He was tall, towering over even Andrew Jackson. He was a great speaker and orator. He was an individual thinker, and he was ambitions. This set him up nicely for a career as an American statesman.
He would become one of the most influential men in American history. He would serve as a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and Vice President. This means that he, at varying times in his political career, held five of the six more powerful positions in the nation.
His first electoral victory came in 1810 when he was only 29 years old. He was elected as a U.S. State Representative from the state of South Carolina. He was a democratic-republican.
At this time, Britain was refusing to accept American shipping rights. Among his first acts was to call for the unprepared nation to go to war against them.
He, along with Speaker of the House Henry Clay, championed for war with Britain to preserve American honor and republican values. Among their anti war opponents was Kentucky Senator Daniel Webster.
This would lead to the War of 1812, which lasted until 1815, when, at the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson and his troops would utterly defeat the British. This lead to Americans celebrating what they would refer to as the "Second War of Independence." These events would also make a hero out of Andrew Jackson.
He was also a leading supporter of the Second Bank of the United States. The charter for the First Bank of the United States expired in 1811. The bank was meant to be a repository for federal funds, along with being an agent for when the government needed loans. Among the reasons for supporting the bank was to pay the war of 1812.
Supporters of states rights hated the bank, and so would champion against it. The issue of the bank would come up later in Calhoun's career, and is discussed in my post on Andrew Jackson.
Secretary of War
In 1817, James Monroe was the unanimous choice to become President. After being elected, he wanted to create a cabinet that well represented the nations. He named John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State and John C. Calhoun as Secretary of War. He named Benjamin Crowninshield as Secretary of the Navy, William H. Crawford as Secretary of Treasury, and William Wirt Attorney General. He offered this job to Speaker of the House Henry Clay, but he declined. Unlike previous presidents, Monroe often sought the advice of his cabinet.
In 1818, Andrew Jackson took a couple thousand troops into Spanish Florida after Seminole Indians burned an Indian village on U.S. territory. Seminoles massacred a bunch of men, women, and children in the process. Monroe ordered Jackson into Florida, and Jackson took over two Spanish forts and had two British men hanged. This was seen as an attempt to occupy Spanish Florida and was seen as a horrible act of terror.
Calhoun was upset not so much by the act of terror, but because Jackson communicated with the President and bypassed him. So, he worked behind the scenes with Crawford and Clay to get President Monroe to censure Jackson, but Monroe refused. Keep in mind here that Jackson did not know about this at the time. Keep this in mind, as it will play a role later in this history.
Other than this event, this era in our history is often considered the "Era of Good feelings." This is mainly because the Federalists were in decline, and the democratic-republicans were the main party, lead by Monroe. By having members of varying opinions in his cabinet, he was essentially able to adapt key ideas from both parties, and this essentially eliminated partisanship. It also lead to a high degree of nationalism, which means that Americans believed they were superior over other nations (not better than, just superior). It also means a strong and powerful central government and a powerful military
Unfortunately, this era would only last until the end of Monroe's terms, or about 8 years.
At this point in his career, Calhoun was a nationalist. By this, he was an ardent supporter of a strong central government, beginning with the strengthening of the military. He saw that, while victorious, the military was quite inept at fighting against Britain. He wanted to create a permanent military system that would make the U.S. the most powerful and most respected and revered nation in the world. This was good. The best way to make America a secure and independent nation is by our military strength. Or, as Ronald Reagan would later chime, "Peace through strength."
He also wrote a bonus bill that earmarked certain funds of the Second Bank for an internal improvements fund that would create roads across the nation, allowing for easy transportation for settlers across the country. This would be proposed by various Presidents, including John Quincy Adams. The problem with this is that many people believed this violates states rights, and it's the job of states to build infrastructure. Proponents of this believe that states cannot agree on where to put roads, so only the Federal government can organize this and get it done.
This was essentially proven during the Eisenhower administration, where a series of highways were built across the nation. Donald Trump proposes a similar plan to rebuilt roads, bridges, and tunnels. And the debate today is the same. Hence, we ask the question: is a large central government program needed from time to time to get things done. The problem is that this may segue into too much governmental power and control. So, a balance is needed.
Okay, back to Calhoun.
James Monroe was a states rights advocate, and so he believed the states should decide where roads should go. For this reason, he vetoed Calhoun's bonus bill. This would not be the end of this idea, however, as other influential statesmen, including Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, supported the idea.
Calhoun also called for a permanent system of taxation, so that income to pay for Federal government programs would constantly be flowing in (up to this time, taxes were only instituted to pay for wars). He also called for a Second Bank of the United States, something I discussed in my John Quincy Adams post. These are both scary programs in that they grant too much power to the central government.
Calhoun was Monroe's fifth choice to be Secretary of War, as four others turned it down before him. This was because it was in such poor shape. Calhoun's nationalistic view of the military made him ideal for this post.
So, as you may have suspected yourself, Calhoun's nationalism, with the exception of involvement in the military, sounds a lot like the former Federalism and the current liberalism. This would be true.
