John C. Calhoun converted from being a nationalist to a federalist in order to maintain
his goals of, first and foremost, saving the liberty of all American citizens, and
secondly, retaining the unity of the union. He began his political career as an ardent
nationalist, supporting the War of 1812 and the tariffs of 1816 and 1820. Later in his
career he became an advocate of states' rights. He even went so far as to say that if a
state wanted, it could nullify a federal law. However, throughout his career his
underlying motive of his political philosophy was to protect the great American principles
of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
In the early 1800's the British were still posing a major threat to the American
people. They were maintaining forts in United States territory and were interrupting
American trade. The British also attacked America at Leopard and Chesapeake. During this
time period, Calhoun was serving his first session in Congress. The Speaker of the House,
Henry Clay, appointed Calhoun for second place on the foreign affairs committee. Calhoun
shared the opinion of the majority of the committee (including the chairman Peter Porter)
in supporting war with England. They were soon dubbed the "War Hawks" by the
John Randolph, the leader of the opposition, argued against war because he feared that
America couldn't win another war with Britain. He thought that during a war with England,
the slaves would revolt, join the British and help them defeat America. Additionally,
Randolph questioned how America could revolt against the country to which America owed its
entire heritage. However, Calhoun saw things differently. He thought that British behavior
was a barrier to expansion, to the prosperity of American seaports and to the spread of
Democratic institutions (Niven 36-39). In a report to Congress, Calhoun stated that
America must defend "that proud spirit of liberty which sustained our fathers"
(Bartlett 71). Soon after, Randolph remarked that because of the War Hawks "we shall
have war before the end of the session" (Niven 39). On June 18, 1812, President
Madison signed a bill declaring war against England.
At this point in Calhoun's career, he was a nationalist in calling for war against
England. The reason he gave for this was because "protection and patriotism are
reciprocal" (Peterson 26). He also said "we are again struggling for our liberty
and independence" (Peterson 43). Calhoun thought that England was challenging the
liberty of the American people, and that only a strong federal government had the power to
defeat Great Britain.
The war was very hard on America, and at one point it even looked like the Americans
would lose. However, America eventually defeated the British. After the war America was in
debt and needed to raise money. They decided to do this with a series of tariffs in 1816
and 1820. These tariffs protected the northern states' manufactured products from
international competition within the United States. Many even blamed the south's
depression on the tariffs because they believed that the tariffs reduced European
consumption of cotton. These tariffs clearly favored the North (Niven 129).Calhoun was
undaunted by the negative opinions of the South towards the tariffs. Even as a
representative of South Carolina he favored the Tariff of 1816 because it would give the
country more money for internal development and would also encourage a more viable
manufacturing sector, which in turn would be better for the Union. Later on, Calhoun was
ineffectual in opposing the tariff of 1820 and may have even secretly supported it. The
reason for this was that Calhoun still thought that the tariff was for the revenue of the
federal government, and not for the sole purpose of promoting the agenda of one section,
the north, over another's, the south. Calhoun was still a nationalist and supported these
tariffs because they were for the good of the union (Bartlett 139-141).
However, after more tariffs were added in 1824 and 1828, Calhoun changed his outlook on
tariffs. During the late 1820's, the price of cotton barely covered the price of making
it, crippling the south. Yet, tariffs which favored the north were still being enforced.
Calhoun, who was now Vice President, went so far as to call the tariff of 1828 the
"tariff of abomination". He also felt that the tariff favored industrialization,
and was therefore trying to get the south to stop slavery. Calhoun felt that if this
happened it would lead to two undesirable circumstances. Firstly, the south would lose
it's most sacred institution, slavery, and with it, it's great traditions and gentlemanly
manners. Secondly, Calhoun contested that there always must be a working class and an
aristocratic class. If slavery were abolished, whites would be forced into that working
class, at low pay. This would in effect take away the "life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness" that all white men now enjoyed. Although this may seem like an
extremely racist point of view, at that time it was commonly accepted that blacks were
inferior to whites (Niven 136, 218, 228). This caused Calhoun to write his famous document
The South Carolina Exposition and Protest. In this paper he stated that the tariff of 1828
favored the north over the south and was not for the sole purpose of revenue. Therefore in
his mind it was unconstitutional. He exclaimed "Irresponsible power is inconsistent
with liberty" (Niven 159). His answer to this problem was to give each state the
power of nullification, or the power to veto a federal law, and in that manner check the
power of the federal government (Bartlett 148).
