John C. Calhoun

Photo of John Calhoun
John Calhoun

Quick Facts
Antebellum Southern politician, US Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of War and Senator
Place of Birth:
Abbeville, SC
Date of Birth:
March 18, 1782
Place of Death:
Washington, DC
Date of Death:
March 31, 1850
Place of Burial:
Charleston, SC
Cemetery Name:
St. Philip's Church

John Caldwell Calhoun was one of the most powerful politicians of the Antebellum Era. He argued that slavery was a positive good for the enslaved on the floor of the US Senate. He advocated for the nullification of federal law. He can be considered the father of Southern nationalism and secessionism. Over his 40 year career he served as a congressman, Secretary of War, senator, Vice President, and Secretary of State.

Calhoun grew up in South Carolina and was educated at Yale University before opening a law practice back home in Abbeville, South Carolina. This combination of a Southern upbringing and Northern education served Calhoun well with friends and colleagues in the North and South throughout his career, starting in the United States House of Representatives (1811-1817). Calhoun left Congress to serve as Secretary of War for President James Monroe (1817-1825), giving him exposure on the national stage.

In 1824, Calhoun declared his candidacy for President of the United States but failed to win the endorsement of the South Carolina legislature. Calhoun served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and Andrew Jackson (1829-1832). His tenure with Jackson was marked with disagreements over the issue of federal tariffs. Calhoun claimed that states could nullify federal laws, earning him the nickname of "Arch Nullifier," and Jackson threatened to use the army if South Carolina forced the issue.

In 1832, he became the first vice president to resign, deciding he would have greater influence over the crisis in the Senate. During his time in the Senate (1832-1843 and 1845-1850) , Calhoun led the pro-slavery faction in opposing both abolitionism and attempts to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories. His ideas on nullification in 1833 brought the question of the legality of secession into the public spotlight. In 1837, Calhoun famously took to the floor of the Senate to declare that slavery was a "positive good." He became the champion of the states' rights debate which intensified in the decades before the Civil War.

Although John Calhoun died a decade before the start of the Civil War, his words lived on in the minds of Southerners as they drifted toward secession. After his death Calhoun became a symbol for southern unity and his likeness was used on the currency of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War (on $1000 bills in 1861 and $100 bills in 1862).

Last updated: April 15, 2021