There was little doubt that the John C. Calhoun who began his career as a Congressman representing the 6th District of South Carolina and who rose to serve as James Monroe’s Secretary of War, was a different man politically than the John C. Calhoun who was overwhelmingly selected to serve as the 7th Vice President of the United States under both John Quincy Adams and his successor Andrew Jackson. A supporter of protective tariffs, he would begin to oppose them and where he once advocated a strong Federal Government, his allegiances began to shift towards State’s Rights, and limited, more restrained authority. It would be this political realignment that would, on December 28th, 1832, lead him to become the first Vice President to resign the Office.
The significance of Calhoun leaving the office was not in the fact that he had. Former Senator and Governor of New York turned Secretary of State Martin Van Buren would already be elected to replace Calhoun as Jackson’s Vice President. Increasingly at odds with President Jackson, Calhoun had assured Van Buren’s place as his successor in his attempt to destroy the man’s political career by casting the tie-breaking vote to block him from serving as US Minister to the United Kingdom. As the Nullification Debate raged on, Calhoun was the leader of that ideological movement that believed States had the right to nullify federal laws within their borders. As Senator Robert Y. Haynes had proven ill-equipped to defend South Carolina’s position, especially when facing Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in the Senate Debate, he would leave for the Governor’s Office while Calhoun would take over his seat in the Senate. Part of the issue here was that the Supreme Court, under then Chief Justice John Marshall, had already rejected Nullification as early as 1809 in the United States v. Peters, stating, “If the legislatures of the several States may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the Constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery, and the nation is deprived of the means of enforcing its laws by the instrumentality of its own tribunals. So fatal a result must be deprecated by all, and the people of Pennsylvania, not less than the citizens of every other State, must feel a deep interest in resisting principles so destructive of the union, and in averting consequences so fatal to themselves.” James Madison, one of the Chief Architects of the Constitution would assert that the Federal Courts, not the states, had the power to determine the Constitutionality of a federal law. Still, the Nullification Crisis was a long time coming in the new nation as States and the Federal Government both sought to assert their place and their power within the Republic. Yet despite most of the states challenging the Federal Authority at one point or another, Calhoun and South Carolina would stand alone in 1832 in their disregard of the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832, even though most of the Southern States still reliant on a slave economy had a stake in asserting the ability to invalidate Federal Law. The situation would escalate with South Carolina preparing to assert nullification by force if necessary and President Andrew Jackson ready to respond in kind.
Eventually the issue would become moot as a compromise would be reached. Yet, as Andrew Jackson would recognize, the issue would be far from over, stating, “”the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.” Still, until 1973, when Spiro Agnew stepped down, he was the only man to ever resign from the Vice Presidency. Though he would remain in the Senate and serve briefly as Secretary of State, the Presidency that he wanted would remain forever out of his grasp.