Congressman, secretary of war, vice president of the United States, U.S. senator. Calhoun was born in Abbeville District on March 18, 1782, the third son of Patrick Calhoun, an upcountry planter and former legislator, and Martha Caldwell. A prodigy, the young Calhoun lost his father at an early age. His older brothers, William and James, already successful cotton planters and merchants, helped finance his education. Calhoun attended rural upcountry academies before entering Yale at age twenty and graduating in two years. He then attended Litchfield Law School in Connecticut before reading law in Charleston with the distinguished attorney William Henry DeSaussure, a prominent Federalist. Calhoun returned to Abbeville and began the practice of law, which he disliked. He quickly turned his attention to politics, winning election to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1808. During his one term as a state legislator, Calhoun supported a white manhood suffrage amendment to the state constitution (adopted in 1810). In 1810 Calhoun ran successfully for Congress as a Jeffersonian Republican and an aggressive champion of national rights in the international arena, thus beginning a long, distinguished, and controversial career in national politics. Before taking his seat in Congress, Calhoun attended to some personal business, marrying his second cousin Floride Bonneau Colhoun on January 8, 1811. The couple eventually had ten children, of whom seven lived to maturity.
During his career Calhoun evolved from “War Hawk” (a faction of Republican congressmen seeking war against Great Britain) nationalist to independent nullifier to strategist for a unified regional (southern) defense of slavery. His winding political odyssey reflected his evolving analysis of the relationship between the nation and its sections. Calhoun insisted that the success of the republican experiment in self government depended not only on the proper distribution of power between the states and the federal government but also on maintaining equilibrium between the sections. In the aftermath of the near-disastrous War of 1812, Calhoun championed a strong nationalist program to increase security and foster commerce across the nation. He sought to “bind the republic together” through tariffs to help infant industry, a second national bank to stabilize the nation’s troubled finances and sustain commerce, and an ambitious system of federally funded internal improvements designed to promote sectional economic interdependence. During his service as secretary of war during the presidency of James Monroe, Calhoun again pursued an aggressive policy to improve military training, education, and engineering; continue transportation improvements; and reduce national reliance on poorly trained state militias in favor of regular troops. In these efforts, his ambitious plans often attracted opposition from economy-minded members of the Monroe cabinet.
Like other members of the Monroe cabinet, Calhoun used his position to advance his presidential ambitions through persuasion and patronage. The North Carolina congressman Bartlett Yancey enviously noted Calhoun’s “talent” for “gaining on strangers” through his power of conversation. At this point in his career, Calhoun drew support chiefly from former Federalists and Republicans with strong nationalist sympathies—people who supported his dream of fostering economic interdependence among sections as a means of strengthening the bonds of union. In the crowded presidential field of 1824, Calhoun’s relative youth worked against him, and the entry of the military hero Andrew Jackson, another South Carolina native whose candidacy triggered a wave of popular enthusiasm not previously seen in American politics, doomed his chances. Thus, Calhoun withdrew from the race and sought the vice presidency, which he won easily. As vice president, however, Calhoun quickly broke with new president John Quincy Adams when the Massachusetts native insisted on appointing Speaker of the House Henry Clay as secretary of state. Calhoun believed that Adams’s choice of the wily Kentuckian for the key cabinet slot gave credence to Jackson’s charge that a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay had denied the presidency to the old “Hero of New Orleans,” who had won the popular vote. Calhoun quickly emerged as a key figure in the pro-Jackson opposition to the Adams administration.
Despite his prominence in the emerging Jackson coalition, and his easy reelection as vice president on the Jackson ticket in 1828, Calhoun’s youthful nationalism had waned by the late 1820s, falling victim to the emergence of a persistent factional majority favoring protective tariffs. Calhoun, along with many other southerners, judged these tariffs as unfair to the South and harmful to the southern staple economy. The South Carolinian now feared the centrifugal pull of divergent sectional forces less than he did the gradual consolidation of power in the hands of the national government. To stop this steady accretion of federal power, to relieve the slaveholding South from the economic burden of the tariff, and to guard against possible federal interference with slavery at some future date, Calhoun developed the idea of nullification. Nullification, as Calhoun fashioned it, was a constitutional mechanism that allowed an individual state, falling back on its claim to original sovereignty, to suspend operation of a federal law it deemed unconstitutional, unless or until three-fourths of the states decided otherwise.
Inside South Carolina the nullification campaign mobilized the Palmetto electorate as never before, and the canvass for election of delegates to the special convention turned the state into “a great talking and eating machine” as courthouse debates and political barbecues became the order of the day. This campaign generated high levels of voter turnout across the state. But the hotly contested nullification battle, which the nullifiers won with roughly sixty percent of the popular vote, left the state bitterly divided and with armed conflict looming in some districts, forcing Calhoun into the role of peacemaker, which he fulfilled skillfully. Outside of South Carolina, the doctrine of nullification attracted less support than Calhoun and his allies expected. Nullification suffered political defeat when President Jackson discredited the movement politically by equating it with disunion and isolating Calhoun from the southern wing of the emerging Democratic Party.
