John C. Calhoun

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Calhoun, John Caldwell [Vice President] (18 March 1782 - 31 March 1850)


Calhoun, the US Senator from South Carolina and Vice President under Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams (1825 - 1832), was a Unitarian who gave money to build the church in Washington. He was listed on its first membership roll.

Calhoun, who was of Scottish-Irish descent, was born in Abbeville District, South Carolina. Patrick Calhoun, his father, was born in Donegal, North Ireland, but left Ireland when a mere child. The family emigrated first to Pennsylvania, but, after Braddock's defeat, moved to Western Virginia and in 1756 settled on Long Cane Creek, in Granville (now Abbeville) county. His father served in the colonial and later the state legislature, taking part in the War of Independence. In 1770 he had married Martha Caldwell, the daughter of another Scottish-Irish settler.

Calhoun was educated mainly by his brother-in-law, the Rev. Moses Waddell (1770-1840), a Presbyterian minister, who afterwards, from 1819 to 1829, was president of the University of Georgia. In 1802 Calhoun entered the junior class in Yale College, and graduated with distinction in 1804. He worked in a law office in Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1807 was admitted to the bar. He began practice in his native Abbeville District. In 1808 and 1809 he was a member of the South Carolina legislature, and from 1811 to 1817 was a member of the national House of Representatives.

William C. Meigs wrote in a 2-volume 1917 biography of Calhoun,

  • He was brought up a Presbyterian . . . but he himself never joined any faith. He attended the Episcopal Church in later years, and is said to have aided in founding a church of that sect, but neither the Episcopal creed nor the formulated one of any religion can have appealed to him with much force, and he equally contributed to the erection of the first Unitarian Church in Washington, and is said to have been among "its warm friends and consistent adherents.”

A 1950 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Margaret L. Coit, John C. Calhoun:American Portrait, wrote that Calhoun would not join a church:

  • Although he never joined a church, and refused to profess himself a Christian, he frequently attended church, particularly the Episcopal church to which his wife belonged.
  • Even his friends had no idea where he stood. Some believed him a deist, others a Swedenborgian. Furthermore, he gave money to build the Unitarian Church in Washington and “on the first roll of this Washington parish” can be found his name. “Unitarianism is,” he announced with his characteristic dogmatism, “the only true faith and will ultimately prevail over the world.

John Niven's John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union documents how Calhoun was among the seventeen founders of the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., a church that is still the Unitarian Universalist Association's "flagship church."

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Contemporary Unitarians disapprove of what Calhoun is known for most: his defense of slavery. He also advocated states' rights, limited government, and nullification (the right of a state to nullify or invalidate any federal law that the state considers unconstitutional).

Calhoun died of tuberculosis and is buried in St. Philips Churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina.

{CE; EG; UU}