Calhoun, John Caldwell:

Senator and Advocate of States' Rights

In Dec., 1832, Calhoun quit the vice presidency after being elected to the Senate, where he eloquently defended his states' rights principles in dramatic debates with Daniel Webster. The firmness of Andrew Jackson and the compromise tariff proposed by Henry Clay resolved the nullification crisis in 1833, but the larger issue of states' rights persisted, leading ultimately to secession and the Civil War.

Martin Van Buren, Calhoun's bitter political enemy, held the vice presidency in Jackson's second term and went on to succeed Jackson in the office Calhoun had coveted for many years. As the abolitionists grew stronger in the North, Calhoun became an outspoken apologist for slavery and made every effort to maintain the delicate balance between North and South in the Senate by opposing the prohibition of slavery in newly admitted states. Thus, while serving briefly (1844–45) as Secretary of State under John Tyler, he completed negotiations for the admission of Texas as a slave state, but later tried to avert war with Mexico.

Again (1845–50) in the Senate, he advocated compromise in the Oregon boundary dispute but opposed the admission of California as a free state in the debates over the Compromise of 1850. In rejecting the Wilmot Proviso, Calhoun set forth the theory that all territories were held in common by the states and that the federal government merely served as a trustee of the lands.

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