John C. Calhoun

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.

Tomb of John C. Calhoun, Charleston, S.C. Between 1900 and 1910. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

John C. Calhoun’s speech to the United States Senate against the Compromise of 1850, 4 March 1850. (John C. Calhoun Papers). Manuscript Division
Daniel Webster’s notes for his speech to the United States Senate favoring the Compromise of 1850, 7 March 1850. (Daniel Webster Papers) Manuscript Division

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