Calhoun, John C.

Born: 1782-03-18 Abbeville, South Carolina

Died: 1850-03-31 Washington, D.C.

Born in a region that became Abbeville, South Carolina, John C. Calhoun received his early education in Georgia before attending Yale College and graduating in 1804. Afterward, he studied law in Charleston but completed his legal career at Tapping Reeve's law school in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1806. He was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807 but soon became primarily interested in politics. Initially a devoted Jeffersonian-Republican, Calhoun won election to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1808 but was soon elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1811 to 1818. Just before leaving for Washington, he married his cousin Floride Bonneau Calhoun, with whom he had ten children.

Calhoun immediately made his mark as a "War Hawk," encouraging the declaration of war between the United States and Great Britain that resulted in the War of 1812. By the war's end, he was one of Congress' leading policy-makers and drafted the bill creating the Second National Bank. In 1818, James Monroe appointed him secretary of war. He served well in the position and was the chief voice of opposition in the cabinet to Andrew Jackson's invasion of Spanish Florida. He was elected vice president during the controversial 1824 election and joined with other Jacksonians in vehemently opposing John Quincy Adams' administration. As a leader in the movement, he again secured the vice presidency following Jackson's election in 1828.

Calhoun's political future as an advocate of southern states rights began in earnest during his term as vice president due to his support of nullification. Strongly opposed to the tariffs passed during the Adams administration, Calhoun argued that individual states could nullify federal laws within their borders and urged South Carolina to do so with Adams' tariffs. This put him at odds with Jackson's belief in congressional authority. When it became clear that Martin Van Buren would be Jackson's vice presidential candidate in 1832, Calhoun resigned and won election to the U.S. Senate. With another protective tariff having been passed in 1832, South Carolina responded with an ordinance of nullification that Calhoun's supported, but the crisis was allayed when Jackson threatened to enforce the law by military means but also offered a compromise tariff.

Calhoun remained in the Senate until his death in 1850 - largely siding with southern Democrats against what he feared was an increasingly abolitionist and centralizing northern majority. His only absence from the Senate was from 1844-1845, when he served as John Tyler's secretary of state. In this office, he supported the annexation of Texas as a means of better preserving slavery within the Union. Calhoun opposed the Mexican War for fear that it would exacerbate sectional tensions and reacted by increasingly supporting secession when his prediction proved true. He opposed the shaping Compromise of 1850 but died before it was passed.

Irving Bartlett, John C. Calhoun: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993); Charles M. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944-1951); John Niven, "Calhoun, John C.," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4:213-16.