John C. Calhoun

"John Caldwell Calhoun."
Edmund Burke Kellogg and Elijah Chapman Kellogg, after William Henry Brown
Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens

John Caldwell Calhoun
Henry F. Darby
ca. 1858


John C. Calhoun

I have heard every speech he delivered in the Senate. When he was excited he would get up from his seat and walk much of the time in the lobby in the rear of the presiding officer’s chair, when he spoke he maintained a stern attitude and stood in the aisle by the side of his desk. His gesture was short and nervous, chiefly with the right hand, his articulation was rapid, his keen eye was fastened upon the senator to whom he was replying. In person he was about six feet, and very straight, head erect, hair turned back, countenance stern. I very seldom saw him smile. He always stated his position with great clearness. He seldom made long speeches. He never spoke over two or three hours on any subject. [1C90]

John C. Calhoun was the cold philosopher of the theory of secession.

Calhoun took his seat as a senator December 1832. Senator Calhoun on the 15th of February 1838, began his great effort he spoke for the best part of two days, with extraordinary power. I will give my recollection of him—tall, gaunt, of somewhat stooping figure with a brow full well formed, and receding hair, not reposing on the head but starting from it like the Gorgon. A countenance of unqualified intellect, an eye that watch[ed] everything and revealed nothing, it was doubted whether he would take the oath of office. I remember at the time the floor of the Senate and the galleries were filled with spectators. He took the oath with dignity . . . appropriate to the occasion. He made his greatest speech on what was called the Force bill. I remember on one occasion I think it was his last speech to Mr. Webster—upon his request it was read by his friend James M. Mason of Virginia. This I believe was his last speech he ever made in the Senate. He commanded the respect of the ablest men of the body, and I may say that when there was no political bias, he had the confidence of his brother senators. He was the fearless champion of the sovereignty of the states. He died in Washington City March 31, 1850 age sixty-eight at his boarding house, the Old Capitol. The house was then kept by Mrs. Hill. [1C91-1C93]

Editor's Note:

John Caldwell Calhoun served as both a U.S. representative and senator from South Carolina, and as the seventh vice president of the United States. After practicing law and serving in the South Carolina house of representatives, Calhoun was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810. There he worked alongside Henry Clay, advocating war with Great Britain and introducing the declaration of war against Britain in 1812. He served as secretary of war under President James Monroe, was elected vice president with John Quincy Adams in 1824, and was reelected vice president on a ticket with Andrew Jackson in 1828. Calhoun broke with Jackson, opposing the high protective tariffs, and resigned as vice president in December 1832 to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. He later resigned from the Senate in 1843 planning to run for president, but instead he served briefly as secretary of state for President John Tyler. Calhoun returned to the Senate in 1845 and remained until his death in 1850.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Presiding officer - The presiding officer sits in a chair in the front of the Senate Chamber and announces vote results, controls debates by calling on members to speak, and may rule on any point of order. The Constitution mandates that the vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate and as such is the presiding officer of the Senate, but does not vote except to break ties. The Constitution also authorizes the Senate to elect a president pro tempore (traditionally the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service) to preside in the vice president’s absence. Today the president pro tempore does not normally preside over the Senate, but instead delegates that responsibility to junior senators of the majority party.
  • Force Bill - This refers to a request made by President Andrew Jackson to Congress asking it to authorize military action to enforce a series of tariff acts. In 1828 and 1832, Congress passed tariff acts that, while protecting northern industries, worked to the disadvantage of the South. Due to southern opposition to those tariffs, the Senate took up the issue of the “Force Bill.” In the end, the Senate passed a resolution that upheld the tariff but promised its repeal in seven years.
  • Daniel Webster (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian, Whig - MA) U.S. senator 1827-1841 and 1845-1850.
  • James Murray Mason (Democrat - VA) U.S. senator 1847-1861.
  • The Old Capitol - Long’s Tavern was located just across First Street, east of the Capitol grounds. In 1815, following the burning of the Capitol by the British, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed an addition to Long’s Tavern to accommodate Congress until restoration work on the Capitol was finished. Built in just five months, it became known as the Brick Capitol. The building was ready at the opening of the 14th Congress in December 1815. Congress met in the Brick Capitol through the end of the 15th Congress in 1819. After Congress vacated the building, it served as a rooming house where members of Congress boarded, particularly those from the South. During the Civil War, the building was commandeered by the government and converted into a military prison. It was demolished in 1867. The Supreme Court of the United States currently stands on the site.