Special Tercentennial Issue
Distinguished Graduates
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John C. Calhoun

B.A. 1804


At a time when political nicknames had great currency and marked out legends in their own time, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina had at least two. The “Arch Nullifier” was also called, by an English contemporary, “the cast-iron man.” The metallic nickname emerged because Calhoun “looks as if he had never been born, and never could be extinguished.” Descriptions abound of his great height, severe demeanor, blazing eyes, and exuberant hair.

As for the nullification, it referred to Calhoun’s ardent opposition to the “tariff of abomination,” a measure adopted during the Jackson administration that threatened to harm Southern exports and thus the entire Southern economy. Through four decades in the nation’s capital, Calhoun never wavered in his devotion to the sectarian, regional interests of his homeland, defense of its peculiar institutions, and championing of states’ rights against the centralizing power of Federalism. Today, he is remembered by some only as an advocate of slavery.

The consummate Washington insider in today’s parlance, Calhoun also knew his share of reversals and frustration. Many of his countrymen probably expected him to become president. He served in the House from 1811 to 1817, then as secretary of war under Monroe. His two terms as vice president occurred under two successive presidentsJohn Quincy Adams (1825–1829) and Andrew Jackson (1829–1832), an unusual circumstance due in part to the deadlocked election of 1824, which Congress resolved. Calhoun resigned after a dispute with Jackson and then was a U.S. senator until 1843, secretary of state for two years, and returned to the Senate until his death.