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America First—100 Stories from Our History by  Lawton B. Evans


 

 

JOHN C. CALHOUN

WEBSTER, Clay, and Calhoun are known as the great trio. They were all poor boys, they all worked on farms, and became great by force of keen intellect, hard study, and high resolve. They lived about the same time, and were concerned with the same great national questions.

Calhoun was born and reared in South Carolina. When he was a boy, he worked in the fields with his father, and listened to stories of the Revolution, as the two sat by the fire on winter nights. From the first he loved to listen to the deeds of great men.

He grew up to be a quiet, thoughtful, studious boy, fond of rambling through the woods, and equally as fond of reading history. The schools at that time were poor, and Calhoun did not have much chance to get an education. Besides, he had to work on the farm.

He spent his spare time reading such books as he could borrow from his friends, or buy from his [314] small stock of money. When his father died, he took charge of the farm. He soon determined that he would be a farmer for life.

His brother, however, would not hear of this; he wanted John to be a professional man. Arrangements, therefore, were made to send him to school for two years, and then to Yale College for the study of law.

He was about twenty years of age when he entered Yale, and he became the leader of his class. He sometimes would get into discussions with the President of the College over political matters, and expressed himself so openly and so ably that the President became filled with admiration.

Upon one occasion, Calhoun was asked his views on a certain point in politics. He arose and stated them so clearly and powerfully that the President of Yale was thunderstruck! He afterwards said, "That young man, Calhoun, is able, very able. He will become a great man, possibly the President of the United States."

But, like Webster and Clay, Calhoun was destined never to reach that high office. His very greatness made him unsuited to the demands of political campaigns. Such men as Calhoun need no office to fix their places in history.

[315] After studying law for several years, he began to practice in South Carolina, but he confessed he did not enjoy it. He called reading law "a dry and solitary journey." He preferred history, and loved to study and discuss the political issues of the day.

He soon entered public life, and was sent to Congress just about the time the War of 1812 began. His associates were charmed with his powers of oratory. His great blue eyes glowed like coals of fire, his hair fell in masses about his broad forehead, and his full voice poured forth a rich volume of ringing words.

When Andrew Jackson was President, Calhoun had become one of the great leaders of the nation. It was the time of heated agitation over the question of the tariff. The Northern States wanted a heavy tariff to protect the home manufacture of goods, thus keeping out foreign competition. The Southern States wanted a low tariff, or none at all, so that they could buy goods anywhere at the cheapest prices.

It was a bitter controversy between the two sections, and Calhoun was ever the leader of the Southern States in their demand for a low tariff. At last, when the protective tariff bill of 1832 was passed, Calhoun wrote a letter to the people of [316] South Carolina, advising them not to submit to it.

"It is unjust to the people of the South. It makes them pay high prices for everything they buy. It takes money out of their pockets, and puts money into the purses of the Northern manufacturer," he argued.

The Northern manufacturers replied, "Without the tariff, we shall have to close our mills; we cannot go on with low prices for we cannot make the goods at such a rate. Our workmen will be dismissed, and our mills will be idle."

Thus the two sections stood on the subject of the tariff. Calhoun advised the Legislature of South Carolina to nullify the tariff law, so far as that state was concerned. South Carolina followed his advice, and passed an ordinance to that effect. Thus, Calhoun led his state into open opposition to the laws of Congress.

President Jackson was resolved to carry out the laws, and he would have forced a conflict with South Carolina had not wiser measures prevailed to prevent a rupture.

Clay proposed a compromise, which both sections could agree to, and argued this remedy with so much force that South Carolina withdrew her ordinance, and the tariff was modified. Thus the crisis passed.

[317] Calhoun was in public office for nearly forty years. He was the great leader of the Southern people, the advocate of States' Rights and a firm believer in the institution of slavery. He was truly a great man, in whom there was no low or selfish motive.


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