John C. Calhoun

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It is harder to preserve than to obtain liberty.

John Caldwell Calhoun (18 March 178231 March 1850) was an American politician from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. A Democrat who supported slavery, he served as the seventh Vice President of the United States, first under John Quincy Adams (1825–1829) and then under Andrew Jackson (1829–1832), but resigned the Vice Presidency to enter the United States Senate, where he had more power. He also served in the United States House of Representatives (1810–1817) and was both Secretary of War (1817–1824) and Secretary of State (1844–1845).


The very essence of a free government consists in considering offices as public trusts, bestowed for the good of the country, and not for the benefit of an individual or a party.
I am a Southern man and a slaveholder... and none the worse for being a slaveholder.
With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected.
I cannot think in the present state of parties of entering again on the political arena.
In looking back, I see nothing to regret, and little to correct.


  • Protection and patriotism are reciprocal.
    • Speech in the House of Representatives (12 December 1811)
  • The neighboring tribes are becoming daily less warlike, and more helpless and dependent on us … [T]hey have, in a great measure, ceased to be an object of terror, and have become that of commiseration.
    • Speech to the House of Representatives (5 December 1818)


  • The Government of the absolute majority instead of the Government of the people is but the Government of the strongest interests; and when not efficiently checked, it is the most tyrannical and oppressive that can be devised.
    • Speech to the U.S. Senate (15 February 1833)
  • The very essence of a free government consists in considering offices as public trusts, bestowed for the good of the country, and not for the benefit of an individual or a party.
    • Speech (13 February 1835)
  • A power has risen up in the government greater than the people themselves, consisting of many and various and powerful interests, combined into one mass, and held together by the cohesive power of the vast surplus in the banks.
    • Speech (27 May 1836); this is the source of the phrase, "Cohesive power of public plunder"
  • I hold that the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding states between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good. A positive good.
  • Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil. That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.
    • Regarding slavery (1838), as quoted in Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 1 (Brother Against Brother), Time Inc, New York (1983)


Letter to Duff Green (February 1844)[edit]

  • I cannot think in the present state of parties of entering again on the political arena. I would but waste my strength and exhaust my time, without adding to my character, or rendering service to the country, or advancing the cause for which I have so long contended. I feel no disgust nor do I feel disposed to complain of any one. On the contrary, I am content, and willing to end my publick life now. In looking back, I see nothing to regret, and little to correct. My interest in the prosperity of the country, and the success of our peculiar and sublime political system when well understood, remain without abatement, and will do so till my last breath; and I shall ever stand prepared to serve the country, whenever I shall see reasonable prospect of doing so.
    • Letter to Duff Green (10 February 1844), in Correspondence of John C. Calhoun (1900) edited by William Pinkney Starke, p. 569

Letter to Richard Pakenham (September 1844)[edit]

  • Our well-founded claim, grounded on continuity, has greatly strengthened, during the same period, by the rapid advance of our population toward the territory — its great increase, especially in the valley of the Mississippi — as well as the greatly increased facility of passing to the territory by more accessible routes, and the far stronger and rapidly-swelling tide of population that has recently commenced flowing into it.
    • Letter to Richard Pakenham, British minister to the United States, concerning the boundary dispute between the two countries (3 September 1844)

Speech in the U.S. Senate (February 1847)[edit]

  • I am a Southern man and a slaveholder. A kind and merciful one, I trust, and none the worse for being a slaveholder. I say, for one, I would rather meet any extremity upon earth than give up one inch of our equality, one inch of what belongs to us as members of this republic! What! Acknowledged inferiority! The surrender of life is nothing to sinking down into acknowledged inferiority!

Speech in the U.S. Senate (January 1848)[edit]

  • It is harder to preserve than to obtain liberty.
    • Speech in the Senate (January 1848)

Speech in the U.S. Senate (August 1849)[edit]

  • With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious, and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.


  • The interval between the decay of the old and the formation and establishment of the new constitutes a period of transition which must always necessarily be one of uncertainty, confusion, error, and wild and fierce fanaticism.
    • A Disquisition on Government (1851), p. 90


  • I never know what South Carolina thinks of a measure. I never consult her. I act to the best of my judgment, and according to my conscience. If she approves, well and good. If she does not, or wishes any one to take my place, I am ready to vacate. We are even.
    • Reported in Walter J. Miller, "Calhoun as a Lawyer and Statesman"' part 2, The Green Bag (June 1899), p. 271. Miller states "I will cite his own words", but this quotation is reported as not verified in Calhoun's writings in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989).


