John C. Calhoun, arguably South Carolina’s most famous politician, died this week (March 31) in 1850. If there was ever a man whose desire for the presidency was in inverse proportion to his deserving of it, it was Calhoun.
In the early 19th century, Calhoun was a rising political star, serving in the House of Representatives, becoming secretary of war under President James Monroe, and later serving as vice president under John Quincy Adams and his successor, Andrew Jackson. That made Calhoun one of only two men to serve as vice president in two different administrations. (The little-known George Clinton is the other.)
Then, in 1832, he resigned as Jackson’s vice president in order to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, where he waged a relentless campaign against federal interference with states’ rights, and against any attempt to end or contain the institution of slavery. No politician in American history championed slavery more fervently than did Calhoun, who argued that slavery was not evil but “a positive good” that preserved “white supremacy” and prevented “race and class conflict,” by preventing slave insurrections and bloodshed.
To those ends, Senator Calhoun fought every attempt to curtail slavery’s westward expansion into the territories America was acquiring. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibited slavery in any new U.S. territory north of Missouri’s southern border, and a proposed amendment in the House, the Wilmot Proviso, aimed to prohibit slavery in any territory acquired during the Mexican-American War. In response, Calhoun argued that southerners had sacrificed as much blood and treasure as northerners in acquiring America’s western territories. Therefore, slavery should be allowed in any new territory, and future state, that wanted it. Calhoun even opposed the Compromise of 1850, which balanced California’s admission into the Union as a free state with several pro-southern provisions, including removing the Wilmot Proviso from proposed legislation. Fortunately, the Compromise of 1850 passed (albeit after Calhoun’s death), which somewhat eased the North-South tensions Calhoun had so greatly exacerbated.
But not end them, as Calhoun clearly understood it would not. Sensing the stakes and the repercussions of the growing split between northerners and southerners over slavery, Calhoun made an uncanny prediction on his deathbed in 1850. “The Union is doomed to dissolution …” he said. “I fix its probable occurrence within 12 years … It may be brought about in a manner that none now foresee. But the probability is it will explode in a Presidential election.”
The Civil War began 11 years later, and as Calhoun foretold, it did “explode” in a presidential election – Abe Lincoln’s. Then again, thanks to Lincoln winning that election, the dissolution that Calhoun expected, and did so much to bring about, was prevented.