John C. Calhoun, the Tariff and Slavery

John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina was a leading southern statesman in the first half of the nineteenth century. Born in 1782, he graduated from Yale in 1804, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1807 in Abbeville District in South Carolina. He served as a representative in the state legislature in 1808-1809 and then as a representative in the U. S. Congress from 1811 to 1817.

James Monroe appointed him Secretary of War and he served from 1817 to 1825. He reorganized the War Department and was highly praised for his administrative work. He was elected vice president of the United States with President John Quincy Adams and was re-elected in 1828 to serve under President Andrew Jackson until he resigned in 1832.

He served in the U.S. Senate from 1832 to 1843 when he resigned to serve as Secretary of State in the John Tyler administration until 1845. He was again elected to the Senate where he served until his death in 1850.

In 1826, he moved to his Fort Hill plantation about 215 miles northwest of Charleston where he continued raising agricultural crops, including cotton, with a slave labor force, for the remainder of his life.

In 1827, he read the news of the proceedings of Lewis Tappan's Harrisburg Convention, a meeting to organize the various tariff interests into an effective lobbying force. He immediately recognized that tariff benefits for the North must come at the expense of the South and that the division would threaten the Union. He expressed his concerns to others and commented that the danger was not generally recognized.

Modern academic historians have attempted to provide evidence for their view that slavery, not the tariff, was the cause of U.S. Civil War. In constructing their argument, they have seized upon one of Calhoun's letters concerning the tariff danger. They extracted words from it to fashion a quotation which they then interpreted as evidence that Calhoun was concerned about the danger of emancipation of his slave property. They excised tariff-related language from a complaint about the tariff. Then they applied a strained interpretation to an incidental mention of slavery to give the impression that danger to slave property was the thing that worried Calhoun. Viewing the historians' quoted text side-by-side with the original text quickly reveals the fraud, especially in view of the economic relationship that shows the devastating effects of high tariff rates on cotton prices.

The fraud is all the more outrageous in view of the fact that Calhoun had written other letters that clearly express the tariff complaint with no mention whatsoever of slavery. These they did not mention.

Two examples are sufficient to demonstrate that Calhoun had quickly perceived that the tariff posed a danger to the Union. First is his letter of August 25, 1827, to Littleton W. Tazewell, a Virginia senator who had thoughts similar to Calhoun's. Calhoun made it clear that the Harrisburg tariff convention might organize the northern manufacturers into an oppressive tariff regime that would divide the Union if it ever got power and was able to elect the president.

The second is his letter of August 26, 1827, to his brother-in-law Lt. James Edward Colhoun, then serving in the U.S. Navy.