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The Southern States of America
Biographies - John Caldwell Calhoun


CALHOUN, John Caldwell, statesman: b. Abbeville district, S. C, March 18, 1782; d. Washington, D. C, March 31, 1850. Calhoun's father, Patrick Calhoun, was a Scot of the highland clan of Colquhoun. His family made the journey from Scotland into the province of Ulster, North Ireland, and there Patrick Calhoun was born. About the year 1733, with other members of his family, he crossed the Atlantic and dwelt for a time in Pennsylvania. Then, after a sojourn of some years in southwestern Virginia, he removed to Abbeville district, S. C. This was in the year 1756. Soon afterward the upper part of the province of South Carolina was occupied by a large body of settlers, most of whom were of Scotch descent. Among these Patrick Calhoun became a leader. He was chosen captain of a company of frontier riflemen, was appointed judge of the first court of justice established in that part of the province, and was one of the first delegates sent from the upper county to the legislature of South Carolina.

Patrick Calhoun's second wife was Margaret Caldwell, member of a family that came from the lowlands of Scotland. After passing through Pennsylvania and Virginia, some of the Caldwells established homes in the upper part of the province of South Carolina. Several members of this family played a worthy part as soldiers on the American side during the period of the Revolution. After the war for Independence, Patrick Calhoun and his wife, Martha Caldwell, lived in a comfortable two-story frame house in a community known as the Calhoun settlement. In that house John Caldwell Calhoun was born, and there he spent the years of childhood and youth. As a lad, he learned to work with his own hands in the corn field in company with his father.

Calhoun's early training in the study of books was received at the feet of his brother-in-law, Dr. Moses Waddel, a Presbyterian minister, who established a famous academy near the Calhoun settlement. The following volumes, found in Dr. Waddel's library, first engaged his attention: Rollin's Ancient History; Robertson's History of America and Charles V.; Voltaire's Charles XII., and Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding. Then, in June, 1800, in the nineteenth year of his age, he began the study of Latin, under the instruction of Dr. Waddel. Such rapid progress was made by the young student in Latin and mathematics, that within two years he was ready to enter the junior class at Yale College. On Sept. 12, 1804, Calhoun was graduated with distinction at Yale. Afterward he spent a period of study in a law school at Lichfield, Conn., and then, in the year 1807, began to practise law in the town of Abbeville, S. C.

Two brief sessions in the state legislature constituted Calhoun's only training for the duties of public life, when the people of his congressional district elected him to represent them in the halls of legislation at Washington. He took his seat in Congress on Nov. 4, 1811, one month earlier than the usual time for the assembling of that body. The disputes with England had then, however, reached a critical stage, and there was need for prompt action. Calhoun was given second place on the committee on foreign relations, and on Dec. 11, 1811, in presenting a report from this committee, he made his first long speech in the House of Representatives. With head erect and eyes glowing like coals of fire, he spoke boldly in favor of maintaining the honor of our country against the insults offered by England. "I am not here," he said, "to represent my own state alone. I renounce the idea, and I will show by my vote that I contend for the interests of the people of this whole community." This speech at once gave him a position among the foremost leaders in the halls of Congress.

In the spring of 1812 Calhoun became chairman of the committee on foreign relations, and on June 3 he presented the famous report of that committee, recommending war against England. Some months after war began, he made a speech urging vigorous prosecution of hostilities. This was probably the strongest speech ever made in defense of our second struggle with the mother country. After the treaty of peace was made with England, Calhoun continued to manifest a broad spirit of patriotism with reference to the interests of the entire country. He wished to see the various sections bound together by a system of public roads and canals. He favored the adoption of the tariff of 1816, which was a tariff for revenue, with protection "as an incident." As chairman of the committee of the currency in the Congress of 1816, Calhoun introduced and carried through a bill for the establishment of a national bank.

