John C. Calhoun: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

Historic significance: John C. Calhoun was a political figure from South Carolina who played a major role in national affairs during the early 19th century.

Calhoun was at the center of the Nullification Crisis, served in the cabinet of Andrew Jackson, and was a senator representing South Carolina. He became iconic for his role in defending the positions of the South.

Calhoun was considered a member of the Great Triumvirate of senators, along with Kentucky’s Henry Clay, representing the West, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, representing the North.

John C. Calhoun

Engraved portrait of John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun. Kean Collection/Getty Images

Life span: Born: March 18, 1782, in rural South Carolina;

Died: At the age of 68, on March 31, 1850, in Washington, D.C.

Early Political career: Calhoun entered public service when he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1808. In 1810 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a young congressman, Calhoun was a member of the War Hawks, and helped steer the administration of James Madison into the War of 1812.

In the administration of James Monroe, Calhoun served as secretary of war from 1817 to 1825.

In the disputed election of 1824, which was decided in the House of Representatives, Calhoun was elected vice president to president John Quincy Adams. It was an unusual circumstance as Calhoun had not been running for the office.

In the election of 1828, Calhoun ran for vice president on the ticket with Andrew Jackson, and he was again elected to the office. Calhoun thereby had the unusual distinction of serving as vice president to two different presidents. What made this odd achievement of Calhoun's even more remarkable was that the two presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, were not only political rivals but personally detested each other.

Calhoun and Nullification

Jackson grew estranged from Calhoun, and the two men could not get along. Besides their quirky personalities, they came to an inevitable conflict as Jackson believed in a strong Union and Calhoun believed the rights of states should supersede the central government.

Calhoun began to express his theories of “nullification.” He wrote a document, published anonymously, called the “South Carolina Exposition” that advanced the idea that an individual state could refuse to follow federal laws.

Calhoun was thus the intellectual architect of the Nullification Crisis. The crisis threatened to split the union, as South Carolina, decades before the secession crisis that triggered the Civil War, threatened to leave the Union. Andrew Jackson grew to detest Calhoun for his role in promoting nullification.

Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency in 1832 and was elected to the U.S. Senate, representing South Carolina. In the Senate he attacked the North American 19th-century Black activists in the 1830s, and by the 1840s he was a constant defender of the institution of enslavement.

Defender of Enslavement and the South

The great triumvirate of the U.S. Senate
The Great Triumvirate: Calhoun, Webster, and Clay. Getty Images

In 1843 he served as secretary of state in the final year of the administration of John Tyler. Calhoun, while serving as America's top diplomat, at one point wrote a controversial letter to a British ambassador in which he defended enslavement.

In 1845 Calhoun returned to the Senate, where he was again a forceful advocate for enslavement. He opposed the Compromise of 1850, as he felt it abridged the rights of enslavers to take their enslaved people into new territories in the West. At times Calhoun praised enslavement as a "positive good."

Calhoun was known to present formidable defenses of enslavement which were particularly fitted to the era of westward expansion. He argued that farmers from the North could move to the West and bring along their possessions, which might include farm equipment or oxen. Farmers from the South, however, could not bring their legal possessions, which would have meant, in some cases, enslaved people.

He died in 1850 before the passage of the Compromise of 1850, and was the first of the Great Triumvirate to die. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster would die within a few years, marking the end of a distinct period in the history of the U.S. Senate.

Calhoun's Legacy

Calhoun has remained controversial, even many decades after his death. A residential collage at Yale University was named for Calhoun in the early 20th century. That honor for a defender of enslavement was challenged over the years, and protests were held against the name in early 2016. In the spring of 2016 the administration of Yale announced that Calhoun College would retain its name.

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McNamara, Robert. "John C. Calhoun: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). John C. Calhoun: Significant Facts and Brief Biography. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "John C. Calhoun: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).