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John C. Calhoun: The Starter of The Civil War

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John C. Calhoun: The Starter of the Civil War

If one person could be called the instigator of the Civil War, it was John C. Calhoun -- Unknown.

The fact that he never wanted the South to break away from the United States as it would a decade after his death, his words and life's work made him the father of secession. In a very real way, he started the American Civil War. Slavery was the foundation of the antebellum South. More than any other characteristic, it defined Southern social, political, and cultural life. It also unified the South as a section distinct from the rest of the nation. John C. Calhoun, the South's recognized intellectual and political leader from the 1820s until his death in 1850, devoted much of his remarkable intellectual energy to defending slavery. He developed a two-point defense. One was a political theory that the rights of a minority section in particular, the South needed special protecting in the federal union. The second was an argument that presented slavery as an institution that benefited all involved. John C. Calhoun's commitment to those two points and his efforts to develop them to the fullest would assign him a unique role in American history as the moral, political, and spiritual voice of Southern separatism.

Born in 1782 in upcountry South Carolina, Calhoun grew up during the boom in the area's cotton economy. The son of a successful farmer who served in public office, Calhoun went to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1801 to attend Yale College. After graduating, he attended the Litchfield Law School, also in Connecticut, and studied under Tapping Reeve, an outspoken supporter of a strong federal government. Seven years after Calhoun's initial departure from South Carolina, he returned home, where he soon inherited his father's substantial land and slave holdings and won election to the U.S. Congress in 1810.

Ironically, when Calhoun, the future champion of states' rights and secession, arrived in Washington, he was an ardent federalist like his former law professor. He aligned himself with the federalist faction of the Republican Party led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky. He also became a prominent member of the party's War Hawk faction, which pushed President James Madison's administration to fight the War of 1812, the nation's second war with Great Britain. When the fighting ended in 1815, Calhoun championed a protective national tariff on imports; a measure he hoped would foster both Southern and Northern industrial development. After the War of 1812, Congress began to consider improving the young republic's infrastructure. Calhoun enthusiastically supported plans to spend federal money, urging Congress to "bind the Republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals.... Let us conquer space.... We are under the most imperious obligation to counteract every tendency to disunion."

Calhoun left the legislature in 1817 to become President James Monroe's secretary of war and dedicated himself to strengthening the nation's military. He succeeded, spurring revitalization of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point under the leadership of Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer and improving the army's administrative structure with reforms that endured into the 20th century. "If ever there was perfection carried into any branch of the public service," one federal official wrote, "it was that which Mr. Calhoun carried into the War Department." Calhoun's success in improving the country's war-making capabilities came at the price of a stronger, less frugal federal government. Not everyone was pleased. "His schemes are too grand and magnificent...," a detractor in Congress wrote. "If we had revenue of a hundred million, he would be at no loss how to spend it." (Wiltse 1,944 vol. 1)

Calhoun hoped to use his accomplishments as war secretary as a springboard to the presidency. That dream fell through, however, Calhoun had no problem accepting the vice presidency under staunch federalist John Quincy Adams in 1824. Adams was glad to have Calhoun in his administration, having held him in high esteem since their days together in Monroe's cabinet. Adams was particularly impressed by Calhoun's "ardent patriotism," believing Calhoun was "above all, well rounded." This was an image Calhoun cultivated during the 1824 election campaign. It turned out that Calhoun was late in publicly promoting his commitment to federalism. By this time, Southerners were increasingly taking an anti-federal-government stance. In the North, industry and the economy it created grew in influence and power every day. Meanwhile, the rapidly expanding cultivation of cotton and other cash crops were committing the South

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