John C. Calhoun

 

Overview of life


John Caldwell Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) was a leading American politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent of a strong national government and protective tariffs. After 1830, his views evolved and he became a greater proponent of states' rights, limited government, nullification and free trade; as he saw these means as the only way to preserve the Union. He is best known for his intense and original defense of slavery as something positive, his distrust of majoritarianism, and for pointing the South toward secession from the Union.

Devoted to liberty in principle and fearful of corruption, Calhoun built his reputation as a political theorist by his redefinition of republicanism to include approval of slavery and minority rights—with the Southern States the minority in question. To protect minority rights against majority rule, he called for a "concurrent majority" whereby the minority could sometimes block offensive proposals that a State felt infringed on their sovereign power. Always distrustful of democracy, he minimized the role of the Second Party System in South Carolina. Calhoun's defense of slavery became defunct, but his concept of concurrent majority, whereby a minority has the right to object to or even veto hostile legislation directed against it, has been cited by other advocates of the rights of minorities. Calhoun asserted that Southern whites, outnumbered in the United States by voters of the more densely-populated Northern states, were one such minority deserving special protection in the legislature. Calhoun also saw the increasing population disparity to be the result of corrupt northern politics.

Calhoun held major political offices, serving terms in the United States House of Representatives, United States Senate and as Vice President of the United States, as well as secretary of war and state. He usually affiliated with the Democrats, but flirted with the Whig Party and considered running for the presidency in 1824 and 1844. As a "war hawk", he agitated in Congress for the War of 1812 to defend American honor against Britain. Near the end of the war, he succesffully delayed a vote on US Treasury notes being issued, arguing that the bill would not pass if the war were to end in the near future; the day of the vote, Congress received word from New York that the war was over. As Secretary of War under President James Monroe, he reorganized and modernized the War Department, building powerful permanent bureaucracies that ran the department, as opposed to patronage appointees and did so while trimming the requested funding each year.

Calhoun died 11 years before the start of the American Civil War, but he was an inspiration to the secessionists of 1860–61. Nicknamed the "cast-iron man" for his ideological rigidity as well as for his determination to defend the causes he believed in, Calhoun supported states' rights and nullification, under which states could declare null and void federal laws which they viewed as unconstitutional. He was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he defended as a "positive good" rather than as a "necessary evil". His rhetorical defense of slavery was partially responsible for escalating Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting abolitionist sentiment in the North.

Calhoun was one of the "Great Triumvirate" or the "Immortal Trio" of Congressional leaders, along with his Congressional colleagues Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In 1957, a Senate Committee selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators, along with Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert La Follette, and Robert Taft. Calhoun "was a public intellectual of the highest order...and a uniquely gifted American politician."