Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: John C. Calhoun

The father of John C. Calhoun was born in Ireland; his mother was the daughter of an Irish Presbyterian, a lady of great worth. Most of our illustrious men owe their success to a noble mother, and so it was with Calhoun. He was early taught to read the Bible, and his parents sought to impress upon him their Calvinistic doctrines.

As a child he was grave and thoughtful, and at the age of thirteen he studied history so perseveringly as to impair his health. His father died about this time, and a glimpse of his loving disposition can be obtained from the fact that notwithstanding that he greatly desired an education, still he would not leave the farm until assured of the means of prosecuting his studies without impairing his mother’s comfort. Consequently he had few of the advantages to which systematic schooling is conducive until late in youth. He, however, made a satisfactory arrangement with his family, who agreed to furnish him money for a course of seven years.

He had decided to study law, but declared that he preferred being a common planter to a half-educated lawyer. He soon entered Yale College, where he graduated with distinction. President Dwight is said to have remarked ‘That young man has ability enough to be President of the United States and will become one yet.’ Before returning home he spent eighteen months in the law-school at Litchfield, Connecticut. He also cultivated extempore speaking, and finally returned South to finish his studies.

Being admitted to the bar he began practice; in 1808 was elected to the Legislature, and in 1811 to Congress. The war party had gained complete control of the House, and a speaker was chosen by the Democratic party. Calhoun was placed on the Committee of Foreign Relations, and he framed the report that the time had come to choose between tame submission and bold resistance. Calhoun was chosen chairman of this committee, and was a staunch supporter of the administration throughout. The increasing financial distress led to the National Bank debates, in which he was a leading figure. The necessity of this institution being admitted, to Calhoun was intrusted entire management of the bill, and to him is due the passage of the charter of the bank.

He was a most efficient agent of internal improvements, carrying a bill through the House by a vote of 86 to 84, authorizing a million and a half to be paid by the United States bank and the income on seven millions more to be devoted to internal improvements. This bill passed the Senate twenty to fifteen, but was vetoed by the president, denying the authority of congress to appropriate money for any such purpose. He next became Secretary of War, under Monroe. He found the war department in a demoralized condition—bills to the amount of $50,000 outstanding. These Calhoun promptly settled and secured the passage of a bill reorganizing the staff of the army. President Monroe bringing before the cabinet the question of whether he should sign the Missouri Compromise, Calhoun gave it as his opinion that it was constitutional, supporting the view that it was the duty of the president to sign the bill.

He was very seriously thought of as Monroe’s successor, the great State of Pennsylvania supporting him at first, but General Jackson’s great military fame won for him the nomination, and Calhoun was almost unanimously selected for vice-president.

The tariff question was an all-absorbing issue, and on this question the Democrats divided—the northern wing being for protection, under the lead of Martin Van Buren; while the South was unanimous for free trade, led by Calhoun. A rupture between the president and Mr. Calhoun now arose; this and other causes led to Mr. Calhoun’s distrust of the president, and the belief that he could not be depended upon to settle the tariff question; therefore he brought out his nullification doctrine.

This doctrine was founded on the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798-9 which declared the constitution to be a compact, each State forming an integral part. It also declared that the government created by the compact was not made the final judge, each party having a right to ratify or annul that judgment as an individual State, that is, such laws as were deemed unconstitutional. This doctrine he prepared, and the paper was presented to the legislature where it became known as the South Carolina Exposition. The next we see of it is in the Senate of the United States, where the doctrine is brought forward by Mr. Hayne, which led to his world-famed debate with Mr. Webster.

Then followed the passage of the tariff bill and the nullification act, whereby South Carolina signified her determination to resist the laws; and the final compromise measure of Henry Clay which happily settled the difficulty at this time. Calhoun was now a senator and soon formed one of the powerful trio in opposition to president Jackson. He characterized Jackson’s distribution of the surplus left by the United States bank as an attempt to seize onto the power of Congress and unite, in his own hands, the sword and purse.

He declared that he had placed himself with the minority to serve his gallant State, nor would he turn on his heel if thereby he could be placed at the head of the government. He thought that corruption had taken such a hold of it that any man who attempted reform would not be sustained. The American Anti-slavery Society having sent tracts denunciatory to slavery throughout the South, and as it was believed that such measures had a tendency to incite the slaves to insurrection, Calhoun brought in a bill subjecting to severe punishment any postmaster who should knowingly receive any such matter for distribution in any State which should pass a law prohibiting the circulation of such. The bill failed on a final vote, twenty-five to nineteen.

