John Calhoun's name nowadays is generally linked to the Confederacy and the build-up to the Civil War, so mentioning him won't always get the best reception at parties. We know how much you want to bring up Calhoun at parties (that's what all the cool kids do), so just be aware.
Before he became the champion of southern states' rights, Calhoun had a long and pretty successful political career, including serving as Vice President for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. At the time the Monroe Doctrine was written, he was the Secretary of War, and part of the cabinet group that drafted the speech.
Calhoun was programmed to staunch patriotism from birth. His father Patrick, one of the largest landowners (and slave owners) in the region, had been a Regulator—an 18th-century vigilante trying to enforce justice on the frontier, before fighting for the Patriot cause in the American Revolution. (Source)
John grew up a pretty straight-laced Calvinist, who thought the big city of Charleston was a bit too corrupt for his taste. He was the kind of guy who supported the law dictating that all of a woman's property would be transferred into her husband's name upon marriage. Calhoun thought that since she had chosen him as a husband, she should give everything she had to encourage a strong marital bond. (Source)
Nothing says "love" like property confiscation…?
Johnny C. got a later start in politics than some of his contemporaries, becoming fully trained and established as a lawyer before starting to dabble in government at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.
Calhoun's moment came when he made a passionate, eloquent speech to a protest committee in 1807, in response to the British attack on the USS Chesapeake. Calhoun had grown up with a serious anti-British complex, as the last years of the Revolutionary War had wreaked havoc in his part of the country. People immediately told him he was fabulous, and by 1811 he had arrived in Washington as a congressman. (Source)
Once there, Calhoun was picked up quickly by Henry Clay's crew, a group of nationalists who were all about developing America as a strong independent nation, driving Britain from the continent, and making their former overlords show them some respect on the high seas. This group of men became known as the War Hawks.
The War Hawks essentially led the U.S. into the War of 1812, by pushing for war instead of diplomatic reconciliation with Britain. They saw Britain (and France) as arrogant and dangerous, having already betrayed previous agreements about maritime rights. Britain had to be shown who was boss in North America, and not be allowed to restrict U.S. expansion and development.
President Madison tried diplomatic ways to resolve the conflict (which the War Hawks saw as weaksauce) and they eventually pressured him into declaring war on Britain and France. Calhoun was one of the most vocal and aggressive of the group. Over the course of the war, though, seeing the surprising physical, economic, and political toll it had on the nation, Calhoun realized his errors in being so enthusiastic to promote the conflict. (Source)
Given his background as a War Hawk, you might think it makes sense that Calhoun was appointed Monroe's Secretary of...War. Actually, though, he was the fourth person asked (ouch).
The war department was in shambles after the War of 1812, with no money and a weakened military. Calhoun had supported Monroe in his bid for the presidency, and thought the new president would support his ideas for making America a stronger military power. (Source)
It might surprise you to learn that when the Monroe cabinet was debating George Canning's proposal of a British alliance, John Calhoun was one of the more vocal supporters of the proposition. He went head-to-head with John Quincy Adams, arguing that an alliance like this with Britain would mean economic and military benefits in the future, a similar argument to what Thomas Jefferson had told Monroe. (Source)
Calhoun clearly learned a lesson from the War of 1812, and had now put the development and stability of the country as a higher priority than proving how macho the U.S. could be. Just because it didn't work, didn't mean his argument was insignificant. In fact, most of Monroe's advisors had agreed with him.
Throughout his tenure as Secretary of War, Calhoun came up against very strong opposition to his spending on the military. In reality, Calhoun reduced expenditures by 40% between 1817 and 1821, and reduced the department's debt to a tiny fraction of what it was.
Still, his detractors in Congress, led by his former buddy Henry Clay and treasury secretary William Crawford, convinced everyone that the war department was spending too much, passing a bill forcing it to reduce itself again by 40%. Et tu, Henry? (Source)
One of the projects that got Calhoun in trouble with Congress was a part of his plan for what is generally referred to in U.S. history as Indian Removal. It's exactly what it sounds like. Calhoun believed, like many did at this time, that the nice thing to do was keep Native Americans on specifically allocated land and assimilate them to white American culture. You know, to make them "civilized." Like the guys forcing them off their land.
Calhoun had a plan to build up defenses against hostile Native American tribes in the west by building two new military forts in the northwest, near present-day Yellowstone and Bismarck, ND. One of the contractors hired for the projects was pretty incompetent, which forced Calhoun to get a lot more money to complete the building. The expeditions, which had originally been well-supported, were now seen as a drain on government money. (Source)
The opposition to Calhoun and his supporters got so bad that he started to publish a bi-weekly newspaper called the Republican and Congressional Examiner in 1822, primarily to defend his actions. Sometimes you just have to stand up for yourself and publish a newspaper, you know? They didn't have Facebook back then for him to post his long political rants.