But he would change his tune.
When his second term was coming to a close, Monroe announced he would follow in George Washington's footsteps and not run for a third term. However, he also said he would not support any candidate for President in 1824, and the main reason here was that the leading candidates were members of his cabinet, including Calhoun, William H. Crawford, and John Quincy Adams. And, of course, another candidate was an outsider from Kentucky by the name of Andrew Jackson who was a Commander in the U.S. Army under Monroe.
Another candidate was then Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Monroe had tried to bring him into his cabinet, although he failed. This was mainly because Clay was a harsh critic of Monroe, and this allowed him to continue to be a critic. He was the only candidate not to be influenced by Monroe.
Of course, as you can see, many of the above names, although mostly of the same party, were of varying opinions in regards to what path to take the nation on. This lead to much bickering, which formed the basis for the formation of new political groups.
Calhoun would make an effort to become President, although his efforts would fail. In fact, he would not even gain the endorsement of the South Carolina legislature. John Quincy Adams would become President. He was chosen by the House of Representatives after none of the leading candidates received a majority of the votes. John C. Calhoun was named Vice President.
Adams would in turn select Henry Clay as his Secretary of State. This was part of the deal in which the House selected Adams to become President, even though Jackson won the popular and electoral vote. Calhoun was unhappy with this deal, and so this would cause friction between Calhoun and the duo of Adams and Clay.
In 1828, he was initially in favor of the higher tariffs. However, he was later convinced to oppose it on the grounds that it benefited Northern industries at the expense of the south. This would spearhead a complete transformation by Calhoun from a nationalist to a states rights advocate.
By this time it was well known that Calhoun owned slaves. He was a good slave owner, so they say. But his ownership in slaves changed him. He now believed that a strong central government would have the power to abscond from the southern states the rights to own slaves. Hence the shift in political beliefs.
In fact, he would go so far in his championship for states rights and in opposition to the tariff that he drafted for the South Carolina legislature his Exposition and Protest. In this he championed for original sovereignty, or the right of the states to govern themselves. He also championed for nullification, the right of states to nullify (refuse to obey) any federal mandate it didn't like, or that they felt to be unconstitutional. For instance, if the Federal government mandated freeing the slaves, the states didn't have to comply. Or, in this case, if the federal government authored a tariff that benefited the north at the expense of the south, the bill could be ignored.
Calhoun, still second in charge in Washington, now opposed President John Q. Adam's view of increasing the size and scope of the federal government, such as his plan to create a public transportation system across the U.S. This was a huge change in thinking, but Calhoun now saw nationalism as a huge strain on states rights. This would put him in disagreement with both Adams and Clay.
Calhoun and Andrew Jackson were never good friends. However, Calhoun thought that Jackson's policies would put an end to the large central government and anti-states rights policies of the Adams administration. This would set up the election of 1828, which saw Andrew Jackson become President. Calhoun was once again elected to be vice president, becoming only the second person to be vice president under two different presidents (the other was George Clinton, who served under Jefferson, Monroe and Madison).
But this "friendship" would be short lived. While Jackson was also an ardent supporter of states rights, he opposed the idea of nullification and secession. So, this lead to conflict between Calhoun and Jackson. This relationship was further hampered when Jackson learned that Calhoun had surreptitiously attempted to have Jackson censured for his actions in Spanish Florida. (You can read about that here). The discovery that this happened must have really ticked Jackson off.
So he literally almost went to war with Calhoun's South Carolina. In 1828 (as noted) and again in 1832, Congress voted, and the president signed, bills to increase tariffs. John C. Calhoun was his vice president, and many thought he would go on to succeed Jackson. However, he was a strong critic of the high tariff passed by Congress in 1828 because it helped northern merchants at the expense of southern planters. They thought it was unfair because they sold goods to Europe in return for payment, and that payment was highly taxed.
Calhoun, using the concept of nullification, believed that South Carolina could refuse to accept the high tariff. He went as far as to tell South Carolinian's not to collect tariffs. He even went as far to suggest that a state could secede from the union. In response, South Carolina's State legislature voted to nullify the tariffs of 1828 and 1832.
Jackson was irate about this idea, and his old warrior intuition was sent into action. He believed this was treason, and wrote a letter notifying officials in South Carolina that their action was illegal and might lead to war. He ordered U.S. Navy ships to Charleston, South Carolina's harbor, with orders to fire upon the rebels if necessary. He also said he was willing to negotiate a deal to save the union.
A compromise was brokered by Henry Clay that had Congress voting to lower the tariff over the next ten years.
Another incident that caused conflict between Calhoun and Jackson was the Pettcoat Affair. This began when Calhoun accused the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton -- Peggy Eaton -- of having an affair. Calhoun organized the wives of cabinet members (hence the term Petticoat) against the actions of Peggy Eaton. After this incident there were no further friendly relations between Calhoun and Jackson, who sided with the Eaton's.
