John Caldwell Calhoun (1882–1850)

John C. Calhoun received an elite education, studying under a prominent reverend tutor, and then graduating from Yale College. After his admission to the South Carolina bar, Calhoun was elected to the South Carolina legislature. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, then as Secretary of War under James Monroe, the as Vice-President twice, under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. After resigning his position as Vice-President, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and then served as John Tyler’s Secretary of State. At the end of that term, he returned to the Senate, where he served until his retirement. His connection to civil rights centers on two ideas: his belief in states’ rights and his defense of slavery.

After the hated Tariff of 1828 (called the Tariff of Abominations in the South) was passed, Calhoun published The South Carolina Exposition, which outlined his theory of ‘‘state interposition.’’ Also known as Nullification, Calhoun’s theory gave individual states the authority to ignore, or nullify, federal law that interfered with any states interests or sovereignty. The South Carolina Legislature eagerly embraced Calhoun’s theory and voted to ignore the Tariff, but President Andrew Jackson was outspoken in his intention to enforce the law. Calhoun actually resigned from his position as Vice-President, was immediately elected as U.S. Senator from South Carolina, and began fighting for nullification on the Senate floor. The controversy grew into a crisis as Congress passed the Force Bill, giving Jackson authority to use federal troops to compel South Carolina to enforce the Tariff. Violence was averted only by compromise: Jackson agreed to lower the Tariff, South Carolina rescinded its nullification ordinance, and Calhoun, who wanted South Carolina to remain in the union but insisted on their right to nullify or secede, endorsed the agreement.

Calhoun also consistently defended the institution of slavery. He was a supporter of the ‘‘positive good’’ theory, which described slavery as a beneficial institution. Under positive good rationalization, slavery civilized blacks. Slaveholders educated, supported, and managed their slaves so that American slaves had reached a level of civilization that no other society of blacks had ever reached before. Thus, slavery allowed both black slaves and white slave owners to thrive. To be sure, the doctrine was not widely accepted outside of the South, but it allowed Calhoun and other slaveholders to justify their institution. In a civil rights irony, Calhoun considered himself a great defender of civil rights because he held property rights sacred. Because slaves were considered property (and neither the Constitution nor the federal government challenged that idea), Calhoun was able to counter abolition movements by citing the Constitution’s protections of private property. Finally, as a fierce defender of both South Carolina’s and the South’s interests, he was concerned about maintaining legislative balance between free and slave states. To that end, he supported the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri into the Union as a slave state while allowing Maine in as a free state.

Calhoun thought of himself as a defender of civil rights; he saw the rights of South Carolina to make laws for its citizens as paramount over the federal government’s, and he believed that because southern slaveholders owned slaves, the protection of slavery was simply a matter of protecting property.

JAMES HALABUK, JR.

References and Further Reading

  • Bartlett, Irving H. John C. Calhoun: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993. 
  • Thomas, John L., ed. John C. Calhoun, A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.

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