With the political failure of nullification, Calhoun gradually emerged as the leading strategist of an evolving southern sectionalism. Only a united South, Calhoun repeatedly maintained over the final decade of his life, could protect its rights (especially the right to hold slaves) within the Union. A united South, acting in concert and transcending partisan divisions, Calhoun claimed, could readily defend the region’s slaveholding society against threats from a northern majority increasingly hostile toward slavery. Near the end of his life, Calhoun feared that the too-powerful national government would fall into the hands of an antislavery majority. “I am a Southern man and a slaveholder . . . I would rather meet with any extremity upon earth than give up one inch of our equality,” Calhoun told the Senate in 1847. His remedy centered on the maintenance of sectional political equilibrium within the Union through the adoption of a constitutional amendment allowing a sectional minority to veto federal legislation. Calhoun failed to unite the South behind his ideas, however, because most southerners thought that slavery was best defended through continued southern influence on national parties. With partisan differences still dividing the South internally, and the controversy over the expansion of slavery in full flower, Calhoun died on March 31, 1850, in Washington from respiratory complications related to tuberculosis. In April he was buried in St. Philip’s Churchyard in Charleston.
In life, Calhoun was hardly the brooding and forbidding figure portrayed in later mythology. In 1829, when the Beaufort planter and scholar William Elliott first met Calhoun, he called the vice president “a very eloquent and imposing man in his conversation— and a most subtle politician.” Throughout a turbulent political career, Calhoun proved a loving and even indulgent father, who sacrificed financially to advance his sons and who maintained a close and intellectually stimulating relationship with his daughter Anna Maria Calhoun Clemson, who followed politics closely and became an engaging correspondent. He was also a devoted and dutiful husband to a wife who grew more withdrawn and difficult with age. An energetic political correspondent to a large network of friends, allies, and political contacts and an accomplished cotton planter, Calhoun enjoyed time at his Fort Hill plantation in the far upcountry of South Carolina (later the site of Clemson University). But neither Calhoun’s family and friends nor his plantation engaged his energies as much as politics did. A man of considerable intellectual gifts, Calhoun maintained a focus on politics throughout his adult life. His political ambition, and particularly his presidential aspirations, drew sharp and frequent criticism from his opponents. But for the most part, people who knew Calhoun well, including some of his most determined opponents in South Carolina, admired his prodigious ability and conceded his capacity for magnanimity and compromise.
Calhoun’s chief contribution to American political thought consisted of his thoughtful reconsideration of the republican wisdom received from the founders. The founders had embraced Madison’s theory of extended republics to solve the problem of majoritarian tyranny in a democratic republic. Madison argued that the multiplicity of factions included in a large republic, and the geographic distance separating them, would render the formation of a durable and oppressive majority impossible. As plausible as this argument seemed in the 1780s, Calhoun recognized that the rise of partisan politics left it outmoded by the 1840s. Political parties, taking advantage of transportation and communication improvements and using expanding federal patronage aggressively, had easily overcome the barriers of distance and diversity that Madison believed would block the formation of lasting majorities.
In his major speeches and writings of the nullification era and with the posthumous publication of his two systematic political treatises, A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution of the United States, Calhoun found a check on majority power in giving significant minority interests veto power. He maintained that the appropriate expression of a society’s political will came not through the opinion of a numerical majority, but through the consensus that emerged when all of the community’s component interests were consulted. Calhoun sought a government by supramajority, a consensus reached by obtaining the common consent of the society’s conflicting interests. He called this calculus of consent government by the concurrent majority. In Calhoun’s mind, the power of the concurrent majority, when given an adequate instrument of its expression (for example, nullification, sectional veto), could serve as a check on the power of renegade numerical majorities. In an era of democracy, Calhoun sought to check the power of one kind of majority (numerical) with that of another (concurrent).
Rooted in his admitted desire to protect slavery in the American South, Calhoun’s theoretical positions were often dismissed by critics as special pleading. The differing interests protected in Calhoun’s ideas were sectional, and it was unclear how minority interests within sections would be protected. The consensus and harmony that Calhoun thought government by concurrent majority would produce seemed likely to prove illusory, with stalemate and paralysis their likely surrogates. To Americans enamored by the expansion of democracy (at least for white males) and opportunity (for free Americans) during the so-called Age of Jackson, Calhoun’s government by concurrent majority seemed an anachronism, a strangely anti-majoritarian project in a fiercely majoritarian age. But if Calhoun’s remedy seemed conservative and impractical, his indictment of the excesses of majority rule, and his exposition of a conservative, post-Madisonian republicanism that highlighted the obsolescence of much of the founders’ logic, earned him a deserved reputation as one of nineteenth-century America’s foremost political thinkers. The problem that Calhoun identified and grappled with throughout his career—the difficulty of protecting the rights of political minorities against the power of elected majorities—remains one of the most vexing dilemmas of modern democracy. For all of his flaws, and the tragedy involved in the employment of his vast talents in defense of racial slavery, Calhoun still stands as second only to James Madison as an original political thinker among practicing politicians in American life. See plate 18.
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Ford, Lacy K., Jr. “Inventing the Concurrent Majority: Madison, Calhoun, and the Problem of Majoritarianism in American Political Thought.” Journal of Southern History 60 (February 1994): 19–58.
———. “Republican Ideology in a Slave Society: The Political Economy of John C. Calhoun.” Journal of Southern History 54 (August 1988):405–24.
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