Rumblings of Civil War: Vice-President John Calhoun Resigns
John F. Kennedy chaired a Senate committee in 1957 that named John Caldwell Calhoun, of South Carolina, as one of the five greatest senators in the history of the U.S. Senate. The committee might just as well have named Calhoun one of the greatest statesmen in U.S. history. During his remarkable career, Calhoun (1782-1850) served as a U.S. representative, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, and vice president (twice). He gained a certain amount of infamy in the latter position when, on Dec. 28, 1832, he became the first person (and, aside from Spiro Agnew in 1973, the only) to resign from the office of vice president of the United States.
Calhoun died 10 years before South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, and 11 years before his state’s attack on Fort Sumter began the U.S. Civil War. Nonetheless, his defense of slavery (which he called a “positive good” rather than an evil) and his insistence on an extreme states’ rights position known as “nullification” helped pave the way for the great clash that tore the nation apart. Nullification is the belief that the states are sovereign entities that can declare any federal law unconstitutional, or “nullified,” if that law works against the state’s perceived best interests.
This perpetuated the belief held in many Southern states that the federal Union was like a gentlemen’s club, whose members voluntarily agree to join and are free to leave at any time. In this view, final authority rests with the independent, sovereign states—not the central government, whose authority to rule derives solely from the states’ consent.
Calhoun first served as vice president under John Quincy Adams, then won re-election to serve as vice president under Andrew Jackson. During the Jackson administration the Tariff of 1828 was passed, which aided Northern industries but hurt Southern agricultural interests. In response, Calhoun wrote the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” arguing that South Carolina had the right to nullify this federal tariff because it hurt the state’s farmers and plantation owners. A state has the right, Calhoun asserted, “to arrest an unconstitutional act of the General Government” and even, should it prove necessary, secede from the Union. President Jackson opposed nullification, seeing it as an obvious threat to the integrity of the Union.
In 1832 the South Carolina Legislature followed Calhoun’s advice and nullified the federal tariffs, as well as a subsequent federal law (the “Force Bill”) which stated that the federal government could use its military might to force a state to obey federal laws. In the midst of this turmoil Calhoun resigned as vice president to accept an offer from the South Carolina Legislature to represent that state in the U.S. Senate. A compromise proposed by Senator Henry Clay in 1833 eased the immediate threat posed by the Nullification Crisis of 1832, but the rift had been opened—and the issues of states’ rights, nullification, secession, and slavery would ultimately lead to civil war.
The following three newspaper articles are about Calhoun’s resigning as vice president. The first is a straightforward news account. The other two are from Northern newspapers and paint Calhoun as a villain—one referring explicitly to a “Southern confederacy” leading to “disunion and Civil War,” and the other calling South Carolina “treasonable.” Keep in mind these articles were printed 28 years before the Civil War began!
This article was published by the National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on Jan. 7, 1833:
The following is a copy of a communication made on Friday last to the Senate, from the Secretary of State, with its enclosure, Mr. Calhoun’s letter resigning the Second Office in the Government.
Department of State,
4th Jan. 1833.
Sir: The President has directed me to send to you for the information of the Senate the enclosed copy of a letter just received from John C. Calhoun, Esq., resigning his office as Vice President of the United States, the original of which letter, subscribed with his name, is deposited in this Department, pursuant to the provisions of the act in such case provided.
Your most ob’t serv’t,
To the President of the Senate.
28th Dec. 1832.
Sir: Having concluded to accept of a seat in the Senate, to which I have been elected by the Legislature of this State, I herewith resign the Office of Vice President of the United States.
Your ob’t servant,
J. C. Calhoun.
[To] Hon. E. Livingston, Secretary of State.
This article was published by the Boston Atlas and reprinted by the National Aegis (Worcester, Massachusetts) on Jan. 2, 1833:
John C. Calhoun
If the path of John C. Calhoun to the Presidency had been free from obstructions, we should have heard nothing of Nullification. It was not until his quarrel with Gen. Jackson took place that he and his friends seriously contemplated the destruction of the Government of the United States. Prior to that event, they were the loudest advocates of every measure calculated to strengthen the National arm and they supported the laws with great patriotism and promptitude. True there were blotches upon Mr. Calhoun’s course which soiled his reputation. The people condemned his ambitious intrusion before them as an aspirant for the Chief Magistracy ere he had seen the meridian of his years, and many were indignant when they became satisfied that he had done all that for the sole purpose of making a bargain with Pennsylvania for the Vice Presidency.
The moment that Mr. Calhoun found himself in the yellow leaf of public opinion, he appears to have resolved, like a man full of horror and despair, to break up the Union. A horrid group of spectres, aristocracy, and despotism seem to have filled his mind, and to save the Southern States from the most humiliating submission to a policy of which he himself was one of the founders, a great Southern confederacy must be established, with South Carolina for the centre of the system, and the other States south of the Potomac as the satellites! Whatever may be the course of South Carolina, whether she recedes from her Ordinance, or maintains it, the infamy of Calhoun is sealed. He may take his seat in the Senate of the United States, but the mark of the beast will be branded upon his forehead. His name will become identified with disunion and Civil War, and he himself become the object of detestation to every American citizen.
This article was published by the American Sentinel (Middletown, Connecticut) on Jan. 2, 1833:
The Union Party of South Carolina have lately had a Convention which was very respectably attended, for the purpose of counteracting the proceedings of the Dis-Unionists. Resolutions were adopted to maintain their allegiance to the U. States—and to disregard the Nullifiers’ Ordinance. In all lawful measures to maintain their integrity to the Union, they will be sustained by the General Government.
Georgia and North Carolina dissent from the Nullifying doctrines of South Carolina. They have no desire to be under the rule and dominion of the lawless and ambitious John C. Calhoun—however much they may dislike the Tariff. There is no probability that any other State will join S. Carolina in their treasonable projects.