Who Was John C. Calhoun? - Biography, Facts & Significance

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
John C. Calhoun was a Senator from South Carolina, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Vice President of the United States. Calhoun was a leading voice for pro Southern policies in the 19th century.

John C. Calhoun's Background

John C. Calhoun was born in South Carolina in 1782. He supported his family in his early years while working when his father was ill. In 1807, he became a lawyer in South Carolina. He married Floirde Bonneau Calhoun in 1811. The two had ten children together. Calhoun began his political career in 1810 when he was first elected to Congress.

Early Career

Early on in his political career, Calhoun was notable for being a war hawk, openly advocating and pressing for the United States to go to war with Great Britain. He got his wish when the War of 1812 began. During the war, Calhoun fought to raise troops and support the army from Congress. These stances made him a nationalist, advocating policies that would benefit a strong national government. Along with Henry Clay, Calhoun sponsored bills for tariffs, government spending on roads and canals, and a national bank. During his early career, these policies and his strong speaking skills made him a favorite of many in Congress.

Portrait of John C. Calhoun by George P.A. Healy

Vice President

Because of these policies, Calhoun became Secretary of War in 1817 under President James Monroe. Calhoun held this position until 1825, when he was elected Vice President of the United States. The 1824 election was a contentious one. No candidate received the majority of electoral votes, and the matter was decided in the U.S. House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams was chosen as president, and Calhoun was picked as his Vice President. Andrew Jackson, who had won more votes than Adams, was incensed and decided to try again in 1828. In 1828, Jackson won the presidency, and Calhoun was reelected as his Vice President. It was during the Jackson presidency that Calhoun began to shift his political focus from national policies to sectional battles.

Calhoun was a South Carolina native and thus wanted to pursue policies he thought would be beneficial to his home state. Andrew Jackson wanted to raise protective tariff rates. Calhoun strongly opposed the measure and wrote publicly criticizing the move. This tariff became known as the Tariff of Abominations because it was believed to hurt the Southern economy by favoring Northern commerce. In his public denunciations and arguments against this tariff, Calhoun proposed an idea he termed a concurrent majority that would allow veto power over legislation to regional interest groups, such as Southern plantation owners. In addition, Calhoun promoted the idea of nullification, whereby a state could simply declare that a national policy would be null and void within its borders, ignoring national law if it did not favor that specific state.

The idea of nullification brought Jackson and Calhoun head to head in opposition. Jackson strongly disapproved of such measures, as he thought they threatened the Union. Things became so heated and personal between the two that Calhoun resigned as Vice President in 1832.

Senator Calhoun, Nullification, and Slavery

1832 was the same year that the Nullification Crisis occurred. Under Calhoun's inspiration and leadership, South Carolina declared that Federal tariffs were nullified in that state. Jackson was angered and prepared to send U.S. military forces to the state to enforce federal law. It was not until 1833 when Senator Henry Clay proposed a compromise measure that had both sides backing down, having provided an eerily foreboding premonition of the Civil War that was to come thirty years later.

After resigning the Vice Presidency, Calhoun was elected to the U.S. Senate from South Carolina. Calhoun became a member of the Whig Party to oppose Jackson's power and presidency. Other members of the Whig party were Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. When Webster and other northern politicians promoted internal improvements bills to strengthen national infrastructure, Calhoun objected, believing that the measures would strengthen the Northern economy at the expense of those in the South.

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