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Calhoun, John C. - EARLY LIFE, PROMINENT POLITICIAN, RACE AND SLAVERY, CALHOUN’s LEGACY

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John Caldwell Calhoun was a South Carolina politician who served in several state and federal offices from 1808 until his death in 1850. He was a candidate for the presidency of the United States several times without ascending to the post, but he nevertheless became one of the most powerful figures in the pre–Civil War United States. Calhoun used his considerable influence and political acumen to defend the right of states to control their own destiny—specifically the ability of the southern states to retain the institution of slavery.

EARLY LIFE

Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, to Patrick Calhoun and Martha Caldwell, both of Scotch-Irish descent, in the northwestern region of South Carolina called Abbeville. Calhoun’s early childhood was spent on his father’s plantation, which was cultivated by thirty-one enslaved Africans. There was little formal schooling available for the young Calhoun, and he did not attend school regularly in his adolescent years. At the age of eighteen he entered an academy founded by Moses Waddell, a young Presbyterian minister who had married Calhoun’s older sister. Calhoun read voraciously at Waddell’s academy and entered Yale College (present-day Yale University) in 1802. He then attended Litchfield Law School, and after completing apprenticeships in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Charleston, South Carolina, he began his own law practice in Abbeville.

In 1807, after a British frigate attacked an American vessel, Calhoun led the public outcry over the transgression. At a town hall meeting, he gave a speech advocating aggressive retaliation and his popularity soared. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature as a representative from the Abbeville district in 1808. He would serve in this post for two years.

PROMINENT POLITICIAN

Calhoun began his national political career when he was elected to the Twelfth Congress as the representative from the Sixth Congressional District of South Carolina. In these early years Calhoun quickly gained a reputation for favoring aggressive national action. Along with Henry Clay and other politicians dubbed the “War Hawks,” Calhoun helped convince President James Madison to declare war on Britain, sparking the War of 1812. Calhoun would serve in Congress from 1811 to 1817. Among his career highlights during this period were arguing in favor of increasing government power through consolidation of the banking system and increasing the federal government’s ability to levy taxes.

In 1817 Calhoun left the House of Representatives to serve as secretary of war in James Monroe’s cabinet. In this post, which he held until 1825, Calhoun continued to advocate nationalist legislation. He strengthened national defense by centralizing the military administration in Washington and increasing funding for military infrastructure and troop necessities. Calhoun made a brief run for the presidency in 1824, before accepting the post of vice president under John Quincy Adams. He served as vice president to John Quincy Adams in 1824 and again under Andrew Jackson in 1828, making him the only person in U.S. history to serve as vice president for two different administrations.

Calhoun’s two tenures as vice president marked a turning point in his career. The Tariff of 1828 (called the Tariff of Abominations) called for a tax on British goods imported into the United States. This tariff benefited northern manufacturing interests at the expense of southern raw material exporters. The South Carolina legislature passed a nullification bill in retaliation, revoking the federal tariff. The U.S. government passed the Force Bill in return, which authorized the use of the military to enforce federal tariffs. This standoff, called the Nullification Crisis, marked the turning point in Calhoun’s political thinking. Calhoun changed his political ideology from pro-federal government to pro-states rights, and sided with the state of South Carolina.

Calhoun resigned as vice president in 1832 to return to the Senate. He would take one other cabinet post in his lifetime, as secretary of state in John Tyler’s cabinet from 1844 to 1845—but it was as a senator (1832–1843, and 1845–1850) that he made his most indelible mark on the American political landscape.

RACE AND SLAVERY

Calhoun spent most of his life on a 900-acre plantation in Fort Hill, South Carolina. He owned approximately eighty slaves. Calhoun defended the institution of slavery vigorously up until his death, notoriously calling it a “positive good” for slave and master alike. In 1836 he blocked the reading of petitions against slavery on the Senate floor, arguing that because the Fifth Amendment declared that no person be deprived of property without due process of law, and since slaves were property, the discussion of the petitions was a moot point. Congress finally rejected Calhoun’s position, with many of its members declaring that the “gag rule” violated the right to petition. That same year, when abolitionists wanted to send mail into the southern states, he supported the suppression of such mail, including the vigilante search of the interstate mails in Charleston. He cited the First Amendment, arguing that it was the right of the states to control mail if they chose to, and that the federal government had no say in the matter.

Calhoun’s views had racial as well as economic justifications. He repeatedly asserted that the African was innately inferior to the European, and he viewed slavery as a positive good that afforded the inferior blacks an opportunity to advance faster than any other civilization. Economically, Calhoun argued that in every civilization, one portion of society always depended on the labor of another. The South had a unique economy that allowed the laboring class—the black slaves—to be always well fed and have their children and elderly cared for. He contrasted the slave labor of the South with the degraded conditions of the working class in Britain, arguing that the southern blacks had a far more favorable existence.

Calhoun’s beliefs in European racial superiority were applied to other groups as well. In his arguments against a potential war and colonization of Mexico, he asserted that mixing Indian blood and culture with that of Americans would lead to degradation and destroy the cultural institutions of the United States.

CALHOUN’s LEGACY

John C. Calhoun will always be remembered as one of America’s most able politicians. His proslavery arguments were at times unassailable, however. Yet despite his staunch defense of states rights and slavery, his writings do not reveal a support for a southern secession or war. A man of ascetic behavior who rarely lost his temper and had no documented instances of lascivious behavior, Calhoun appears to have garnered the respect of both friend and foe.

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