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John C. Calhoun and His Defense of Liberty


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 opposition.
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.
Afterall, 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.
Works Cited
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.


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