Calhoun's next public service was rendered as secretary of war in Monroe's cabinet during two administrations. When he assumed charge of this department in March, 1817, he found its affairs in a state of chaos. Order and system were gradually introduced; accurate reports were made to Congress; the military academy at West Point was reorganized, and the entire department of military affairs was placed upon a basis of efficiency. During this period he brought his family to Washington, where he and his wife became much beloved among the members of the society at the capitol. Calhoun had very attractive manners and attached to himself as a friend nearly everyone he met. William Wirt, of Virginia, said that Calhoun was "ardent, generous, high minded, brave, with a genius full of fire, energy and light."

In 1822 Calhoun was nominated for the presidency of the United States by the legislature of Pennsylvania. In 1824 he was elected Vice-president and re-elected to the same office in 1828. Great dignity, courtesy and fairness marked his discharge of the duties belonging to this position.

In 1828 Congress enacted a protective tariff, known by reason of its inequalities as the "tariff of abomination." Calhoun prepared a treatise upon the subject of the protective tariff, and the South Carolina legislature had this document printed under the title of "The Exposition." Calhoun pointed out the injustice of the tariff toward the agricultural interests of the South, and declared that the remedy for this injustice was within the power of the individual states. The United States, he said, "is a league or compact between sovereign states, any of which has the right to judge when the compact is broken." In November, 1832, South Carolina passed an ordinance declaring the tariff laws of Congress null and void. Calhoun resigned the office of vice-president, and in December, 1832, was elected to the senate of the United States. In February, 1833, he made a great speech in the senate in defense of his views. A compromise tariff measure was adopted the following month (March 7, 1833). Thus the matter was settled. Calhoun held that he and his people had won the issue for which they contended. One of the reasons that led him to advocate nullification was his strong aversion to disunion.

Calhoun remained in the senate from 1832 until 1843. During most of this period he was upholding the rights of the Southern people against the assaults of the abolitionists. The charges made by the latter against the system of slavery he denounced as false. On the other hand, he never grew weary in the work of telling how the Southern people were generously lifting upward the entire body of negro slaves to a higher and nobler plane of life. In 1843 he withdrew from the senate and retired to his country home, Fort Hill, in the upper part of South Carolina. There he gave much time to the management of his large plantation. He began also to write The Disquisition on Government and the Discourse on the Constitution of the United States. These papers were still further elaborated in 1849. From March, 1844, until March, 1854, Calhoun was secretary of state in the cabinet of President Tyler. In that position he aided materially in effecting the annexation of Texas.

In December, 1845, Daniel E. Huger resigned his place in the United States Senate in order that Calhoun might again represent his native state in that body. When Calhoun entered the senate in 1846, he at once assumed leadership with reference to the Oregon question. He held the reasonable theory that any territory in Oregon actually settled by Americans should not be surrendered to England. On March 16, 1846, the galleries of the senate chamber were crowded to hear him speak upon the momentous issue that endangered the peace of our country with England. "We should not go to war," he said, "for territory which we had not formerly claimed." His view prevailed, and the war cloud passed away. In the years 1849-50 Congress was wrestling with the question of slavery as it was involved in Henry Clay's compromise measures. The anti-slavery members of Congress were pressing their charges against the South, which, said Calhoun, would surely drive the South out of the Federal Union. Calhoun had then spent nearly forty years in public life as the servant of his people, upholding to the utmost limit of his strength their rights and privileges.

Long-continued sickness had rendered him feeble, but he determined to contend to the last in behalf of the South. On March 4, 1850, he entered the senate chamber on the arm of his friend from South Carolina, Gov. James Hilton. While Calhoun sat in his chair, Senator Mason, of Virginia, read his last great address to the senate. "How can the Union be preserved?" was the theme which Calhoun presented. He asked for justice toward his own section of the country. The North must cease to wage war against the South and her institutions, or the South would be forced to withdraw from the Union as her only peaceable mode of redress. When the address was concluded, Calhoun was led from the chamber. He came again to take part in some brief discussions, but his work was ended. On the last day of this same month of March his great heart ceased to beat. His body was laid to rest in Charleston, S. C.


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