Study Guide

John C. Calhoun in Proclamation Regarding Nullification

By Andrew Jackson

John C. Calhoun

Calhoun vs. Jackson

Let's just begin with John C. Calhoun's nickname: the Arch Nullifier. If that isn't a supervillain nickname worthy of the best Marvel Comics series, we don't know what is. And guess who his arch-nemesis was? Andrew "Hero of New Orleans" Jackson.

You can't make this kind of stuff up.

To say that Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun had a tumultuous relationship of comic book proportions would be an understatement. They represented two sides of a feud that nearly led the young United States into civil war.

How Friends Become Enemies

Jackson and Calhoun came from similar backgrounds. Both were Scots-Irish from South Carolina and both gained popular support through their hard work during the War of 1812. Like Jackson, Calhoun is remembered as a strong states' rights advocate and supporter of the slavery system, even though early in his political career, he was a nationalist who advocated for a strong central government.

Calhoun blamed British policies of blocking American shipping rights for a recession that hit the U.S. economy in 1808. A war hawk in Congress (he was elected in 1810), Calhoun encouraged war against the British, stating that he preferred war to the "putrescent pool of ignominious peace" (source).

Guy had a way with words.

But soon after the War of 1812, Calhoun and Jackson's paths diverged.

During the First Seminole War (1816-1819), Jackson was still a military general and Calhoun had moved his way up to the Secretary of War under President James Monroe. While fighting the Seminole people, Jackson took it upon himself to invade Florida, starting an international incident (since Florida was still a Spanish territory). He did this without the support of President Monroe—or Calhoun.

Calhoun joined in an effort to reprimand Jackson for his reckless behavior. Jackson didn't know who instigated the censure. But eventually things settled down. Jackson was never disciplined and Spain basically handed Florida over to the Americans since Jackson's troops already occupied it.

After the War, Calhoun, still in his nationalist phase, was instrumental in founding the Second Bank of the United States—of whom Andrew Jackson was the primary hater.

Calhoun ran for president in 1924, but after many of his supporters deserted him for Jackson, he saw the writing on the wall and instead ran for vice resident and won hands down. (The offices were elected separately back then.) John Quincy Adams was named president by the House of Representatives after no candidate received a majority of the Electoral Votes.

It wasn't a good match. Calhoun became disillusioned with Adams' strengthening of the central government, and this pushed him towards a states' rights position. He wrote to Jackson, a fellow states' right advocate, offering his support in the 1828 election, and they prevailed. Calhoun was now Jackson's veep.

Petticoat Problems

Jackson and Calhoun had scarcely got to office when Calhoun's wife, Floride, led a campaign to socially ostracize the wife of Jackson's Secretary of War, Peggy Eaton, for alleged sexual indiscretions in her past. All the Cabinet wives joined in making Peggy's life miserable. Jackson, whose wife Rachel had been the target of similar attacks (which he believed killed her) was furious, and proclaimed Peggy "chaste as a virgin" (source).

It wasn't exactly a promising start.

And it wouldn't be the last time Calhoun and Jackson butted heads.

Tariff Trouble

The Tariff of 1828 was designed with the objective of getting Andrew Jackson elected president via a complicated web of political coalitions. Calhoun had assumed that the Tariff would be rejected, and went along with the deal even though he generally opposed tariffs that benefitted the north at the expense of the southern states.

When the Tariff of Abominations passed, Calhoun began a campaign to nullify it.

Convinced that this federal tax was the height of tyranny, Calhoun stormed back to South Carolina and secretly penned the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest," which supported a state's right to nullify a federal order if it believed it overstepped the bounds of constitutional authority. And for an avid states' right supporter, almost everything the federal government did overstepped its Constitutional authority.

Jackson, a states' rights supporter himself, was still worried about this heretical talk of nullification. In a famous showdown at a dinner commemorating Thomas Jefferson in 1830, Jackson proposed a toast: "Our federal Union, it must be preserved." Calhoun then rose and proclaimed, "the Union, next to our liberty, the most dear." (Source)

Game on.

A month later, Jackson discovered that it was Calhoun who was the one who asked to censure Jackson for his invasion into Florida when he was chasing runaway slaves and Seminoles. Would you want to be friends with that person?

Jackson did not.

Calhoun decided he could no longer tolerate the president. And what did a politician of the early Republic, trained in debate and compromise, do in these situations? He took his ball and went home. Calhoun became the first vice president to resign from his position (with abut three months left to go in his term). He ran for the Senate in South Carolina, where he thought he'd have more influence in this whole nullification debate.

When Jackson passed the Tariff of 1832 that lowered taxes to satisfy the south, South Carolina fought back. Calhoun led the fight to resist both Tariffs, declare them null and void, and threaten to secede if the government forced them to pay. Things finally came to a head when Jackson sent warships to the shores of South Carolina, demanding that they back down or suffer the consequences. They backed down.

Calhoun was a major political figure until the end of his life, serving as Secretary of State during the Tyler administration and returning to the Senate. He continued to adamantly support the South, slavery, and states' rights. He warned his southern colleagues that they needed to stand strong against the dreaded abolitionists of the north unless they wanted to have their way of life destroyed and be ruled by northerners and Blacks as subservient people.

In 1837, Calhoun gave a speech—"Slavery as a Positive Good."

Be it good or bad, [slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. (Source)

Kinda reminds us of Jackson's statement about the forced relocation of the Indian tribes as the best thing that ever happened to them.

And you know how Jackson's getting kicked off the $20 bill? Well, Yale University, Calhoun's alma mater, is considering removing his name from one of their residential colleges because of his defense of slavery.

Those defenders have had their heyday, and it's not now.

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