John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun, at the age of 68, died of tuberculosis on March 31, 1850 at the Old Brick Capitol boarding house in Washington, D.C. Many know his name, but few remember that at one point, he was one of the most powerful figures in American politics.

john c calhoun - 1822_John_C_Calhoun_Portrait

1822 portrait of John C. Calhoun. New York Public Library

Calhoun served in the South Carolina legislature and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811, serving three terms. One year later, Calhoun and Henry Clay, two famous “war hawks,” convinced the House to declare war on Great Britain.

From 1817 to 1825 Calhoun served as Secretary of War under Pres. James Monroe. In 1824 he ran for the presidency (against John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson) and ultimately served as vice president under Adams. Four years later, Calhoun was re-elected vice president under Andrew Jackson.

Calhoun supported the Tariff of 1828, in opposition of Pres. Jackson. Calhoun wrote an essay, “The South Carolina Exposition and Protest” in which he advocated that a state had the right to veto any federal law that went beyond the enumerated powers and encroached upon the residual powers of the State.

Also, during this time, Washington D.C. became embroiled in something called “the Petticoat Affair.” Calhoun’s wife, Floride, who was queen of D.C. society, organized Cabinet member’s wives against Peggy Eaton, wife of Sect. of War John Eaton. Floride alleged that John and Peggy had engaged in an adulterous affair while Mrs. Eaton was still married to her first husband. Jackson, who was close friends with Eaton, resented the Calhoun’s attack, creating even more tension between the president and vice president.


Calhoun portrait by Matthew Brady. Library of Congress

In 1832 the South Carolina legislature nullified a Federal agriculture tariff, citing Calhoun’s “Exposition.” Pres. Jackson threatened to send naval war ships to Charleston to hang Calhoun or any man who worked to support nullification or secession unless South Carolina relented. Ultimately, a compromise was reached and passions cooled, but many of the South’s leaders smoldered with resentment of the Federal government’s growing dictatorial power, planting the seeds for the South’s secession, twenty-eight years later. 

On December 12, 1832, Calhoun was elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Robert Hayne, who had been elected South Carolina governor. On the 28th Calhoun resigned the Vice Presidency, the first man to do so. He was also the second and last vice president to serve under two presidents (George Clinton is the other.)


As a senator Calhoun engaged in one of the Senate’s most famous debates with Daniel Webster over slavery and states’ rights. In 1844 Pres. John Tyler appointed him as Secretary of State for two years during which time Calhoun supervised the Texas annexation and the creation of the Oregon Territory.

Calhoun then returned to the Senate in 1846 where he opposed the Mexican War and helped to defeat the Wilmot Proviso. 

calhoun's last appearance in the senate

New York Public Library

After his death he was buried at St. Philip’s Cemetery in Charleston. Toward the end of the Civil War, Calhoun’s supporters were concerned that Union troops in the city would ransack his grave, so during the night, they removed his coffin to a hiding place beneath the stairs of the church. The next night, they buried the coffin in an unmarked grave. In 1871, it was exhumed and returned to its original spot. In 1884, Calhoun’s brick tomb was replaced by a decorative sarcophagus by the South Carolina government. 

In 2000 the U.S. Senate honored Calhoun as one of the seven greatest senators of all time.


Calhoun’s grave at St. Philip’s Church, Charleston. Photo by author