Calhoun's basis for nullification was grounded in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
of 1798. He believed that giving states the power to veto was a logical reformation, not a
revolution (Peterson 169). He said that originally states were sovereign and had delegated
certain powers to the federal government. In the Constitution certain powers were given to
the national government and the rest were reserved for the states. He argued that it would
be unjust to allow the Supreme Court to decide the Constitutionality of such laws, because
the Supreme Court is an arm of the federal government and would therefore probably side
with the federal government (Bartlett 151). With nullification Calhoun sought to control
the power of the majority. If a state could veto federal laws then laws favoring one
section of the country over another would not be passed in the first place for fear of
nullification. Some felt that this would make a minority of one nullifying state more
powerful than the majority of the union who passed the law, but Calhoun thought that this
would give them equal power (Niven 161).It is easy to see that Calhoun's main objective
was to continue the liberty of the south, but some also felt that he had an ulterior
motive and that his purpose was the dissolution of the union. Webster identified
nullification and Calhoun with disunion. In his famous debate with Hayne on nullification
he closed with "liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable"
(Bartlett 167). Webster believed that the federal government of the United States was
sovereign and that it's jurisdiction should overrule that of states.
In fact the President of The United States at the time, Andrew Jackson, said that
nullification was paramount to treason and threatened to hang Calhoun and his followers
(Bartlett 190,196). They had such horrible feelings towards it because they thought it
could lead to anarchy, with each state making it's own laws. However, Calhoun was
misunderstood. Calhoun in fact wanted this to be a mode of avoiding disunion. He said
"Whether I am a nullifier or not will depend on the meaning to be attached to the
word. If it means a disunionist, a disorganizer, or an anarchist then...I am utterly
opposed to it" (Bartlett 178). John Calhoun felt that if nullification were used then
there would be no injustice against the south and the south would have no reason to
secede. He believed that the south should "only think of secession in the last
extremity" (Bartlett 195).
The essential difference between the views of Vice President Calhoun and President
Jackson, could be seen at a party for Jefferson on April 13, 1830. At this party everyone
in the room gave toasts. After a few toasts Jackson was introduced. He raised his glass,
turned and stared directly at Calhoun, and then proclaimed "Our union, it must be
preserved" (Niven 173). Next, Calhoun rose and addressed the President. "The
union, next to our liberty most dear" (Niven 173). Jackson related nullification with
disunion, while Calhoun wanted liberty for all American citizens. Only if nullification
could not achieve liberty would Calhoun endorse disunion. Calhoun's view of nullification
is an extreme support for state's rights. He wanted to give each state the right to
nullify a federal law. The reason for this is that he didn't trust the majority that was
ruling the federal government. His feelings were that if the majority continued to have
unrestricted control they would take away the liberty of the south. In one of Calhoun's
speeches he talked about how often politicians were "compelled to vary our course in
order to preserve our principles" (Bartlett 242). This is the reason why Calhoun
decided to switch from being a nationalist to a supporter of states' rights.
One can see this clearly by following Calhoun's defense of slavery. Early in his
career, during the Missouri debates, he showed no concern over the outcome of the debates.
If Missouri were to be let in to the union, then there would be more slave states than
non-slave states. However, he didn't argue for their acceptance because he felt that after
the war nationalists would be patriotic and would do what was best for the union as a
whole, so it didn't matter if there were more slave states or free states (Bartlett 219).
Therefore, he had complete faith in the national government to rule over his state and the
rest of the south. However, later in his career he was vehement in his protection of
slavery. The reason for this was that he lost faith in the majority rule of the national
government. He felt that sectionalists were ruling the government, and would make laws
favorable to one section of the country over another. This led him to become an advocate
for states' rights. Once he did not believe that the national government would protect the
liberty of the South, he was forced into a situation where the South would have to take
care of itself with individual states given more power.
On the surface John Calhoun's political philosophy may seem contradictory. He did
switch from being a supporter of nationalism to a man who wanted to give states a huge
amount of power with nullification. However, his philosophy was consistent in that he
always did what would most promote the liberty of his state and section.
Bartlett, Irving H. John C. Calhoun. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Niven, John. John C. Calhoun and the Price of the Union. Louisiana: Louisiana State
University Press, 1988.
Peterson, Merril D. The Great Triumvirate. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.