The Address of Southern Delegates in Congress to their Constituents; or, the address of John C. Calhoun and Forty Other Thieves

Frederick Douglass

The North Star

February 09, 1849

That ponderous cloud of dismal terror which for a time overhung the national capital, darkening the blue sky of “our glorious union,” and from which the simple people have only been allowed to see a few fierce, transient flashes, to keep up gloomy apprehension and dismay, has at last discharged its thunder and dissolved. The long-dreaded bolt has reached its maturity and fallen. Men whole hearts were failing for fear of those things which seemed to be coming upon the land, rest from their agonizing fears, look happier, and breathe freer. The apprehended fulmination from the secret conclave of slaveholders and slave traders, charged with “accounts terrible, of dire confusion,” and threatening the very existence of this Republic, turns out to be an old speech of John C. Calhoun, newly vamped up, and dressed to suit the taste of some forty other slaveholders besides himself. The alarmed and appalled nation has at last seen the baseless character of its fears and we presume will not be so easily alarmed again. The thousand cats in the cellar are reduced to “our cat and another old black cat.”

But lest we should be accused of treating this grave address with too much levity, we shall venture a brief review of it. The subject of the address is called “the most solemn and important ever presented to the consideration of the Southern people.” The subject is summed up in the following ambiguous terms:

“We allude to the conflict between two great sections of the Union, growing out of a difference of feeling and opinion in reference to the relation existing between the two races, the European and African, which inhabit the Southern section, and the acts of aggression and encroachment to which it has led.”

Just read this statement of the subject over again, and try to understand what is meant by it. The “difference of feeling and opinion” –”relation existing” between two races — “inhabit the Southern section” –”acquisition and encroachment.” Now, the meaning of all this is, the difference of feeling and opinion in the Northern States from the slaveholders in the Southern States. The people of the North, thank Heaven, are becoming more and more deeply impressed with the awful crime of slavery, and are manifesting it, by hesitating to extend its blighting influence to territory now free; and this is the point that gives “solemnity” to the subject. This is the calamity which produces apprehension and alarm. How carefully the above sentences is worded! European and African races, stands for slaveholders and slaves, which inhabit the Southern section. This very soft way of sliding over the hateful word slavery, shows the slaveholder conscious of his hateful crime, and is itself a confession of guilt. The signers of the address say:

“We have made it a joint address, because we believe that the magnitude of the subject required that it should assume the most impressive and solemn form.”

Poor fellows! How much chagrin must they experience when they witness the mirthful levity produced by their impressive solemnity. A band of forty manstealers solemnly defending their right to plunder their fellow-men of all rights and liberties! An “impressive” scene, which ought to excite as much respect as the union of so many sheepstealers! If ever a body of men were deserving of scorn and contempt, this band of flesh-mongers do deserve it. Their whole proceedings have amounted to less than an admirable farce.

The address gives a history of the “difference of feeling and opinion in reference to the relation between the two farces.” Oh! the deceitfulness of sin! This difference disclosed itself in the Convention that framed the Constitution. Would that the difference had been stronger! What the address has to say on the subject of the compromise entered into on the part of the free States with the slave States, every Northern man should ponder well; and draw from it a lesson that will forever preclude him from entering into another like it.

It will be seen that the address assumes a clear recognition of slavery in the United States Constitution, by the clause relating to taxation and representation — that relating to the return of fugitive slaves, and that respecting the importation of slaves. We deem it unfortunate for these honorable menstealers, that in no instance have they been able to find a word in either of these clauses which bears the definition of slaves or slavery. The word slave in all these references, is the word of this conclave, and not of the Constitution. — The language in each of the provisions to which the address refers, though doubtless intended to bolster up slavery, and to respect slave property, has been so ambiguously worded as to bear a very different construction; and taken in connection with the preamble of that instrument, the very opposite of the construction given it by this wily band of slaveholders, and they have just reason to apprehend that such a construction may yet be placed upon that instrument as shall prove the downfall of slavery.

But granting that the slaveholding construction is the one by which the nation is to be bound and governed, we are glad to see the issue plainly put to Northern men. We say to the slaveholder, Insist upon your right to make Northern men your bloodhounds, to hunt down your slaves, and return them to bondage. We say, let this be insisted upon, the more strenuously the better, as it will the sooner awaken the North to a sense of their responsibility for slavery, not only in the District of Columbia, and in forts, arsenals, and navy-yards, but in the States themselves; and will the sooner see their duty to labor for the removal of slavery from every part of this most unhallowed Union. In any case, nought but slaveholders have anything to fear. The moral sense of the North is becoming restless on this subject. It revolts at the idea of sanctioning slavery, and it must and will seek some mode by which to escape the responsibility of so foul, mean and cruel a system of wrong as is slavery. And it would not be strange if, pressed by the demand for the pound of flesh, they, in turn, should forbid the blood and thus thwart the guilty manstealer of the rewards of the guilty bargain. But we are for admitting that the Constitution is just what these slaveholders in this address say it is; and on conscientious grounds demand the immediate dissolution of the American Union, as required by liberty and the law of the living God. What man will say that the Union ought to exist for a single moment, if under it Northern men are content to act as the bloodhounds of the South, to hunt down, recapture and return to slavery and chains, every brother-man who may be so fortunate as to escape from bondage? Who, who would stain his soul by keeping a bargain so wicked and inhuman as that imposed by these merciless “forty thieves,” in the name of the United States’ Constitution? — The person that would so do, is a traitor to God and man.

