John Caldwell Calhoun


Biography of John Caldwell Calhoun

John Caldwell Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) was a leading American politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, but often changed positions. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent of a strong national government and protective tariffs. After 1830 he switched to states' rights, limited government, nullification and free trade. He is best known for his intense and original defense of slavery as something positive, his distrust of majoritarianism, and for pointing the South toward secession from the Union.

Devoted to the principle of liberty and fearful of corruption, Calhoun built his reputation as a political theorist by his redefinition of republicanism to include approval of slavery and minority rights—with the white South the minority in question. To protect minority rights against majority rule he called for a "concurrent majority" whereby the minority could sometimes block offensive proposals. Increasingly distrustful of democracy, he minimized the role of the Second Party System in South Carolina. Calhoun's defense of slavery became defunct, but his concept of concurrent majority, whereby a minority has the right to object to or even veto hostile legislation directed against it, has been cited by other advocates of the rights of minorities. Calhoun asserted that Southern whites, outnumbered in the United States by voters of the more densely-populated Northern states were one such minority deserving special protection in the legislature.

Calhoun held major political offices, serving terms in the United States House of Representatives, United States Senate and as Vice President of the United States, as well as secretary of war and state. He usually affiliated with the Democrats, but flirted with the Whig Party and considered running for the presidency in 1824 and 1844. As a "war hawk", he agitated in Congress for the War of 1812 to defend American honor against Britain. As Secretary of War under President James Monroe, he reorganized and modernized the War Department, building powerful permanent bureaucracies that ran the department, as opposed to patronage appointees.

Calhoun died 11 years before the start of the American Civil War, but he was an inspiration to the secessionists of 1860–61. Nicknamed the "cast-iron man" for his ideological rigidity as well as for his determination to defend the causes he believed in, Calhoun supported states' rights and nullification, under which states could declare null and void federal laws which they viewed unconstitutional. He was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he defended as a "positive good" rather than as a "necessary evil". His rhetorical defense of slavery was partially responsible for escalating Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting abolitionist sentiment in the North.

Calhoun was one of the "Great Triumvirate" or the "Immortal Trio" of Congressional leaders, along with his Congressional colleagues Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In 1957, a Senate Committee selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators, along with Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert La Follette, and Robert Taft. Calhoun "was a public intellectual of the highest order...and a uniquely gifted American politician."

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