Despite his battles within Congress, in the early 1820s Calhoun was extremely popular around the country. He entered the bonkers 1824 presidential race as one of five Republican candidates, but realized pretty quickly he didn't have the support to win. He consistently came in right behind John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson with the delegates though, meaning he was "everybody's second choice" and therefore chosen to be Adams' running mate. (Source)
Calhoun was very against the "corrupt bargain" that helped put him in the White House, though, where Henry Clay led Congress to choose Adams as president, who then appointed Clay Secretary of State. Calhoun soon shifted towards the Andrew Jackson camp, even when he was Adams' VP. He also became a leader in the movement to further limit executive power and set term limits for the president.
At this point, the VP was also the leader of the Senate, but Calhoun had serious problems with that part of the job. He was heavily criticized for not properly controlling debates, one of which lead to a duel between Henry Clay and a slightly senile older senator, in which luckily no one was hurt. (Man. These old-timey politicians and their duels.) (Source)
Calhoun was never really friends with Andrew Jackson, and the two didn't really ever trust each other, but all the same Calhoun approached Jackson in support and ended up as his running mate in the 1828 election against Adams. That election was particularly ugly, with each side hurling vicious personal accusations at the other, but Jackson and Calhoun won the day.
Once again, Calhoun found himself opposing the president, and his second term as VP was even more unpleasant than the first. Jackson wasn't having it either, and ended up bonding with Martin Van Buren instead. Calhoun thought some of Jackson's policies way overstepped his authority, taking away civil liberties and hurting southern farmers through his renewal of the "Tariff of Abominations." (Source)
That tariff would help lead Calhoun to create his biggest legacy: the theory of nullification.
In 1828, in response to the Tariff of Abominations and some heated debates over western land policy, Calhoun quietly came up with an idea that would eventually help lead to the Civil War. In fairness, this time it took about a decade to cause the war, and he wasn't even alive. Still, the man had a gift.
Nullification was the political idea that a state could nullify any federal legislation it saw as detrimental to its own interests. That's right, a state could say "we don't like this law, so it doesn't apply to us," and that would be that. Calhoun introduced the idea by instructing a congressman to use it in a lengthy debate about whether the use of western land should be left up to the states or the federal government. (Source)
Jackson was all about states' rights, but he was more about strengthening the Union, so he thought the nullification idea was treasonous. The South Carolina legislature nullified the tariffs they hated so much in 1833, after which Jackson revised the tariff laws and issued his own proclamation rejecting the legality of nullification.
Calhoun at this time wasn't a supporter of secession, and didn't even acknowledge having written the theory of nullification until 1831, when he tried unsuccessfully to re-take control of the debate in South Carolina over how to use it.
Later in his life, though, as sectional tensions increased, Calhoun would change his tune a bit.
Calhoun was having such a bad time as VP, he resigned a few months early. He spent most of the rest of his life as a senator for South Carolina, becoming increasingly defensive on the subject of slavery.
Earlier in his political career, Calhoun had tried to avoid making slavery a major issue. He wanted to protect the rights of his fellow slaveowners, but saw it was a divisive topic (y'think?), which was made especially clear during the Missouri Compromise debate in 1819.
In 1826, Calhoun had been one of the people who didn't want to send a delegation to the Panama convention to mingle with the Haitians, thinking it might re-ignite the flames of that earlier conflict, because Haiti had been freed by a slave rebellion. (Source)
The Wilmot Proviso never passed the Senate, and instead became the Compromise of 1850. Calhoun opposed the compromise, because it made California a free state and abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. Dying of tuberculosis, Calhoun made a final stand on the Senate floor by having someone else present his argument, which was that without a constitutional amendment to ensure the balance between North and South, the South would eventually have to secede.
In fact, one of his last statements ever on the Senate floor was in contradiction to a speech by Henry Clay in defense of his Compromise. Calhoun reportedly shouted: "No, Sir! The Union can be broken!" (Source)
John Calhoun's long political career had a number of ups and downs, both for him and for the nation. He is most well-remembered for the idea of nullification and his staunch support of maintaining slavery, even if at the cost of the Union, paving the way for the Civil War.
His early career, though, was much more focused on foreign affairs, especially the relationship between America and Britain, as well as neighboring territories and Native American tribes. His desire to develop America internally helped shift his stance on Britain and lead him to support Canning's proposed alliance in 1823.
From War Hawk to Vice President to author of nullification, Calhoun had a career filled with conflict, controversies, and extremes. You can accuse him of a number of things, but being boring is not one of them.