These slaveholders say in their address, that there is not (in the clause which they allege relates to fugitive slaves) “an uncertain or equivocal word to be found in the whole provision.” This is not true. If the provision in question refers to slaves escaping from slave States into free States, and was intended to define the right of masters to apprehend their slaves, and the duty of free States to deliver them up, the language used, is most ambiguous and inappropriate. — The words “held to service and labor,” for instance, does not necessarily imply the relation of “master and slave,” and is rather a description of minors and apprentices, than of slaves. Then the term “person.” Is not this term in itself equivocal? Are slaves, in law, regarded as persons; or are they regarded as property? and is there not a distinction, broad, deep and wide, between property and persons? If they are property, they cannot be regarded by the law as persons; and if they are regarded both in the light of persons and property, the term is imperfect, equivocal, and inappropriate. In his same clause, the term, “shall be delivered upon claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due,” carries upon its face the appearance of a contract, by which one party has a just claim upon the service and labor of another; whereas, the slaveholder has no just claim upon the labor or service of a slave, and the slave has never and can never make any contract with his master, and can never violate a contract, or owe his master any service or labor. It strikes us that the whole provision is uncertain, equivocal, and carries upon its face no recognition of the right of a slaveholder to recapture his slave; so that while we admit that this clause was intended to apply to fugitive slaves, and to enable their piratical owners to arrest them, and the free States to deliver them up to such claimants, we utterly deny that the clause in question is either clear or explicit.

Suppose a man from another country should read that clause of the American Constitution, with no other knowledge of the character of American institutions than what he derived from the reading of that instrument, will any one pretend that the clause in question would be thought to apply to slaves? We think not. Nor would he dream of such an outrage, such a savage monstrosity, on reading any other part of the Constitution. — Blot slavery from existence, and the whole frame-work of the Constitution might remain unchanged. There is, therefore, nothing in the Constitution which means slavery — only slavery — and nothing else than slavery. The fact is, the framers of that cunning instrument were ashamed of the name, while they had not the honesty to renounce the thing, slavery; and it is the same sense of the shame today which leads the friends and defenders of this inhuman system to use the term “peculiar institution,” “the relation subsisting between the European and African races” and the like. It is with a view to hide their great moral deformity from the eye of the world, and to shield slavery from the assaults and bolts which must ever descend upon it, when its gross form is presented to reflecting and humane men. But we pass from this to another point in the address.

It is this, the clear and positive testimony it bears to the efficiency of the anti-slavery agitation at the North in undermining and destroying slavery at the South. The old moonshine about putting back the cause of emancipation by agitation, has no countenance in this document. Mr. Calhoun and his “forty thieves” see and clearly comprehend the moral forces now operating against slavery, and is too honest towards his fellow-companions in crime to conceal the danger which besets, or to affect to despise that danger. He is proud, haughty, and bitter, but not defiant. He sees in the systematic agitation — the tracts, pictures, papers, pamphlets, and books — societies, lectures, and petitions, the most efficient means to bring about a state of things which will force the South into emancipation. We thank Mr. Calhoun for this testimony. It is given in circumstances which add materially to its intrinsic value. — It is extorted against pride and precedent , two very strong resisting forces. Heretofore, abolitionists have been spoken of as “fanatics,” “madmen,” altogether a most contemptible body, the only effect of whose efforts would be, to rivet the fetter more closely on the limbs of the slave. That they are not so viewed now, is evident. If mad, there is a “method in their madness,” as alarming to Mr. Calhoun as his “forty thieves,” as that of Hamlet to his murderous and incestuous uncle. Let abolitionists remember this testimony of Mr. Calhoun, and thank God, and take courage in view of the admitted adaptedness of our measures to the accomplishment of our grand and commanding object — the entire abolition of slavery throughout this country — as well in South Carolina as in California. We like the testimony of Mr. Calhoun better than his reasoning. He says:

“Slavery is a domestic institution. It belongs to the States, each for itself, to decide whether it shall be established or not; and, if it be established, whether it should be abolished or not. Such being the clear and unquestionable rights of the States, it follows necessarily that it would be a flagrant act of aggression on a State, destructive of its rights, and subversive of its independence, for the federal government, or one or more States, or their people, to undertake to force on it the emancipation of its slaves. But it is a sound maxim in politics, as well as law and morals, that no one has a right to do that indirectly, which he cannot do directly, and it may be added with equal truth, to aid, or abet, or countenance another in doing it.”

