John Caldwell Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, in Abbeville, South Carolina, the son of a farmer. He received little formal education early in life, but was able to graduate with honors from Yale, in 1804. He remained in Connecticut to study law in Litchfield, but returned to his home state and was admitted to the bar in 1807. Calhoun served briefly in the state assembly from 1809 to 1811, where he helped establish a balance of power between the tidewater planters and the piedmont farmers. In 1811, his economic and social future was secured by his marriage to his wealthy cousin Floride Bonneau Calhoun. After first settling in Abbeville, they moved in 1825 to the Fort Hill plantation near Pendleton, the eventual site of Clemson University.
In 1811, John C. Calhoun was elected to Congress, and from that date until his death he served in the federal government. In Congress, he quickly aligned himself with the War Hawks. At this stage of his career he was an ardent nationalist, supporting Henry Clay's American System.
In 1817, Calhoun offered a bill to make improvement in roads and waterways through a subsidy to be derived from the Second Bank of the United States. In a speech on February 4, 1817, he said:
“What can add more to the wealth, the strength, and the political prosperity of our country? The manner in which the facility and cheapness of intercourse added to the wealth of a nation had been so often and ably discussed by writers on political economy, that he [Calhoun speaking about himself] presumed the House to be perfectly acquainted with the subject. It was sufficient to observe that every branch of national industry — agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial — was greatly stimulated and rendered by it more productive....
The bill was promptly passed by both houses of Congress but was vetoed by President Madison on his final day in office.
Calhoun served as secretary of war under James Monroe. In the Election of 1824 Calhoun was elected vice president under John Quincy Adams; the president and vice president had a rocky relationship. In the Election of 1828 Calhoun retained the vice presidency, this time under Andrew Jackson.
Calhoun’s views on the tariff question underwent a total change, from support in 1824, to strident opposition a short time later. The more radical elements in South Carolina supported the concept of nullification, but Calhoun initially counseled restraint. The Tariff of 1832, however, re-ignited the debate and led to a special convention, which nullified the federal law within the confines of South Carolina.
Calhoun again urged moderation and worked with Clay to bring about a compromise tariff measure. However, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency in order to take a seat in the Senate where he thought that he could more effectively advance Southern interests.
As the years passed it became evident that Calhoun had made the transition from nationalist to states’ rights advocate. Most troubling to his opponents was his justification of the institution of slavery. Upset by legislative threats to slavery, Calhoun secured passage of a “gag rule,” which automatically tabled resolutions dealing with the sensitive topic.
At the end of his career, Calhoun warned that the nation had become divided and that the Union was in danger. Nevertheless, he never sanctioned the idea of secession.
He was still insisting on the right of slaveholders to take their human property wherever they wished within the territories of the United States when he denounced the Compromise of 1850, almost literally with his last breath. After working on the speech for a month and unable to speak himself, Calhoun was nevertheless present in the Senate when his final speech was read by his colleague, Senator James A. Mason of Virginia, on March 4, 1850. His last appearance in the Senate was on March 7, when he heard and approved Daniel Webster's appeal for sectional peace. He died in Washington on March 31, 1850.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by John C. Calhoun.
Regarding Andrew Jackson
The Union, next to our liberty, most dear! May we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States and by distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union.
Response to Jackson's toast, "Our Federal Union! It must and shall be preserved."
Regarding Territorial Expansion
There is, often, in the affairs of government, more efficiency and wisdom in nonaction than action. All we want to effect our object in this case is a "wise and masterly inactivity."
Speech in January, 1843, opposing a bill providing for the erection of fortifications in the Oregon territory.
Regarding Last Words
The South, the poor South!
March 31, 1850
Abolition and the Union cannot exist. As the friend of the Union, I openly proclaim it, and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events.
Senate Speech in 1837
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