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John C. Calhoun: A South Carolina statesman

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John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850) is one of the great figures of South Carolina history. Born in Abbeville District on March 18, 1782, he attended upcountry academies before attending Yale and graduated in 2 years. After attending Litchfield law school in Connecticut, Calhoun returned to South Carolina and read law in Charleston with the distinguished attorney William Henry DeSaussure. Developing a dislike for the law, Calhoun turned his attention to politics and was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1808 where he served one term.

In 1810, Calhoun won a seat in Congress and began a national political career that lasted until his death in 1850. During this period he served as Congressman, Secretary of War under President James Monroe, Vice-President under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson (the only person to serve under 2 Presidents), Secretary of State under President John Tyler, and as US Senator from South Carolina. (portrait of John Calhoun by Rembrandt Peale

Calhoun is best known as the author of the theory of nullification, which, according to Calhoun, would allow a state which did not approve of an action of the Federal Government to “nullify” that action in that state. Calhoun tried to apply this theory in 1832 against a tariff bill, the so-called, "Tariff of Abominations," which passed in 1828.In his view, the tariff would have hurt the South Carolina economy. President Jackson responded by threatening to send Federal troops to South Carolina. Cooler heads prevailed and a tariff bill more palatable to the South was enacted into law and the nullification crisis dissipated.

Calhoun then became a leading spokesman for southern sectionalism. Only a united South, Calhoun maintained over the last decade of his life, could protect its rights, including the right to hold slaves. Calhoun feared that the national government would fall into the hands of an anti-slavery majority. He said in 1847, “I am a Southern man and a slaveholder…I would rather meet with any extremity upon earth than give up one inch of our equality.” Calhoun died in Washington on March 31, 1850 and is buried at St. Philip’s Churchyard in Charleston. His plantation, Fort Hill, is on the campus of Clemson University and his statue dominates the lobby of the South Carolina State House in Columbia.

Source: South Carolina Encyclopedia.

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