On March 18, 1782, John C. Calhoun was born near Abbeville, South Carolina. Calhoun served as a congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, and vice president of the United States.
A formidable theorist, Calhoun is remembered for his determined defense of the institution of slavery. During the course of his career, he reversed his stand as a nationalist and advocated states’ rights as a means of preserving slavery in the South. As a South Carolina senator, Calhoun used the argument of states’ rights to protect slavery in what is known as the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833.
At the end of his senatorial career, Calhoun opposed the Compromise of 1850 because of its proposed limits on slavery during the westward expansion of the nation. Calhoun was clearly a dying man as he was assisted to his desk on the Senate floor a few minutes past noon on March 4, 1850. A black cloak, which he had pulled around his emaciated body, added to the drama of the scene.
Too weak to deliver the forty-two-page speech himself, Calhoun had his colleague, Senator James Murray Mason (1798-1871) of Virginia, read from a printed version for him. The emphasis of the speech was wholly on northern aggressions and against conciliation and compromise. Calhoun believed that two separate nations now existed, and that if the differences between them could not be settled, the two entities should agree to part in peace.
Three days later, on March 7, Senator Daniel Webster argued in favor of the compromise. He both cautioned Southerners that disunion would lead to war and advised Northerners to forgo antislavery measures. The Compromise of 1850 was passed and Calhoun died soon after on March 31, 1850.
- Early in the nation’s history, members of Congress argued about the issue of slavery. In 1784 members debated a resolution introduced to the Continental Congress that would have ended involuntary servitude by the year 1800. Search on slavery in the online collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates 1774-1875 to find examples of early congressional debate on the topic of slavery. For other topics considered by the Congress, browse the subject index of the collection Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789.
- For more material on the movement to abolish slavery, go to the Abolition section of The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, or the Abolition section of The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture.
- Search results on Calhoun in Making of AmericaExternal includes speeches given by Calhoun.
- A search on Calhoun in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827 yields correspondence between Calhoun and the president.
- To learn more about national politics in the 1820s and 1830s, search on Van Buren, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, or John Quincy Adams in Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years.