John C. Calhoun emerged during the War of 1812 as an ardent nationalist. His views evolved overtime and Calhoun transformed into the leading states’ rights proponent. Vice President Calhoun’s loyalty to localism over nationalism brought him into conflict with President Andrew Jackson. Calhoun believed states could void federal law while Jackson vigorously opposed this view. The disagreement over nullification led to Calhoun’s resignation from office.
Calhoun emerged on the national scene during the War of 1812. Interestingly, he supported federal supremacy at the time. The nationalist worked closely with future rival Henry Clay and vociferously supported war with Britain. He continued his nationalism as Secretary of War. His views changed with the 1824 election. John Quincy Adams won the presidency in the House of Representatives over Andrew Jackson. General Jackson won the popular vote and Adams’ method of election disturbed Calhoun. As a result, Calhoun opposed the Adams Administration at every turn.
Andrew Jackson returned to defeat Adams in the 1828 rematch. The general chose Calhoun as his running mate. The two strong-willed men proved a combustible mixture. Eventually, they clashed over public and private matters.
Mrs. Calhoun helped erode Jackson’s relationship with her husband. In 1829, the president appointed Senator John Eaton as Secretary of War. Eaton carried on an affair with a married woman whose husband died mysteriously at sea. Rumors swirled about John Timberlake’s alleged suicide. Washington society shunned Peggy Eaton after her marriage to the secretary. Mrs. Calhoun organized the ostracism and cabinet wives refused to speak with Mrs. Eaton. President Jackson tried ordering them to socialize with her, but the wives refused to obey. Jackson blamed Calhoun for the problems.
The Eaton Affair paled compared to the Nullification Crisis of 1832. Four years earlier, the Adams Administration allied with northern interests to pass the “Tariff of Abominations.” The tariff increased rates dramatically and angered southerners. Calhoun responded in writing with his “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” rejecting his former nationalism and advocating an extreme form of states’ rights.
Calhoun argued the states had a right to “interpose” themselves between the people and the federal government to protect citizens from oppression. Further, he claimed states could nullify acts of the federal government. The argument dates to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who made the same argument protesting the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jackson virulently opposed this view.
Jackson and Calhoun clashed over the role of Union throughout the administration. At a Jefferson Day dinner in 1830, Jackson toasted the United States, “Our federal union, it must be preserved.” Calhoun responded in kind, “the union, next to our liberty, the most dear.” The two men had drawn their battle lines.
Relations continued to degrade when Jackson discovered Calhoun sought to censure the president for invading Florida in 1818. By this point, the two men openly feuded. The press began reporting the feud in the papers. Calhoun agreed to publish his letters to influence opinion.
Ideological disagreements, press pandering, and the Eaton Affair destroyed the relationship between president and vice president. The final break came in 1832. South Carolina threatened to secede from the union over the tariff issue. Congress passed the Force Bill empowering Jackson to break the rebellion. The president sent warships to South Carolina and threatened to hang Calhoun.
Henry Clay entered the debate and cooled tensions. Clay crafted a compromise acceptable to Jackson, Calhoun, and South Carolina. By this point, Calhoun had resigned from office. The vice president realized he could not work with the president and felt he could better serve South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. In 1832, Calhoun ran for senate and won. He remained a major force in American politics until his death in 1850. The vice president remained vacant until Martin Van Buren assumed office in 1833.
John C. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency in 1832. He opposed Jacksonian nationalism and the high tariff. His actions and borderline treason led to a major feud. In the end, Jackson’s position and force of will prevailed. Calhoun left office and fought for states’ rights for the next two decades.