Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

John C. Calhoun,
the Champion of Southern Institutions

In 1832 the great American Union was in danger. The State of South Carolina had declared that it would not obey the tariff laws, would not permit any one to collect revenue in its ports, and would secede from the Union if an attempt was made to force it to obey the law.

Four years before John C. Calhoun, a powerful orator from that State, had declared of the tariff, "We look upon it as a dead law, null and void, and will not obey it." From this expression his party were called "nullifiers "and his doctrine "nullification." Two years before Webster had made his remarkable speech on this subject, powerfully defending the Constitution and the Union. Now there were open threats of war, and in parts of the State troops were drilling and putting their muskets in order. The fire had been kindled; no one knew how far it might spread.

Fortunately President Jackson, "Old Hickory," the hero of New Orleans, was then at the head of the government. More of a soldier than a statesman, he was a man of the kind that strikes first and talks afterwards. When the Carolinians began to threaten war he began to send troops to their State. A Southerner himself, he was an American first of all, and thundered out: "The Union must and shall be preserved." He threatened to arrest Calhoun, the great advocate of nullification, for treason the moment he heard of resistance to the Government in South Carolina.

This settled the matter. Nullification sank out of sight. But the Free Traders in Congress were strong, and Henry Clay's Compromise Tariff Bill, for a gradual reduction of the tariff, was passed. Thus ended a critical situation which Calhoun was the main agent in bringing about. He was active in bringing on the Civil War, for he was one of the chief champions of slavery.

john C. Calhoun was born in Abbeyville, South Carolina, in 1782, the same year that Daniel Webster was born in New Hampshire. These two men were to become powerful orators and bitter opponents on the floor of Congress; Calhoun as a statesman of the South, Webster of the North.

Calhoun went north to college, working his way through Yale, where he showed such fine mental powers that Dr. Dwight, the president of the college, said he had talent enough to be a President of the United States. Certainly he had much more talent than some who became President, but like the other great orators of Congress he failed to attain this honor, though he was twice Vice-President.

He began his public career in the legislature of South Carolina in 1807, and was elected to Congress in 1810, remaining there till 1817. When he entered the House the great subject of debate was the insults and injuries of England to this country. There was a strong war party and Calhoun soon put himself at its head. His first speech in the House was on this subject and was so powerful that he sprang at once into fame and was quickly ranked among the leading statesmen of his day. With him in the fight for war was Henry Clay, and these two strong speakers swayed the House till war was declared, and did not desist till it was over and peace declared.

Calhoun began with war, and he was always at war. He kept himself at the head in party wars, now fighting for free trade, now for slavery, always in contest, always a leader in some hostile debate.

Eloquent and vigorous as a speaker, he did not, like many others, make his points by personal attacks on his opponents. He was a gentleman in the warmest of his contests, and though he cut his way sharply and fiercely through the arguments of his opponents, dealing them stunning blows, he did not attack the men themselves. A trenchant reasoner, it was always what his opponent said that he assailed, not what he was. He could see no merit or force in angry and rude personal abuse.

It is singular that, in this early period, Calhoun made a long and strong speech in favor of a protective tariff, the policy which he afterwards so bitterly assailed. But at that time the South was not opposed to a tariff. It strongly favored it. The opposition came later.

In 1817 Calhoun was made Secretary of War in the Cabinet of President Monroe. When he took charge of the War Department all was in disorder and confusion, but it did not take him long to set it right. He established a new system, a very simple and very suitable one, and one that has been followed ever since. One thing he did not believe in was the saving of money by paying the men poorly and feeding them on mean food. He held that good pay and good food would bring better service, and this is still held in the army. No soldier in the world is taken better care of and treated more like a man than the American soldier, and he owes this largely to Calhoun, who first recognised the rights of the soldier.

By 1824 Calhoun had become so prominent that he was elected Vice-President, with John Quincy Adams as President. He was elected again with General Jackson in 1828. During this time his opinions on the tariff changed, and he came to believe that free trade was better than protection for the interests of the South. Very many in the South were of the same opinion, and the agitation began which led to the "nullification "excitement.

