equally entitled to liberty and if at the same time it maintain government by concurrent majorities and avoid the demagogic tendency and the despotic proclivities inherent in control by mere numbers.

In the "Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States" these lessons are given specific application, but in a tone of argument rather than of exposition. With elaborate citation of eighteenth-century records he contends that the American system is in no sense national, but purely federal. The people of the several states ordained alike their separate state governments and the general government. "Deriving their respective powers . . . from the same source, . . . the two governments, State and Federal, must, of necessity be equal in their respective spheres" (Works, I, 167). Sovereignty, which is indivisible, remains in the people of the several states; but the exercise of "the powers of sovereignty" may be distributed and have actually been divided between the two agencies. To make it efficient the central government was clothed with the attribute of deciding, in the first instance, on the extent of its powers (Works, I, 168); but the people of any state may challenge any assumption of undelegated authority in order to preserve the equilibrium of the complex system. The sectionalizing of interests or policies in the Union has made it imperative upon the South as the minority to oppose the concentration of despotic force. Calhoun's contentions of 1832, though he repeats them, now seem to him inefficacious in view of the progress of unconstitutional centralization in the interim. He, therefore, concludes that the domestic tranquillity of the South can be secured and the Union perpetuated only by a new device. To this end he advocates an amendment to the Constitution to replace the single president by a dual executive, each of the two chief magistrates to be chosen by one of the great sections of the country, and the assent of both to be requisite for the validation of acts of Congress (Works, I, 392-95).

These writings had influence upon political thought and projects not only at home but in the German Confederation (C. E. Merriam in Studies in Southern History and Politics, 1914, p. 336). The North in one case and Prussia in the other were quite unconvinced; but Lord Acton echoed Calhoun by saying that liberty can only be safeguarded by a multiplicity of checks--and the conversion of the British Empire into a "commonwealth of nations" has given practical embodiment to the precepts of decentralization.

But the current crisis could not be solved by a dissertation even if it had been ready for the press. Convinced as he was that the existing political parties were so constituted that the control of both must lie in the North and be used for Southern injury, Calhoun summoned a meeting, in January 1849, of the Southern senators and congressmen to consider an address which he had written for their adoption. This reviewed the history of the slavery issue, foretold disaster from the continuance of the existing scheme of politics, and called for unity in holding Southern rights paramount over party allegiance. The prophecy in this document was amazingly corroborated within two decades; abolition by a dominant North against Southern resistance; hatred between the whites of the two sections; enfranchisement of the negroes and a party union between them and the North to hold the Southern whites in subjection; a carnival of profligacy and a bottomless degradation (Works, VI, 310-11). But most of the members attending were unconvinced, and a mere minority signed the address for issue to their constituents. Calhoun next turned to local committees and newspaper agitation to procure a call from some commonwealth for a convention of the slaveholding states, and was rejoiced when Mississippi responded and the convention was scheduled to meet at Nashville (Correspondence, pp. 765-79).

Before the end of the year an irregular convention in California applied for statehood with a constitution excluding slavery. This met Calhoun's trenchant opposition on the grounds that the proceedings had not been authorized by an enabling act, and that their validation would at once and forever destroy the Senate equilibrium. Nearing the allotted span of three score and ten, his life was drawing to a close in baffled zeal and unrelaxed strain. His tall frame emaciated by half a decade of intermittent illness, his voice failing but his piercing eyes undimmed, he tottered from his lodgings to the Senate chamber day by day to save the Union if it might be saved upon a basis of comity and to preach Southern resistance to the point of independence if that should prove essential for social security.

The California demand, which put his territorial theorizing to scorn, was clearly not to be denied nor long delayed in its granting. A crisis was at hand, and the South, or its lower half at least, was at length girding its loins. Demonstrations became too vigorous to be longer disregarded. Clay framed the celebrated Omnibus Bill to settle the many pending issues on a give-and-take basis. Calhoun approved the purpose but criticized the text as failing to provide adequate guarantees for the South. To express these views he wrote his last formal speech, which was read to the Senate on Mar. 4, 1850, by Senator Mason while its author sat voiceless in his chair. A few days later he expressed praise of Webster's great speech of Mar. 7, but still thought it "difficult to see how two peoples so different and hostile can exist together in one common Union" (Correspondence, p. 784). At the end of this, his last letter, he wrote: "Kiss the children for their grandfather"; but virtually his last spoken words were "The South, the poor South." Fading out of life, he died at the end of the month. His body was carried in state to Charleston and interred with an outpouring praise and lamentation, for he was first in the hearts of his Carolina countrymen. His course was run, but his work was to have a mighty sequel.


[To promote his presidential prospects, there was published in 1843 a volume of Calhoun's Speeches, including sundry public papers; and simultaneously a Life of John C. Calhoun. The latter, unusually substantial for a campaign biography, was currently attributed to R. M. T. Hunter, but latterly Calhoun himself has been proved to have been its principal author (Am. Hist. Review, XIII, 310-13). Just after Calhoun's death R. K. Crallé edited his Works (1851-55), including the "Disquisition on Government" and the unfinished "Discourse on the Constitution" in the first volume, the speeches in the next three, and reports and public papers in the fifth and sixth. In 1857 was published The Carolina Tribute to Calhoun, J. P. Thomas, ed., containing the record of obsequies along with the text of many eulogies; and in 1888 A Hist. of the Calhoun Monument at Charleston, S. C. with its chief item the notable commemorative address by L. Q. C. Lamar. Biographies have been written by John S. Jenkins (1851), a perfunctory product; Hermann von Holst (1882), censorious and homiletic; Gustavus M. Pinckney (1903), eulogistic; Gaillard Hunt (1908), discriminatingly sympathetic; and William M. Meigs (2 volumes, 1917), elaborate and painstaking. A stout volume of Calhoun's correspondence, J. F. Jameson ed., has been published in the Annual Report of the Am. Hist. Ass. for the Year 1899, vol. II, being House Doc. No. 733, 56 Cong., 1 Sess.; and a supplementary volume, to consist mainly of letters to Calhoun, is now awaiting publication by the same agency.]


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310016584