John C. Calhoun

Today’s history lesson deals with the period just prior to the War Between the States. Three of the five immortals of the United States Senate served together in the Senate during these perilous days leading up to the war. I have talked about the senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay, and now I want to talk about the senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun.
John C. Calhoun was born in Abbeville County, South Carolina. He was educated at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he studied law. On his return to South Carolina, he was elected to the state House of Representatives where he served one two-year term before being elected to the national House of Representatives. He left Congress to serve as Secretary of War under President Monroe for eight years.
Calhoun was a candidate for President along with Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, but he withdrew and became the Vice Presidential candidate on the Andrew Jackson and the John Quincy Adams tickets. Jackson was high man, but the election was thrown into the House of Representatives because no one had a majority of the electoral votes.
One of the unsuccessful candidates, Henry Clay, through his position as Speaker of the House, was able to have John Quincy Adams elected. Clay became Secretary of State and John C. Calhoun became Vice President. After one term, John Quincy Adams was defeated, and Andrew Jackson became President with John C. Calhoun as Vice President.
Now some people think that Spiro Agnew was the first Vice President to resign from office. He was not. John C. Calhoun resigned as Vice President because he opposed Jackson’s stand on States Rights. Calhoun maintained that the states could withdraw from the Union while Jackson maintained that any state that tried to withdraw would be in rebellion.
Soon after he resigned as Vice President, Calhoun was elected to the United States Senate by the South Carolina Legislature, where he served for eleven years. He resigned from the Senate to become Secretary of State under President John Tyler. After two years as Secretary of State, Calhoun returned to the United States Senate for another five years until his death.
His last appearance in the Senate was one the more dramatic moment in the annals of American parliamentary history. The three giants of the Senate were meeting for the last time for a great debate to try to save the Union. It was Clay and Webster against Calhoun. Henry Clay had sponsored “The Great Compromise” and had spoken the day before. Calhoun’s reply to Clay was read to the Senate by Senator Mason of Virginia because the aged and infirm Calhoun was absent from the floor. Now it was Daniel Webster who would take the floor and join with Clay to push the compromise that would again hold the fragile Union together for another ten years before the storm broke.
One of the largest crowds ever filled the Senate gallery. People all over the country were intensely interested in the outcome of this great legislative battle. When Daniel Webster rose to speak, he did not see Calhoun being helped to his seat. Calhoun was pale and weak and was wrapped in a heavy black cloak, a gaunt and trembling figure who sat staring at Daniel Webster. In his opening remarks, Webster said that he regretted that the distinguished senator from South Carolina was ill and unable to be present to hear his remarks. John C. Calhoun struggled to his feet and in a clear voice proudly announced that “the Senator from South Carolina is in his seat.” Webster was touched, and with tears in his eyes, he bowed toward the Senator from South Carolina.
Calhoun sank back into his chair exhausted and feeble and listened quietly to the magnificent oratory of Daniel Webster who spoke for three hours and eleven minutes. When Webster finished, Calhoun was assisted from the floor, and in his heart he knew that the Great Compromise would be accepted by the Senate and the country. He had lost the debate, and in two weeks he was dead. Within two years, the other two senators who were the main participants in this great debate, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, were also dead.
John C. Calhoun was a man of unquestioned integrity. In all of his public acts, he was above reproach. No whisper of improper motives or selfish ambitions ever touched his name. He had a cold, concentrated, and powerful mind. Daniel Webster considered him “much the ablest man in the Senate, the greatest in fact that he had met in his entire public life.”
If there was any flaw in the character of Calhoun, I would say it was his dedication to the agricultural economy of the South with its great plantations and thousands of slaves to work the land. Because of this, he supported the institution of slavery in the South and fought to extend slavery into the West and Southwest.
Although I am a native son of South Carolina, I must admit that I have reservations concerning the greatness of even the honored John C. Calhoun because of his evident determination to destroy the Union and plunge the South into a vicious war to preserve the misery of human slavery.
There are those who think otherwise for Calhoun’s statue stands in the Hall of Fame in the nation’s Capitol, placed there by the people of South Carolina to honor one whom they consider a man of great accomplishments and talents. His portrait also hangs in the reception room of the United States Senate, placed there by the senators themselves who named Calhoun as one of the five great immortals.

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