John C. Calhoun.
The father of John C. Calhoun was born in Ireland; his mother was the
daughter of an Irish Presbyterian, a lady of great worth. Most of our
illustrious men owe their success to a noble mother, and so it was with
Calhoun. He was early taught to read the Bible, and his parents sought to
impress upon him their Calvinistic doctrines.
As a child he was grave and thoughtful, and at the age of thirteen he studied
history so perseveringly as to impair his health. His father died about this
time, and a glimpse of his loving disposition can be obtained from the fact that
notwithstanding that he greatly desired an education, still he would not leave
the farm until assured of the means of prosecuting his studies without impairing
his mother's comfort. Consequently he had few of the advantages to which
systematic schooling is conducive until late in youth. He, however, made a
satisfactory arrangement with his family, who agreed to furnish him money for a
course of seven years.
He had decided to study law, but declared that he preferred being a common
planter to a half-educated lawyer. He soon entered Yale College, where he
graduated with distinction. President Dwight is said to have remarked 'That
young man has ability enough to be President of the United States and will
become one yet.' Before returning home he spent eighteen months in the
law-school at Litchfield, Connecticut. He also cultivated extempore speaking,
and finally returned South to finish his studies.
Being admitted to the bar he began practice; in 1808 was elected to the
Legislature, and in 1811 to Congress. The war party had gained complete control
of the House, and a speaker was chosen by the Democratic party. Calhoun was
placed on the Committee of Foreign Relations, and he framed the report that the
time had come to choose between tame submission and bold resistance. Calhoun was
chosen chairman of this committee, and was a staunch supporter of the
administration throughout. The increasing financial distress led to the National
Bank debates, in which he was a leading figure. The necessity of this
institution being admitted, to Calhoun was intrusted entire management of the
bill, and to him is due the passage of the charter of the bank.
He was a most efficient agent of internal improvements, carrying a bill
through the House by a vote of 86 to 84, authorizing a million and a half to be
paid by the United States bank and the income on seven millions more to be
devoted to internal improvements. This bill passed the Senate twenty to fifteen,
but was vetoed by the president, denying the authority of congress to
appropriate money for any such purpose. He next became Secretary of War, under
Monroe. He found the war department in a demoralized conditionóbills to the
amount of $50,000 outstanding. These Calhoun promptly settled and secured the
passage of a bill reorganizing the staff of the army. President Monroe bringing
before the cabinet the question of whether he should sign the Missouri
Compromise, Calhoun gave it as his opinion that it was constitutional,
supporting the view that it was the duty of the president to sign the bill.
He was very seriously thought of as Monroe's successor, the great State of
Pennsylvania supporting him at first, but General Jackson's great military fame
won for him the nomination, and Calhoun was almost unanimously selected for
The tariff question was an all-absorbing issue, and on this question the
Democrats dividedóthe northern wing being for protection, under the lead of
Martin Van Buren; while the South was unanimous for free trade, led by Calhoun.
A rupture between the president and Mr. Calhoun now arose; this and other causes
led to Mr. Calhoun's distrust of the president, and the belief that he could not
be depended upon to settle the tariff question; therefore he brought out his
This doctrine was founded on the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798-9
which declared the constitution to be a compact, each State forming an integral
part. It also declared that the government created by the compact was not made
the final judge, each party having a right to ratify or annul that judgment as
an individual State, that is, such laws as were deemed unconstitutional. This
doctrine he prepared, and the paper was presented to the legislature where it
became known as the South Carolina Exposition. The next we see of it is in the
Senate of the United States, where the doctrine is brought forward by Mr. Hayne,
which led to his world-famed debate with Mr. Webster.
Then followed the passage of the tariff bill and the nullification act,
whereby South Carolina signified her determination to resist the laws; and the
final compromise measure of Henry Clay which happily settled the difficulty at
this time. Calhoun was now a senator and soon formed one of the powerful trio in
opposition to president Jackson. He characterized Jackson's distribution of the
surplus left by the United States bank as an attempt to seize onto the power of
Congress and unite, in his own hands, the sword and purse.
He declared that he had placed himself with the minority to serve his gallant
State, nor would he turn on his heel if thereby he could be placed at the head
of the government. He thought that corruption had taken such a hold of it that
any man who attempted reform would not be sustained. The American Anti-slavery
Society having sent tracts denunciatory to slavery throughout the South, and as
it was believed that such measures had a tendency to incite the slaves to
insurrection, Calhoun brought in a bill subjecting to severe punishment any
postmaster who should knowingly receive any such matter for distribution in any
State which should pass a law prohibiting the circulation of such. The bill
failed on a final vote, twenty-five to nineteen.
He maintained that Congress had no jurisdiction over the subject of slavery;
that it was a recognized institution; that the inequality of the negro was
manifest; that in slavery they held their true position and to change their
condition was to place them wholly dependent upon the State for support.
