When Andrew Jackson learned that John C. Calhoun had been deceiving him for more than a decade, Jackson understandably exploded in rage.

While Andrew Jackson was moving against the Seminoles, the Spanish, and the British in Florida in the late 1810s, he had assumed that his closest ally in President James Monroe’s cabinet was John C. Calhoun. Calhoun, in fact, despised Jackson’s efforts and wanted him arrested and tried for his actions, which he deemed dangerous and illegal. True to his corrupt character, though, Calhoun intentionally misled Jackson, portraying himself in private correspondence as Jackson’s most reliable ally. Even when some of Jackson’s actual allies quietly tried to tell the general that Calhoun was playing a duplicitous game, he refused to believe it. Loyal to a fault, Jackson could not readily imagine any man, let alone a man claiming the title of republican, offering two faces on one matter, especially a personal one that involved the safety and security of the republic as a whole. Throughout the 1820s, Calhoun wrote Jackson letters of support, and, critically, he refused to restrain John Randolph of Roanoke’s hours-long speeches against the government and in favor of Jackson. Jackson took Calhoun’s restraint with Randolph as a sign of support.

Through a strange and convoluted set of circumstances, in May 1830, now-President Andrew Jackson came across evidence and correspondence revealing that his vice president, John C. Calhoun, had, indeed, attempted to subvert Jackson’s campaign against the Seminoles in 1818. Not just wanting merely to undermine Jackson, Calhoun had actually wanted to have Major General Jackson arrested on charges of treason. President Monroe had thought the move impolitic, but John Quincy Adams “spoke with great violence against the proposed arrest, justified the General throughout, vehemently urging the President to make the cause of the General that of the administration.”[1] Given that Jackson was suffering depression due to his missing his departed wife, and given that at the same time his cabinet was falling apart because of a sex scandal, the last thing he needed was to have someone he respected, confided in, and trusted to become an enemy.

When he learned that Calhoun had been deceiving him for more than a decade, Jackson understandably exploded in rage.

Calming down, he wrote a note to Calhoun, hoping to get the South Carolinian to explain or clarify. “That frankness which I trust has always characterized me thro’ life, toward those with whom I have been in habits of friendship induces me to lay before you the enclosed copy” of the evidence that he had undermined Jackson in 1818, contrary to his professions to Jackson in private correspondence. “My object in making this communication is to announce to you the great surprise which is felt, and to learn of you whether it be possible that the information given is correct.”[2] If Jackson coolly offered Calhoun an out, the South Carolinian refused to take it. In his response of May 29, 1830, he made no apologies but rather expressed contempt that Jackson only now learned of Calhoun’s views from 1818. Then, in typical Calhoun fashion, resembling some Dantean figure in the Inferno, he justified his actions at great length and with the vomiting of much ink and paper.[3] Jackson responded with a swift cut. Calhoun clearly misunderstood the purpose of his letter, Jackson wrote. It was merely to state “et tu Brute.”[4]

As Jackson felt the betrayal of one he had assumed a close ally, his own men were desperately wrestling with another issue, that of nullification, union, and states’ rights. At the beginning of 1830, Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina delivered a long speech in the Senate on the nature of America’s westward movement and how the public lands should be distributed. This was not a new problem, of course, as the distribution or sale of public lands had been one of the most important roles of Congress to decide as early 1775. After the Missouri Compromise of 1820, though, the distribution of western lands had become far more political, with the stakes being extremely high. Should white pro-slavery southerners settle the West, they would support the South. Should, however, white anti-slavery (or even neutral) northerners settle the West, they would support the North. Since the War of 1812, the country had experienced the “Great Migration” of thousands upon thousands of people moving out of the American East (north and south), with their very large and growing families, onto the western frontiers. Procreation, after all, was the fundamental nineteenth-century American pastime.

After carefully listening to the many points Hayne had made, Senator Daniel Webster suspected an unstated agenda lurking behind the South Carolinian’s words, and he called him on it. Further, he argued, the great lawgiver of the United States had been Nathan Dane, the author of the Northwest Ordinance, passed unanimously in Congress on July 13, 1787. That act had not only guaranteed the protection of common law and natural rights of all Americans, white or Indian, but it had also forbidden the extension of slavery north and west of the Ohio River. Though it had not forbidden all slavery, it had clearly offered the trajectory of slavery—to die by being outcompeted at the hands of free labor.[5] Hayne, unwittingly, fell into Webster’s trap, admitting that he was actually not talking about western settlement but about the great South Carolinian principle, the principle of nullification as first espoused by Jefferson and Madison in their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of the late 1790s. When the federal government advances evil, a state has not just a right but a duty “to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintenance, within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties appertaining to them.”[6] In what is often regarded as one of the finest orations delivered in the history of the United States Senate, Daniel Webster spoke at his most eloquent and impassioned. He claimed that he believed in natural law, natural rights, and common law. These guides told him that one has a right to rebellion but not to nullification. The latter, he claimed, was a made-up right, not found in nature or history. Yes, he agreed, a people must always resist evil. The question, however, was how to do this effectively and within the natural law. A government was still a community, whether functional or dysfunctional. Therefore, one must behave as a member in the community or out of it, he argued. If this cannot be agreed upon, “Is not the whole Union a rope of sand?” The constitutional Union, under the guidance of the founding fathers, had created the best political community possible, one that not only takes into account differences but even encourages them. To go against the Union, Webster argued, is not just imprudent, it is foolish and unjust. Then, in conclusion, Webster declaimed at his most purple and eloquent:

While the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children. Beyond that, I seek not to penetrate the veil. God grant that, in my day, at least, that curtain may not rise. God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind. When my eyes shall be turned to behold, for the last time, the sun in Heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance, rather behold the gorgeous Ensign of the Republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured—bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as, What is all this worth? Nor those other words of delusion and folly, Liberty first, and Union afterwards —but every where, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole Heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart—Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable![7]

Though Andrew Jackson thought little of Daniel Webster as a person, he must have found this speech to his liking. Famously, during the April 13, 1830, Jefferson Day Dinner, Jackson offered the twenty-fifth toast, having not been on the invited list of the first twenty-four: “Our Federal Union—it must be preserved.”[8] As might be expected, Jackson’s toast utterly shocked and unsettled Calhoun and his supporters. They had known that Jackson, contrary to their original views, was no one’s puppet, but they had hoped to persuade him to adopt Calhoun’s position. They had failed.

Author’s Note: This essay is Part II in a series of “director’s cut” pieces from the forthcoming Regnery book, In Defense of Andrew Jackson, available September 10, 2018, but available for pre-order now. Part I may be found here

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[1] John Forsythe to James Hamilton, February 8, 1828, quoted in Papers of Andrew Jackson 8: 258fn1.

[2] Andrew Jackson to John C. Calhoun, May 13, 1830, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 8: 256.

[3] John C. Calhoun to Andrew Jackson, May 29, 1830, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 8: 305-321.

[4] Andrew Jackson to John C. Calhoun, May 30, 1830, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 8: 322.

[5] Speech of Daniel Webster, January 20, 1830, in Herman Beltz, ed., The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Union: Selected Documents (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000), 28-29.

[6] Speech of Robert Y. Hayne, January 25, 1830, in Webster-Hayne, 73-75.

[7] Speech of Daniel Webster, January 26-27, 1830, in Webster-Hayne Debate, 143-144.

[8] Andrew Jackson, Toast, April 13, 1830, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 8: 190.

The featured image combines a portrait of Andrew Jackson by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (born 1785/1788—1838) with a portrait of John C. Calhoun by Charles Bird King (1785-1862); the latter has been brightened for clarity. Both are in the public domain and appear here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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