John Caldwell Calhoun ( 1782–1850 ) was an antebellum American politician, an innovative political theorist, and a slaveholder who unapologetically defended the institution of slavery. He was born in the closing years of the Revolutionary War and died a decade before his home state, South Carolina, seceded from the Union and triggered the American Civil War. In both action and word he insisted that national policy be made, not by majority rule, but by consensus among leaders of the major geographical sections of the United States.
Calhoun's posthumously published A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States ( 1851 ) presents the American federal union as the product of a compact among fully sovereign states, each state being final judge of its own constitutional rights and obligations, and each possessing the constitutional right to nullify any federal law, executive act, or court decision. Calhoun allowed that a state's nullification of federal law could be overturned if three-fourths of the other states enacted a constitutional amendment to that effect, in which case the nullifying state would either rescind its nullification or exercise its constitutional right peacefully to secede. Calhoun hoped, however, that the power of nullification would prevent alienated states from resorting to secession. A Disquisition on Government ( 1851 ), also published posthumously, argues in universal terms for a consensus model of government, or what Calhoun called the concurrent majority.
Though a southerner, Calhoun graduated from Yale and studied law in Connecticut as a Jeffersonian among committed Federalists. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1810 and distinguished himself as an ardent nationalist during the War of 1812. He served as President James Monroe's Secretary of War from 1817 to 1824, followed by consecutive terms as vice president under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. In 1832 Calhoun, now committed to state sovereignty in place of his former nationalism, became US Senator from South Carolina and, except for an interlude as Secretary of State ( 1844–1845 ), remained in the Senate for the rest of his life as an ardent defender of southern and slaveholding interests.
Calhoun's doctrine of nullification was first set forth in his secretly authored South Carolina Exposition ( 1828 ) in response to the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations,” which protected northern manufacturers against foreign competition. The tariff was bitterly opposed in the cottonplanting South, whose economic interest lay in free trade with British textile firms. Calhoun argued that all benefits of the tariff went to the North while the burdens fell mostly on the South. He also argued that a protective tariff violated the Constitution.
In his Fort Hill Address ( 1831 ) Calhoun argued that each state was fully sovereign, and as such had the right to declare a federal law unconstitutional and prevent its implementation within the state's boundaries. As precedent Calhoun cited James Madison's 1798 Virginia Resolutions, which called on states to “interpose” to remedy federal abuses. Madison himself, however, sharply denounced nullification in an 1830 public letter. The Virginia Resolutions, Madison wrote, had not argued that individual states could forcibly nullify federal law, but instead called on states in the plural to overturn federal abuses through regular constitutional channels like elections and constitutional amendments. Calhoun, however, saw no distinction between interposition and nullification.
With Calhoun's blessing, South Carolina in 1832 enacted an ordinance of nullification that prevented the collection of tariff revenues in Charleston, a major international port. President Andrew Jackson considered nullification to be treason and was prepared to suppress it with armed force. A potentially violent showdown was avoided in 1833 by a timely compromise tariff. Calhoun believed the outcome proved that nullification worked to the benefit of all sections. Others saw the episode as civil war narrowly averted.
Calhoun considered compromise appropriate on the tariff. On the issue of slavery, which began to heat up soon after the tariff crisis was resolved, Calhoun rejected compromise: abolitionism, in his view, was unconstitutional, dangerously misguided, and fundamentally threatened the American Union. Slavery, he claimed ( Calhoun 1837 ), was a “positive good” for North as well as South because it civilized the African race, avoided the class conflicts of capitalism, and gave every white citizen, whether slaveholder or not, the pride of belonging to an aristocracy.
Calhoun's principal target in the last years of his life was the growing Free Soil movement, which proposed to leave slavery alone where it existed but prohibit its spread to new territories. ( Free Soil later became a core commitment of Abraham Lincoln and the newly formed Republican Party in the mid-1850s .) Calhoun considered any such restriction an unconstitutional violation of the rights of slaveholding states as equal members of the federal compact. In his final Senate address, Calhoun denounced the Compromise of 1850 because the admission of California as a free state disrupted the fragile balance between free and slave states in the Union. He warned that slave states would secede unless northerners suppressed abolitionism, fulfilled their constitutional duty to return fugitive slaves, and guaranteed slave states veto rights over federal antislavery measures. Though he insisted on a right of secession, he dreaded the prospect, likening it to a bloody knife passing through the body politic.
The Civil War and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments fundamentally altered the constitutional framework within which Calhoun acted and wrote. But his critique of majority rule remains influential, resonating beyond the particular debates (tariff and slavery) that motivated his writing. His proposed remedy, the concurrent majority or consensus model of government, has informed contemporary consociational (or consensus) democracy theory ( Lijphart 1977 ), and remains an available, though disputed, tool for constitutional architects in deeply divided societies.
SEE ALSO Compact Theory ; Constitutional Government ; Constitutionalism ; Federalism in American History ; Nullification ; Secession ; Sectionalism .
Calhoun, John C. South Carolina Exposition. (1828.) In The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 10, 444–532. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
Calhoun, John C. Fort Hill Address. (1831.) In The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 11, 413–39. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1978.
Calhoun, John C. “Remarks on Receiving Abolition Petitions.” (1837.) In The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 13, 395. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Calhoun, John C. A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. (1851.) In The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 28, 71–239. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Calhoun, John C. A Disquisition on Government. (1851.) In The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 28, 3–67. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper and Row, 1966; Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Lijphart, Arend. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
Madison, James. “Letter to Edward Everett, 28 August 1830.” In James Madison: Writings, edited by Jack N. Rakove, 842–52. New York: Library of America, 1999.
Niven, John. John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
James H. Read
College of St. Benedict and St. John's University