Calhoun was now the great leader of the South. He brought out the doctrine of the Sovereignty of the States, holding that they had the right to leave the Union if they had just cause. He was so bitterly opposed to the course of the administration that he resigned from the Vice-Presidency in 1832, was elected to the Senate, and kept up a vigorous agitation which only ended when President Jackson threatened him with arrest for treason.

When the tariff question was set aside, that of slavery loomed up, and Calhoun became its most powerful supporter. He believed in it firmly. He thought that the slave system was morally and politically right. He thought it good for white and black alike, and that the best good of the country depended upon it. In this he was honest and sincere. No man was more upright; he fought for what he believed in, and his influence became immense. For a quarter of a century he advocated the doctrine of the rightfulness and the extension of slavery, and there is no doubt that his arguments had much to do with bringing on the crisis that ended in the Civil War.

"I mean to force the issue on the North," he said, and he did force it. Garrison and Phillips and the other anti-slavery leaders might have found their labors in vain but for Calhoun, who gave them much to talk upon. The denial of the right of petition in the House, the annexation of Texas as a new slave territory, the forcing of slavery into the Territories, these were the things he worked for and aided in gaining. To the end of his life he protested that slavery is a divine institution, and that it must rule this country or ruin it.

A few words will suffice to tell the remainder of his personal history. He was not satisfied with being Vice-President, he was eager to be President, but, like his fellow orators, Clay and Webster, he failed in this. In 1836 he was a popular favorite in his party, but President Jackson was his enemy and defeated his efforts, to his bitter disappointment. The remainder of his life was spent in the Senate, except for a short time when he served as Secretary of State in President Tyler's Cabinet. During this time he was active in securing the annexation of Texas, a movement then very popular in the south.

From 1835 to 1850 the agitation on the slavery question was chiefly kept up by Calhoun, Webster and Clay were earnest in trying to put off the day of strife, but he was as earnest in trying to bring it on. In his view slavery was a righteous and beneficial institution, and any aid given to runaway slaves or legal efforts to restrict the slave system was an interference with the rights of the slave States which would justify their secession from the Union. Ten years after his death, which took place March 31, 1850, the doctrine he so long sustained began to bear fruit, and the country was on the verge of the great war which put a final end to the system of which he had been the strongest advocate.

We know little about the private life of Mr. Calhoun, though it is said that he was just and kind to his slaves, and an honorable and pure-minded man. As a statesman he had keen judgment, great foresight, and much discretion, and his bitterest enemies gave him credit for splendid talent and ability. Harriet Martineau, in her "Retrospect of Western Travel," has given a fine picture of him and his great opponents which is well worth quoting. She thus photographs the three great statesmen:

"Mr. Clay, sitting upright on the sofa, with his snuff-box ever in his hand, would discourse for many an hour in his even, soft, deliberate tone on any one of the great subjects of American policy which we might happen to start, always amazing us with the moderation of estimate and speech which so impetuous a nature had been able to attain. Mr. Webster, leaning back at his ease, telling stories, cracking jokes, shaking the sofa with burst after burst of laughter, or smoothly discoursing to the perfect felicity of the logical part of one's constitution, would illuminate an evening now and then.

"Mr. Calhoun, the cast-iron man, who looks as if he had never been born and could never be extinguished, would come in sometimes to keep our understanding on a painful stretch for a short while, and leave us to take to pieces his close, rapid, theoretical, illustrated talk, and see what we could make of it. We found it usually more worth retaining as a curiosity than as either very just or useful. I know of no man who lives in such utter intellectual solitude. He meets men and harangues by the fireside as in the Senate; he is wrought like a piece of machinery, set going vehemently by a weight, and stops while you answer; he either passes by what you say, or twists it into a suitability with what is in his head, and begins to lecture again."

She paints his portrait in a few telling words: "Mr. Calhoun's countenance first fixed my attention; the splendid eye, the straight forehead, surmounted by a wad of stiff, upright, dark hair, the stern brow, the inflexible mouth—it is one of the most remarkable heads in the country."