It has been said throughout each generation that history is destined to repeat itself. Now ask yourself, is the history of John C. Calhoun, one of the most influential US leaders, and his beliefs destined to repeat themselves? Life is not only stranger than fiction, but frequently also more tragic than any tragedy ever conceived by the most fervid imagination. Often in these tragedies of life there is not one drop of blood to make us shudder, nor a single event to compel the tears into the eye.
A man endowed with an intellect far above the average, impelled by a high-soaring ambition, untainted by any petty or ignoble passion, and guided by a character of sterling firmness and more than common purity, yet, with fatal illusion, devoting all his mental powers, all his moral energy and the whole force of his iron will to the service of a doomed and unholy cause, and at last sinking into the grave in the very moment when, under the weight of the top-stone, the towering pillars of the temple of his impure idol are rent to their very base, can anything more tragic be conceived (Holst 1)?
This brief description depicts the political life of John Caldwell Calhoun as he was on the House of Representatives, the Secretary of War, Vice-Presidency, and the Senate. John C. Calhoun born March 18, 1782 in Abbeville, SC was the third son of James Calhoun, an immigrant for Ireland, who moved across the United States from Pennsylvania to Virginia before settling in South Caroline. James married Martha Caldwell in 1770 but died at a young age leaving the family with modest funding. John, unable to attend traditional schooling, learned much of his systematic instruction while playing in the woods.
He grew up learning how to think and make decisions own his own with little influence from other people, especially the influence from a positive role model that left him with a kind of narrow mindedness during his earlier years. However, even though he lacked the “breadth of view” (Holst 9), he was a very intense, and a bold thinker for his time. After he turned 18 he began a strict, uninterrupted course of systematic study with his brother-in-law, Dr. Waddel, to prepare John Calhoun for the upper classes of society at the College-Preparatory Schools in South Carolina.
Dr. Waddel prepared him for two years before John transferred to Yale his junior year. He graduated in 1804 with high honors and spent the next three years studying law at “Tapping Reeves at Litchfield, Connecticut” (Styron 29), before moving back to Abbeville, South Carolina to practice law. It wasn’t until 1811 when he married his cousin Floride, who had a modest fortune, which allowed him to build his plantation home called “Fort Hill” in 1825, which is now on the school grounds of Clemson University in South Carolina (“Historic Properties”).
He served as a lawyer in Abbeville, SC for a few years but wasn’t very successful. Holst says he was not objective enough to examine his premises with sufficient care, while he built his argument upon them with undeviating and most incisive logic, thereby frequently arriving at most shocking conclusions with nothing to stand upon except a basis of false postulates (10). During his time as a lawyer, Calhoun was elected by the citizens of Abbeville to write a speech in support of President Jefferson and present it to the public.
This was a high honor for a small town lawyer and showed as evidence of his abilities to engage the public. That speech not only inspired the citizens of Abbeville, but was also a turning point in the life of Calhoun, because it was that action that prompted him to give up law and focus on politics. In 1808, shortly after he gave up law, he was elected unanimously into the House of Representatives of the South Carolina Legislature, something no lawyer had done for many years.
As a nationalist and a leader of the War Hawk faction he was in definite support of the War of 1812, introducing the declaration of war against Britain. After the war of 1812 he built the Second Bank of the United States and attempted to pass the Bonus Bill 1817 that would have renovated the roads and canals nationwide had it not been vetoed by President Madison. Later in his political career, Calhoun was elected as United States Secretary of War on December 8, 1817, under President Monroe, and once again the issue of improving the roads and canals was reemerged.
The House of Representatives submitted to him a resolution in April of 1818, “a plan for the applications…of opening and constructing such roads and canals as may deserve and require the aid of government, with a view to military operations in time of war” (Holst 38). Finally, in April of 1825, just as he took office as the Vice President under John Adams, he toasted “Internal improvement: guided by the wisdom and energy of its able advocates, it cannot fail to strengthen and perpetuate our bond of union” (Holst 40).