He maintained that Congress had no jurisdiction over the subject of slavery; that it was a recognized institution; that the inequality of the negro was manifest; that in slavery they held their true position and to change their condition was to place them wholly dependent upon the State for support. Calhoun, believed that the relations between the races was right, morally and politically, and demanded that the institution of slavery be protected.

The bill recommended by Jackson, to restrict the sale of public lands to actual settlers and that in limited quantities, drew from him a most fiery speech. He claimed that the measure was really in the interest of speculators who had loaded themselves with land, and whose interest now was to restrict the sale and thus enhance the price of their ill-gotten domain. He also claimed that people high in office had speculated largely, even some in near relation to the president.

This brought from Jackson a letter that he should either retract his words or bring the matter before Congress as an act of impeachment. The sole power of impeachment lies within the House of Representatives, and, while the senate had previously passed an act denouncing Jackson’s methods, yet the House of Representatives was overwhelmingly in his favor, and he must have known that no impeachment could pass this body.

Jackson realized that such charges needed his attention. Calhoun read his letter before the senate pronouncing it a cowardly attempt to intimidate, and repeated his charges; stating that not only persons high in authority were implied in the charge, but the president’s nephew, calling his name, was a large speculator.

During the administration of Van Buren came the great financial crash of our history; the aggregate of the failures in New York and New Orleans alone amounting to $150,000,00. All this trouble had been foretold by Calhoun.

Mr. Van Buren’s plan of an independent treasury, which created a place for all the surplus to accumulate, met with Calhoun’s approval, and he accordingly separated from Webster and Clay to act in support of what was right, notwithstanding his personal feelings toward Van Buren. This illustrates the principle of Mr. Calhoun. Notwithstanding his known idea of right and wrong, this aroused the indignation of his late allies, who could ill spare his vote and powerful influence. The fact that this measure, which he had determined to support, is still in existence, proves conclusively the wisdom of Calhoun as against both Webster and Clay.

Yet, in reply to Calhoun’s speech on the Independent Treasury bill, Clay used the strongest language, charging him with desertion, and making his whole life the subject of one of those powerful invectives so characteristic with him. Calhoun answered; Clay replied on the spot, and Calhoun answered back.

This was a wonderful example of the different styles of oratory of which each was master; Clay, of declamation, invective, wit, humor and bitter sarcasm; Calhoun of clear statement and close reasoning. This contest, aside from its oratorical power, deserves a place in history. In answer to Clay’s attack on his life he replied: “I rest my public character upon it, and desire it to be read by all who will do me justice.”

As a debater, where close reasoning was essential, he was an acknowledged leader. The tariff laws of Jackson’s time which brought this nullification doctrine prominently before the country were acknowledged to be drawn in favor of the North, as against the South. The least that can be said is that he was honest; and that he was able to defend his doctrine no one disputes. Happily manufacturing interests are now investing in the South, and the tariff question will right itself.

Mr. Calhoun was brilliant and his great aim in life was the defense of slavery. He regarded that institution as essential to the very existence of the Southern States; therefore thought that the abolition of slavery would tend to the overthrow of the South. He declared that the Constitution should be revised.

Although never publicly proclaiming such a method, yet it seemed that his idea was to elect two Presidents, one from the slave and one from the free States, and that no bill of Congress could be ratified without their approval. But if Mr. Calhoun was honest in this, as he no doubt was, yet his measure would tend to take the power from the many and place it within the few, which is contrary to democratic ideas of good government.

It was on March 13th, 1850, that he fell exhausted at the close of his speech in answer to General Cass, and died soon after. Mr. Webster’s funeral oration delivered in the Senate upon the announcement of his death is a most eloquent yet unexaggerated account of the virtues of John C. Calhoun.

“Calhoun was a part of his own intellectual character, which grew out of the qualities of his mind. It was plain, strong, wise, condensed, concise, still always severe. Rejecting ornament, not often seeking illustration; his power consisted in the plainness of his propositions, the clearness of his logic, and the earnestness and energy of his manner. No man was more respectful to others; no man carried himself with greater decorum; no man with superior dignity. I have not, in public or private life, known a man more assiduous in the discharge of his duties. Out of the Chambers of Congress he was either devoting himself to the acquisition of knowledge pertaining to the immediate subject of the duty before him, or else he was indulging in those social interviews in which he so much delighted.

“There was a charm in his conversation not often found. He had the basis, the indispensible basis of all high character; unspotted integrity and honor unimpeached. If he had aspirations they were high, honorable and noble; nothing low or meanly come near his head or heart. He arose early and was a successful planter; so much so that to have been an overseer at ‘Fort Hill’ was a high recommendation. He dealt almost exclusively in solid reasoning when speaking, which was so plain that illustration was rarely needed. Certain it is that he was a great and good man.”