  • Beware the wrath of a patient adversary.
    • This has recently become attributed to Calhoun on the internet and in print, but seems to be a derivative of John Dryden's statement in Absalom and Achitophel (1681): Beware the Fury of a Patient Man.

Quotes about Calhoun[edit]

  • John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation I will secede your head from the rest of your body.
  • Stephens' Constitutional View of the War Between the States, which was and remains probably the best defense of the Confederate cause. It is all about states' rights, and the defense of the minority against the tyranny of the numerical majority, although the 'silent minority', the four million slaves, are never counted. It is substantially the book that Calhoun would have written had he been alive to do so... Calhoun was the philosopher-king of the old south, the spiritual mentor of Stephens, Davis, and most of the political leaders of the Confederacy. Bradford and McClellan, following Willmoore Kendall, are obsessed with the utterly false notion that Lincoln was somehow responsible for the permissive egalitarianism of the contemporary welfare state. But equality as such was no less important to Calhoun than to Lincoln. It was just a different kind of equality... It never occurs to Calhoun that black human beings might also resent, with equal, or much greater, reason, 'acknowledged inferiority'. That is because he does not think of them as human. Calhoun simply assumes that blacks have neither the reason nor the passions that are characteristically human. They are chattels, that is, cattle, for all intents and purposes.
  • We see here the essence of the southern understanding of equality, why it was so highly prized, and why so resolutely defended. Every white man can be proud of himself, can consider himself an aristocrat, not because of his virtues or accomplishments, but simply because he is not black! By rejecting the principle that all men are created equal, by keeping 'the degenerate sons of Ham' under foot, and under the lash, one need never do anything to become important, like members of the royal family. It is not without reason that Lincoln compared slavery to the divine right of kings! Calhoun demanded equality no less than Lincoln. But his equality required a 'cornerstone' of slavery.
  • Calhoun's last speech had a bitter attack on Mr. Jefferson for his amendment to the Ordinance of '87 prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory. Calhoun was in a dying condition – was too weak to read it. So James M. Mason, a Virginia Senator, read it in the Senate about two weeks before Calhoun's death, March 1850.
  • The first protective tariff in American history was introduced by Calhoun and supported by Madison and Jefferson, and opposed by Webster... Calhoun divorced the idea of states' rights from natural rights, and invented the doctrine of legal or constitutional 'secession' to replace the natural right of revolution as the ground for independence. The South understood that to appeal to the right of revolution, as Jefferson had in the Declaration, was necessarily to appeal to the idea of individual natural rights. Southern leaders balked at such an appeal, because they understood that natural rights flew in the face of their fantastic justifications for slavery.
    • Thomas L. Krannawitter, "Dishonest About Abe" (10 May 2002), Claremont Review of Books, The Claremont Institute
  • The federal government is not merely an agent of the states, as John C. Calhoun asserted; it was not and is not a compact between states. The founders specifically avoided that. So, if a state wants to leave the Union, the only possible way is for 'We the People' to agree to let it go. But there is no specific mechanism for secession in the constitution as it stands. And really, there is no way to read a right of secession into its text. It isn't there, and that's because the Founders never intended for states to break away. Therefore, secession, which would effectively destroy the Constitution, was and is illegal. And Lincoln was simply carrying out his oath of office to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it.
    • Christopher Shelley, "Chat-Room" (7 April 2014), Crossroads
  • The most famous advocate of slavery during the nineteenth century was John Calhoun of South Carolina. He was a man who filled numerous roles, congressman, secretary of war, vice president, senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate. Having failed to gain the presidency as a National Republican centralizer, Calhoun eventually became a staunch defender of states' rights, but this defense was apparently motivated by factors quite different from those that motivated Jefferson. Rather than motivated by concern for popular contrl of government, Calhoun seemed to be primarily interested in protecting slavery and advancing his own career. Unlike Jefferson, Calhoun glorified slavery, championed aristocracy, and embraced militarism. Calhoun espoused Hamiltonian economics...

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