A nationalist at the outset of his political career, Calhoun was one of the leading War Hawks who maneuvered the unprepared United States into war with Great Britain in 1812. After the Treaty of Ghent that ended that conflict, Calhoun was responsible for establishing the Second Bank of the United States, and he wrote the bonus bill that would have laid the foundation for a nationwide network of roads and canals if President James Madison had not vetoed it.
A candidate for the presidency in 1824, Calhoun was the object of bitter partisan attacks from other contenders. Dropping out of the race, he settled for the vice presidency and was twice elected to that position. But after Andrew Jackson’s assumption of the presidency in 1829, Calhoun found himself isolated politically in national affairs.
At first he supported the Tariff of 1828, the so-called Tariff of Abominations, but responding to his constituents’ criticism of the measure and believing that the tariff was being unfairly assessed on the agrarian South for the benefit of an industrializing North, Calhoun drafted for the South Carolina legislature his Exposition and Protest. In this essay he claimed original sovereignty for the people acting through the states and advocated state veto or nullification of any national law that was held to impinge on minority interests. He later developed the argument in his two essays Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution, presenting the classic case for minority rights within the framework of majority rule. A moderate during the nullification crisis of 1832-1833, Calhoun joined with Henry Clay in working out the Compromise Tariff.
By then he had resigned from the vice presidency and had been elected a senator from South Carolina. For the rest of his life he defended the slave-plantation system against a growing antislavery stance in the free states. He continued his strident defense of slavery even after he joined the Tyler administration as secretary of state. In that position he laid the groundwork for the annexation of Texas and the settlement of the Oregon boundary with Great Britain. Reelected to the Senate in 1845, he opposed the Mexican-American War because he felt American victory would result in territorial concessions that would place the Union at jeopardy. Similarly he opposed the admission of California as a free state, and the free-soil provision in the Oregon territorial bill. In his last address to the Senate, he foretold the disruption of the Union unless the slave states were given adequate and permanent protection for their institutions.
Calhoun, along with Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson, dominated American political life from 1815 to 1850. A tall, spare individual, Calhoun was a gifted debater, an original thinker in political theory, and a person of broad learning who was especially well read in philosophy, history, and contemporary economic and social issues. His public appearance as the so-called Cast Iron Man was belied by his personal warmth and affectionate nature in private life.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.