During this time as the Secretary of War, Calhoun reorganized and modernized the National Military Academy at West Point. Throughout his political career, Calhoun has attacked each political position with enthusiasm and with the best interest of the US in mind, but it is his Vice Presidency that he is ultimately known for. During the 1828 presidential election, he was bullied out because of partisan attacks from the other presidential candidates. Ultimately, he decided to run for Vice President against Nathaniel Macon and Nathan Sanford.
In 1825, Calhoun was elected as Vice President under John Adams and he held this position for two separate consecutive terms; one under John Adams and then again under Andrew Jackson. During his time in office, Calhoun had always been in support of protectionist tariffs because they benefited the US goods industry. However, the Tariff of 1828, also known as the “Tariff of Abominations” (Schaller et al. 343) by the Southern States, was the tariff that would end his vice presidency. The tariff favored the industries to the north, forcing the South to pay higher prices on imported goods that the US did not produce.
It also reduced the number of imported goods from Britain which made it difficult for the British to pay for cotton imported from the South. Calhoun, being from South Carolina, opposed the tariff and even saying “I hold the tariff will place the great geographical interests in hostile array and eventually make two of one nation” (Styron 130). Calhoun’s disapproval with the tariff was explained in his “manifesto” (Holst 76) and was put on paper in the South Carolina Exposition. Although the document was written unanimous, it was still clear who the author was to many.
The document spoke of many things but more so on the ability “each state has the right to veto a federal law that which it deems unconstitutional” (Holst 80). This was known as the doctrine of nullifications and how John Calhoun got his nickname as the Great Nullifier. His manifesto warned that if the tariff was approved, South Carolina would succeed from the Union. Because of the tariff and Calhoun’s doctrine on nullification, their relationship in the office was shattered; throughout the rest of Jackson and Calhoun’s term was unsettling.
It wasn’t until July 1832, after Calhoun resigned and took office in the Senate, when President Jackson passed the Tariff of 1832, which he had hoped the lower tax rate would resolve the controversy created by the Tariff of 1828. President Jackson prepared the military to use force against South Carolina if they refused to comply with the law by passing the Force Bill. However, Henry Clay and John Calhoun saw the Tariff of 1832 as a poor substitute and needing improvement. Still declaring the Tariff off 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional, Clay and Calhoun enacted the Tariff of 1833, also known as the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
This outburst of intense measures by both sides was known as the Nullification Crisis, and was a contributing factor as to why Calhoun resigned as Vice President. During the remainder of his time in the Senate he devoted much of it to the protection of the Southern states and interest within. Many people say he is the reason South Carolina succeeded, but others would say he believed in the preservation of the Union if only they would recognize the rights guaranteed to the states.
Again, he was re-elected to the Senate in 1834 and again in 1840 where he spent most of his time fighting the spoils system created by Andrew Jackson. He also fought against the revolts on slavery in the North and did not want their petitions to be heard by congress. Calhoun, being from South Carolina and much of the state’s exports coming from cotton was a defender of slavery. In 1844, Calhoun took office as the Secretary of State, during which time Texas was adopted by congress as a slave state. This helped the slave states maintain competition with the free states of the Union.
That following year, Calhoun was again elected into the Senate where he was against the Mexican-American War because the thought that if America won their would be controversy over territory that would further separate the Union. After the war he continued to fight the “Wilmot Proviso” (Styron 453) which stated that slavery be excluded from any new territory gained during the Mexican-American War. Calhoun spent his final years working in the Senate trying to fight off the abolitionist attacks on slavery. On March 31, 1850, Senator Calhoun was found dead at age 68 after contracting tuberculosis.
His life was a perfect tragedy in that it had not the moral defect of giving too much importance to life and death: without blood to agitate the mind or events to compel the tears, and so furnish that pleasure which stifles humanity in the spectator” (Styron 356). John Calhoun only wanted equal rights amongst the North and the South; he only wanted to keep the Union alive. Even though he beliefs were proslavery, his intentions were for a flourished America through trade, commerce, and the American spirit.