Benjamin A. Calhoun, state legislator, farmer, lay minister, and mechanic, was born on May 22, 1849, in Elbert County, Georgia. He was the third of nine children to Francis A. and Louisa V. (Jones) Calhoun of Georgia. Calhoun, whose father was a nephew of legendary political figure and U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, represented both the Populist and Democratic parties in the Texas legislature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and served Piney Woods counties during parts of four terms in the state House of Representatives despite three ill-fated tries at securing national office. The family was living in Abbeville County, South Carolina, in 1860.
Calhoun first moved to Texas around 1874 and initially took up farming on a small plot near the community of Chireno in Nacogdoches County. On March 8, 1874, in Nacogdoches, Calhoun married Josephine Esther Tucker (the name also appears as Ester J. Tucker) of Texas. The couple had six children together—Ettie, Frank, Edward, Florine, Josephine, and Allen—and settled in Chireno, where Benjamin listed his occupation on the 1880 census as mechanic. County tax records for 1895 indicate that the Calhoun family operated a homestead of forty-two acres, valued at $300, that included a small complement of cattle, hogs, and horses plus miscellaneous property valued at $330.
Agricultural concerns were prevalent throughout Calhoun’s life. Though the beginning date of his association with the Farmers’ Alliance is unknown, published minutes of state alliance meetings indicate he was active in the organization as early as 1891, and Calhoun found himself pressed into service as the Texas People’s Party nominee for state representative from the Populist stronghold of Nacogdoches County in June 1892. Gaining a reputation as a passionate orator and champion of the agrarian class, Calhoun used the county convention and “fired a few broadsides at the Democrats for their reluctance to advocate free silver and thus loosen up the money supply, for which he was met with loud applause,” easily winning the seat for Nacogdoches County that November in a Populist sweep of local offices led by popular veteran sheriff Andrew Jackson Spradley. Sworn in for his first term as House representative on January 10, 1893, Calhoun was appointed by speaker John Hughes Cochran to influential committees including Claims and Accounts; Labor; Privileges and Elections; Public Printing; and Roads, Bridges and Ferries. His most noteworthy project during the Twenty-third Legislature, however, was serving on the committee tasked with drafting articles of impeachment for land commissioner William L. McGaughey, who was tried on charges of incompetence but acquitted in May 1893.
Calhoun’s popularity in his home district was sufficient to secure him the People’s Party nomination to run against Democratic incumbent Samuel B. Cooper for Texas’ Second District U.S. congressional seat in the 1894 election (no Republican entered the race); the freshman Populist legislator declined to run for reelection to the Texas House in an effort to focus his resources upon the race for the federal office. Though the Second District encompassed parts of nineteen East Texas counties (including several dominated by Populists in local offices), Calhoun’s controversial defeat by an “official” tally of more than 7,000 votes in 1894 led Populists to charge that he had been the victim of “Harrison County Methods”—i.e., widespread election fraud—evidenced by disproportionate returns in favor of Democratic candidates despite 68 percent of the county’s voters being black. Even the Harrison County Democratic leader admitted that fraud cost the Populists the election. Calhoun fared even worse in his congressional bid of 1896 and lost to Cooper by 12,336 votes (Republican J. M. Claiborne polled at just over 14 percent in the district).
On hiatus from public service but derided by Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel editor and district clerk Bill Haltom as an example of “perennial office seekers,” Calhoun remained active in the now-diminishing Farmers’ Alliance and held sufficient clout in his home district (coinciding with Spradley’s resumption of the sheriff’s office after a two-year absence) to regain his old Texas House seat on the People’s Party ticket in the 1900 election—beating Haltom in a bitter campaign Democrats blamed Spradley for engineering. Sworn in yet again the following January, Calhoun reentered the House as the only Populist in the Twenty-seventh Legislature.
Speaker Robert E. Prince assigned him to the Judicial Districts Committee, Judiciary No. 2 Committee, Labor Committee, Public Buildings and Grounds Committee, and Public Debt Committee during a session that proved busy for Calhoun, who personally introduced thirteen bills and co-authored another. Notable legislation included bills to criminalize “seduction,” particularly regarding cases involving minors and even within marriage; clarifying the state’s existing bigamy laws; and standardizing requirements for serving on criminal and misdemeanor juries. As the sole Populist remaining in the body, however, the majority of Calhoun’s legislation died in committee without the backing of a party caucus. The disintegration of the Populist Party structure and the passage of a poll tax in 1902—a measure which Calhoun voted against—contributed to his defeat for reelection in his Texas House district that year, having paired with Spradley on a “mongrel” slate dubbed the “Independent Citizens Ticket.” He attempted one more token run for Congress in 1902 only to experience his most humiliating defeat at Cooper’s hands; yet again amid allegations of fraud, Calhoun polled but a single vote.
Calhoun moved to Lufkin in Angelina County in 1908. The 1910 census indicated that four children remained in the household; Calhoun’s occupation was listed as general farmer with clear ownership of twenty-seven acres of land. He was pressed into public service once more, appointed (as a Democrat) on September 16, 1914, to the state House seat vacated by T. L. Foster (who had resigned abruptly that February) of the Tenth District in Angelina and San Augustine counties. Chairing the Forestry Committee and serving on bodies overseeing Labor, Penitentiaries, Public Lands and Land Office, and State Asylums, Calhoun made his mark with a heated floor debate versus Representative William T. “Lion of Lavaca” Bagby regarding Bagby’s opposition to a woman suffrage bill on the floor. Billing his regular occupation as “minister and contractor” at this point, Calhoun won reelection from his new district that November and began a third non-consecutive term in his own right when the Thirty-fourth Legislature convened in January 1915—but died suddenly on March 24, 1915, at age sixty-five. He was succeeded by I. D. Fairchild.
Calhoun’s colleagues honored his legacy with a House resolution declaring him to be “a patriotic and valuable public servant,” a “faithful minister of the gospel” (he frequently led the House in prayer), and an “ardent advocate of civic righteousness.” He is interred at Chireno Lower Cemetery in Nacogdoches County.