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John C. Calhoun: A Featured Biography


Image of John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina first entered politics in 1808 when he was elected to the state legislature. He moved to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811, where he served almost four terms before resigning to become secretary of war under President James Monroe, a position he held from 1817 to 1825. In both positions, Calhoun was known for his strong support for federally funded internal improvements. Calhoun was an early candidate for president in 1824 but dropped out and sought the vice presidency instead. Although he publicly backed Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson for president, his vice presidential candidacy received endorsements from both Jackson supporters and those of John Quincy Adams. Calhoun easily won the vice presidency—making him president of the Senate—while the presidential election was decided by the House of Representatives, which elected John Quincy Adams over popular-vote winner Andrew Jackson. When Jackson was elected president in 1828, Calhoun was again elected vice president, but his growing opposition to Jackson’s policies prompted his resignation. Elected to the Senate in December of 1832, Calhoun became an influential leader of the southern states during the antebellum era, a period in Senate history marked by heated debates over slavery and territorial expansion. A staunch defender of the institution of slavery, and a slave-owner himself, Calhoun was the Senate's most prominent states' rights advocate, and his doctrine of nullification professed that individual states had a right to reject federal policies that they deemed unconstitutional. In 1850, as the Senate debated a legislative compromise designed to quell calls for disunion, a dying Calhoun continued to argue for the continuation and expansion of slavery. He died on March 31, 1850, as that debate continued. A century later, when a special Senate committee was tasked with choosing individuals to be included in a "Famous Five" collection of portraits, it chose three leaders of the pre-Civil War Senate whose influence lived after them—Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun.