History has dubbed Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun “the great triumvirate” and “the immortal trio,” the congressional powerhouses of the era between the Founding and the Civil War. However, individual legacies were blurred at the expense of this clique. Calhoun was, after all, the vice president to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, a feat shared only by George Clinton (who served under both Jefferson and Madison). Calhoun lived a political life all of his own, full (and constitutionally suspect) even without history’s forging ties to Clay and Webster.
John Caldwell Calhoun was born on March 18, 1782, in South Carolina. The frontier community from which he hailed was largely one of Scotch-Irish settlers having emigrated from County Donegal. Calhoun was raised in a strictly Calvinist household, his family’s Presbyterianism often pitted against the religious elite of Charleston. Though he once declared, “Life is a struggle against evil,” there is little reason to believe Calhoun was particularly religious in later life.
Calhoun’s father Patrick was a fiery patriot who fought in the American Revolution and often against Native Americans in the back country. From his father, Calhoun inherited both a love of a country and an affinity for state’s rights. Jeffersonian in his views, Patrick Calhoun went as far as to not endorse the ratification of the Constitution. His son, however, would use the Constitution as his best defense of state nullification.
Calhoun attended Yale where he excelled and participated in the Brothers of Unity, a debating society. He went on to pursue law at Tapping Reeve Law School and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807. He married his first-cousin-once-removed, Floride Bonneau Calhoun, in 1811. Entrenched in the “establishment” Calhoun’s father had so detested, Floride Calhoun was the daughter of U.S. Senator John E. Calhoun. Perhaps it was his wife, then, who gave Calhoun the “legitimacy” to enter the House of Representatives the same year the two were married.
However, Floride Calhoun’s main legacy may be found in her role in the Petticoat Affair of 1830-1831. The Petticoat Affair was just what it claimed to be: petty. Floride Calhoun organized Cabinet Wives to exclude Peggy Eaton, wife to Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, from social life in the capital on account of alleged adulterous behavior. Jackson was no stranger to mudslinging, in his first presidential election specifically (his marriage to wife Rachel, a divorcee, was subject to antagonizing question and coverage) and sided with the Eaton’s. Martin Van Buren, a widower, had no stake in the drama manufactured by cabinet wives. He sided with Jackson and Eaton, as well, essentially guaranteeing himself Calhoun’s vice presidential role in the later Jackson administration.
Long before this political episode, however, Calhoun was just a young congressman calling for a declaration of war against Britain. Dubbed “the young Hercules who carried the war on his shoulders,” Calhoun played a leading role in the War of 1812, from fundraising to military organization. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed, Calhoun devoted himself during the “Era of Good Feelings” to better preparing the military for future conflicts. These efforts impressed James Monroe, who appointed Calhoun Secretary of War in 1817.
Calhoun also devised a plan for the deportation of Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. Calhoun’s proposal, which was killed by the House, recognized Native American groups as individual nations, a notion Jackson would fail to acknowledge through his “Trail of Tears” removal policy years later.Calhoun’s political prominence saw a major boost following the presidential election of 1824. Because all of the 1824 presidential candidates hailed from the same party, their vice presidential pick was critical in distinguishing themselves from one another. With no candidate managing a majority in the Electoral College, John Quincy Adams became the sixth president through the “Corrupt Bargain” and brought Calhoun along as his veep. Though Calhoun’s Southern roots would help the New England-bred Adams in theory, their politics were too inherently at odds. Calhoun “jumped ship” and ran with Jackson in 1828. However, he would behave no more favorably under the new commander-in-chief.
Soon after the election was won, Calhoun anonymously authored “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” a document which rejected the said “Tariff of Abominations” that President Jackson largely supported due to its promise of protectionism. Calhoun’s ardent pro-Southern economic policy fuelled his defiance that, coupled with the Petticoat Affair, culminated in his estrangement from President Jackson.
When Jackson named Van Buren his likely running mate for the 1832 election, Calhoun more openly championed the constitutional theory of state nullification, “the legal theory that a state has the right to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law which that state has deemed unconstitutional.” On November 2, 1832, Calhoun’s home state adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, which deemed the tariff unconstitutional.
Calhoun resigned as vice president on December 28, 1832, just months before Congress passed the Force Bill, enabling Jackson to crush the uprising in South Carolina. Calhoun, alongside Clay, brokered a compromise that ended the Nullification Crisis soon after. However, questions regarding the constitutionality of nullification and secession lingered. While secession would later be discredited as a constitutional right, nullification would be reinvoked even in modern times, famously cited (and rejected) in an effort to prevent the integration of Southern schools.
Calhoun served in the Senate until his death in 1850. His dreams of the presidency—much like those of Henry Clay, who famously declared, “I’d rather be right than president”—were never realized, but his presence in government shaped the period. As Margaret Coit wrote in the introduction to her biography of Calhoun:
Despite the absence of all these hallmarks of political power, from the beginning to the end of his forty year political career, Calhoun arrested public attention and influenced public opinion … [H]e was never predominant in influence, but there was never a time when he was not a major player who had to be taken into account.
Whether he was promoting the annexation of Texas or rejecting the Compromise of 1850, Calhoun, as Merrill D. Peterson once articulated, “triangulated the destiny of the nation”—for better or for worse.Olivia Fitzpatrick is an intern at the National Constitution Center. She is also a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in English and minoring in Legal Studies.
Recent Historical Stories on Constitution Daily