This was a time when the vice presidency was considered to be a boring job. This, and probably coupled with his tensions with the sitting President, inspired Calhoun to run for a seat on the U.S. Senate during the midterm elections of 1832. He won, and effectively resigned the vice presidency.
Even though he became Senator from South Caroline, his popularity on a national level remained low, mainly due to his views of nullification and his feuds with Jackson. He also had no party to identify with. This inspired a group of people who despised Jackson, and this included Calhoun, to organize what became known as the Whig party.
A problem here is that the Whigs believed in a strong central government, and this included the federal government building a transportation system across the country. Calhoun was now an ardent supporter of states rights, and he believed a strong central government violated states rights. So, for this reason, sometimes he affiliated himself with the Whig party and sometimes he did not, and thereby remained an independent voice in the Senate.
In 1837, Jackson pretty much allied imself with new President Martin van Buren, who was in essence, like Jefferson and Jackson before him, a supporter of a limited government and states rights. The Whigs supported a large national bank. Calhoun, also like Jackson and van Buren, believed a large central bank gave the Federal government too much power over businesses.
Bankers joined the Whig party in support of a large national bank. Calhoun supported the democrats, and was in support of an independent treasury. For this reason, and because he might impose high tariffs, Calhoun opposed Whig William Henry Harrison's bid for the presidency in 1840. His opposition did not stop Harrison from winning the office of the President.
Calhoun resigned the Senate in 1843 in an attempt to win the Presidency. He just could not gain any support, and would end up giving up this effort.
Secretary of State
After William Henry Harrison died, former democrat John Tyler became President.
Calhoun was an ardent supporter of the Annexation of Texas. He supported it because he supported slavery, and believed the addition of another slave state would benefit Southern States. Tyler supported it, although on the grounds that it would be to the benefit of the nation as a whole. Plus, Tyler believed if the U.S. didn't annex Texas, that the British or some other country might gain interest there. So, this lead to the annexation of Texas.
After Tyler was banned from the Whig party in 1844, he named Calhoun to be his Secretary of State. This meant that Calhoun had held each of the top positions in Washington -- President, Vice President, Secretary of War, Secretary of State -- except for the presidency. (You can read more about Tyler here.)
Calhoun put in writing what was promised by his predecessor -- Abel P. Upshur, that the U.S. would defend Texas against Mexico if that was ever needed. Calhoun then signed papers to annex Texas. This was all done in secrecy. When it was discovered, this angered democrats who were anti-slavery and anti-annexation of Texas. Calhoun would write a letter claiming that the annexation of Texas was necessary for the well-being of the southern states.
By linking the annexation to slavery, many who would have otherwise supported the annexation were now opposed to it.
Because of Calhoun's letter, democrat Martin van Buren denounced the annexation of Texas when he ran for the Presidency in 1844. This made van Buren unpopular in the south. Tyler, scarred by the letter and rejected by both parties, would end up having to drop out.
This created an environment that allowed James K. Polk -- an expansionist dark horse candidate -- to sneak into the presidency. this would bode well for Calhoun. Lame duck Tyler managed to get the annexation issue before Congress once again. President elect Polk supported this. This time it passed. So, before Tyler's term was done, Texas was annexed.
In 1845, Calhoun was re-elected as U.S. Senator from South Carolina. As a states rights advocate, he opposed going to war with Mexico. He believed this made the U.S. too much like an empire, and that victory would come at the expense of states rights. So, when the issue of going to war with Mexico came up on May 13, he refused to vote on the issue. He also was opposed to California being admitted to the union as a free state.
In 1846, as a pro-slavery Senator, he opposed the Wilmot Proviso. This was a proposal by Pensylvania Representative David Wilmot to ban slavery in any newly acquired territory. This would have made Texas a free state. Calhoun did not want this. The provision passed the House, but could not gain muster in the Senate, which was evenly divided between slate and anti-slave Senators.
At this time, the Oregon Territory consisted of British Columbia, and the current states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Due to an increasing number of American migrants to the area, a dispute arose as to the border along the border with Canada. American expansionists used the slogan: "54-40 or fight." Calhoun, President Polk, and Secretary of state (and future President) James Buchanan worked on a treaty to resolve this issue. It resulted in drawing a line at the 49th parallel that allowed Canada to keep British Columbia, and the U.S. to keep the rest.
The status of slavery in the territories continued to be a big issue at this time. Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas devised what would become the Compromise of 1850. Calhoun was ardently opposed to it. In response, Calhoun organized a Nashville Convention where discussions about the South seceding the nation were begun. He also wrote speech attacking the compromise and that mentioned the possibility of southern secession. He was too sick to give the speech, so it was given by Virginia Senator James Mason.
This is often sited as Calhoun's greatest speech. He died a week later, at the peek of his career, at the age of 68, of complications of tuberculosis.
John C. Calhoun may not be considered a great statesman for the simple fact he was a slave owner who became mired as the voice of the pro-slavery movement. But this does not take away the fact that he was a powerful figure in Washington who had great sway as to the direction of the nation. For 39 years he stood tall as one of the most influential figures of the first half of the 19th century.
Further reading and references: