The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wasn’t the first to decry his vice president. Jackson wanted to hang his.

A makeshift gallows with a noose is displayed on a screen as the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack holds a public hearing on Capitol Hill on June 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The House Jan. 6 select committee presented evidence Thursday that President Donald Trump was aware his supporters storming the U.S. Capitol were targeting Vice President Mike Pence and did nothing to stop them.

In taped testimony played at the hearing, White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson said she witnessed White House Counsel Pat Cipollone tell White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows of the calls to hang Pence and urge the president to do something to stop it, and that Meadows responded, “You heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”

Even a day after Jan. 6, Trump balked at condemning the violence

“He put a target on his own vice president’s back,” Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a member of the committee, said.

But if Trump declined to condemn calls for violence against his vice president, an earlier president went further. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson — whom Trump has repeatedly said he admires — threatened to hang his vice president, John C. Calhoun.

If you have an image of Calhoun in your mind, it is probably based on the photograph of him taken shortly before his death in 1850; he has a sunken, wrinkled face, unkempt hair and a mildly gross neck beard popping out of his collar. This is not the Calhoun of the vice-presidential years — that Calhoun, circa 1825 to 1832, was beefier, clean-shaven and well-coiffed.

This was back before presidents and vice presidents ran on a single ticket, so Calhoun started off as John Quincy Adams’s vice president and then continued in the role after Andrew Jackson defeated Adams in 1828.

At first, Calhoun might have seemed a good fit for Jackson — both were Southerners and wealthy enslavers who supported the removal of Indigenous Americans to the West.

But the self-educated Jackson found the Yale-educated Calhoun’s intellectualism annoying and Calhoun’s wife dangerously snobbish (see: Petticoat Affair). Plus, in 1830, Jackson found out that 12 years earlier, Calhoun, as secretary of war, had wanted to censure Jackson, then a general in Florida, for starting a war with the Seminoles against direct orders.

But their biggest conflict by far was the Nullification Crisis. Toward the end of Adams’s term, Congress passed and Adams signed into a law a tariff on imported goods that Southerners said hurt them more than it hurt Northern states. Calhoun, still vice president, wrote an anonymous screed from his South Carolina plantation claiming that states could reject, or “nullify,” federal laws they did not like.

When Jackson came in, Calhoun expected him to get rid of the tariff, but he didn’t. In fact, Jackson dug in his heels, enraged that a state would question (his) federal authority, claiming it was treason. So, for the next four years, as the crisis calcified and South Carolinians threatened to secede, the president and the vice president hated each other’s guts.

At a party in 1830, Jackson toasted: “Our Union. It must be preserved!” Calhoun got up and toasted back: “The Union. Next to our liberty, the most dear.” A few days later, Jackson warned a South Carolina congressman to tell his “friends” that “if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.”

In 1831, Calhoun, in his role as president of the Senate, broke a tie vote on a controversial nomination by voting against Jackson’s nominee. The next year, Jackson ran for a second term and picked the failed nominee, Martin Van Buren, as his running mate.

A few months before the end of his term, Calhoun resigned — the first of only two vice presidents to do so — and became a senator in a special election. In the Senate, he was a forceful proponent of slavery as a “positive good” and the principal architect of the South’s future secession.

The bad blood between the two men continued in Jackson’s second term. In 1835, Calhoun reportedly called Jackson “a Caesar who ought to have a Brutus,” and when someone actually tried to assassinate Jackson soon afterward, rumors abounded that Calhoun was involved. (He wasn’t.)

The day after Jackson left the White House in 1837, a reporter friend asked him whether he had any regrets. Yes, he said, “I regret I was unable to shoot [House Speaker] Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.”