Calhoun, believed that the relations between the races was right, morally and
politically, and demanded that the institution of slavery be protected.
The bill recommended by Jackson, to restrict the sale of public lands to
actual settlers and that in limited quantities, drew from him a most fiery
speech. He claimed that the measure was really in the interest of speculators who had loaded
themselves with land, and whose interest now was to restrict the sale and thus
enhance the price of their ill-gotten domain. He also claimed that people high
in office had speculated largely, even some in near relation to the
This brought from Jackson a letter that he should either retract his words or
bring the matter before Congress as an act of impeachment. The sole power of
impeachment lies within the House of Representatives, and, while the senate had
previously passed an act denouncing Jackson's methods, yet the House of
Representatives was overwhelmingly in his favor, and he must have known that no
impeachment could pass this body.
Jackson realized that such charges needed his attention. Calhoun read his
letter before the senate pronouncing it a cowardly attempt to intimidate, and
repeated his charges; stating that not only persons high in authority were
implied in the charge, but the president's nephew, calling his name, was a large
During the administration of Van Buren came the great financial crash of our
history; the aggregate of the failures in New York and New Orleans alone
amounting to $150,000,00. All this trouble had been foretold by Calhoun.
Mr. Van Buren's plan of an independent treasury, which created a place for
all the surplus to accumulate, met with Calhoun's approval, and he accordingly
separated from Webster and Clay to act in support of what was right,
notwithstanding his personal feelings toward Van Buren. This illustrates the
principle of Mr. Calhoun. Notwithstanding his known idea of right and wrong,
this aroused the indignation of his late allies, who could ill spare his vote and powerful
influence. The fact that this measure, which he had determined to support, is
still in existence, proves conclusively the wisdom of Calhoun as against both
Webster and Clay.
Yet, in reply to Calhoun's speech on the Independent Treasury bill, Clay used
the strongest language, charging him with desertion, and making his whole life
the subject of one of those powerful invectives so characteristic with him.
Calhoun answered; Clay replied on the spot, and Calhoun answered back.
This was a wonderful example of the different styles of oratory of which each
was master; Clay, of declamation, invective, wit, humor and bitter sarcasm;
Calhoun of clear statement and close reasoning. This contest, aside from its
oratorical power, deserves a place in history. In answer to Clay's attack on his
life he replied: "I rest my public character upon it, and desire it to be read
by all who will do me justice."
As a debater, where close reasoning was essential, he was an acknowledged
leader. The tariff laws of Jackson's time which brought this nullification
doctrine prominently before the country were acknowledged to be drawn in favor
of the North, as against the South. The least that can be said is that he was
honest; and that he was able to defend his doctrine no one disputes. Happily
manufacturing interests are now investing in the South, and the tariff question
will right itself.
Mr. Calhoun was brilliant and his great aim in life was the defense of
slavery. He regarded that institution as essential to the very existence of the
Southern States; therefore thought that the abolition of slavery would tend to
the overthrow of the South. He declared that the Constitution should be
Although never publicly proclaiming such a method, yet it seemed that his
idea was to elect two Presidents, one from the slave and one from the free
States, and that no bill of Congress could be ratified without their approval.
But if Mr. Calhoun was honest in this, as he no doubt was, yet his measure would
tend to take the power from the many and place it within the few, which is
contrary to democratic ideas of good government.
It was on March 13th, 1850, that he fell exhausted at the close of his speech
in answer to General Cass, and died soon after. Mr. Webster's funeral oration
delivered in the Senate upon the announcement of his death is a most eloquent
yet unexaggerated account of the virtues of John C. Calhoun.
"Calhoun was a part of his own intellectual character, which grew out of the
qualities of his mind. It was plain, strong, wise, condensed, concise, still
always severe. Rejecting ornament, not often seeking illustration; his power
consisted in the plainness of his propositions, the clearness of his logic, and
the earnestness and energy of his manner. No man was more respectful to others;
no man carried himself with greater decorum; no man with superior dignity. I
have not, in public or private life, known a man more assiduous in the discharge
of his duties. Out of the Chambers of Congress he was either devoting himself to
the acquisition of knowledge pertaining to the immediate subject of the duty
before him, or else he was indulging in those social interviews in which he so
"There was a charm in his conversation not often found. He had the basis, the
indispensible basis of all high character; unspotted integrity and honor
unimpeached. If he had aspirations they were high, honorable and noble; nothing low or
meanly come near his head or heart. He arose early and was a successful planter;
so much so that to have been an overseer at 'Fort Hill' was a high
recommendation. He dealt almost exclusively in solid reasoning when speaking,
which was so plain that illustration was rarely needed. Certain it is that he
was a great and good man."