Better call it Domestic Robbery Institution. To buy and sell, to brand and scourge human beings with the heavy lash — to rob them of all the just rewards of their labor — to compel them to live in ignorance of their relations to God and man — to blot out the institution of marriage — to herd men and women together like the beasts of the field — to deprive them of the means of learning to read the name of God — to destroy their dignity as human beings — to record their names on the ledger with horses, sheep and swine — to feed them on a peck of corn a-week — to work them under a burning sun in the rice-swamp, cotton-field, sugar-plantation, almost in a state of nudity — to sunder families for the convenience of purchasers — to examine men, women, and children, on the auction-block as a jockey would examine a horse — to punish them for a word, look, or gesture — to burn their flesh with hot irons — to tear their backs with the poisonous claws of a living cat — to shoot, stab, and hunt humanity with bloodhounds, — for one class of men to have exclusive and absolute power over the bodies and souls of another class of human beings; this, the whole of this infernal catalogue, is comprehended in the soft and innocent term, “domestic institution.” This is the established order of things in Carolina; and Mr. Calhoun and his “forty thieves” would have the same order of things in California. But now to the doctrine laid down in the above extract. — It goes the length of denying, on moral grounds, to any and every person out of the State where slavery exists, the right of saying, looking, or doing anything, directly or indirectly, for the overthrow of slavery. — According to this reasoning, it would be immoral for Northern men to refuse to wear slave-grown cotton, or to eat slave-grown rice and sugar, since by pursuing such a course, peradventure they might decrease the value of slaves, and thereby indirectly affect the permanence of slavery. We are not to write, speak, or publish anything on the subject of human slavery, lest it serve to darken the fame of slavery, and lessen it in the popular estimation, and thereby indirectly destroy slavery, by exalting liberty. To do so, would necessarily be a flagrant aggression, a violation of the rights of a State, and subversive of its government. For what we have no right to do directly by legislation, we have no right to do indirectly by any other means. — This is strange logic for one of the most powerful minds and renowned statesmen that America affords. Coming from another quarter, it would demand no answer or comment; but from such a man, endorsed by such a company, read so universally, and put forth so imposingly, and solemnly, aiming as it does, at the very foundation of the anti-slavery movement, it may be proper to spend a few thoughts upon it.

How completely has slavery triumphed over the mind of this strong man! It holds full, complete and absolute control in his mind; so much so, that seeing it, he cannot and does not desire to see anything else than slavery. The right of speech, the freedom of the press, the liberty of assembling, and the right of petition, have in his judgment no rightful existence in the Constitution of the United States.

Slavery is there; he knows it to be there; it has a right to be there; and anything inconsistent with it is wrong, immoral, and has no right to be there. This is evidently the state of mind with Mr. Calhoun brings to the consideration of this subject. To reduce his reasoning to its real point and pith, it amounts to this — that where a people have not power to legislate for the overthrow of what they think an evil, they have no moral right to think, or speak, or do anything else which may induce those who have legislative power to exercise it for the removal of such evil. It is on this reasoning that he builds his complaint against the Northern States, as wanting in respect to the institutions and sovereignty of the Southern States; that they have not by legislative enactment silenced the voice of free speech, and suppressed the publications of the abolitionists. If Mr. Calhoun is right in his first position, he is right in his conclusion; but he is wrong in both. We have no legislative power to dethrone the Queen of England, but we have no moral right to say that England would be better under a republican form of government? We have no legislative right or power to alter or abolish the British tariff; but have we no moral right to say that it is unequal and oppressive, and that England would be better off without it. We have no legislative power to abolish the union between England and Ireland; yet is it not obviously our right to speak and write in favor of the repeal of the Union? Mr. Calhoun sinks the rights of the man in the duties of the citizen, and by confounding things which are separate and distinct, perpetrates a logical fallacy. Above and before all human institutions, stands the right of sympathizing with the oppressed and denouncing the oppressors of mankind.

Slavery is not only a wrong done to the slave, but an outrage upon man — not merely a curse to the South, but to the whole Union, and has no rightful existence anywhere. — Slaveholders have no rights more than any other thief or pirate. They have forfeited even the right to live, and if the slave should put every one of them to the sword to-morrow, who dare pronounce the penalty disproportioned to the crime, or say that the criminals deserved less than death at the hands of their long-abused chattels? All this talk about the rights of slaveholders and the rights of slave States, is the height of impudence. By what equity, by what morality are they justified? and upon what foundation do they rest their right of property in human flesh? Why, none other or better than may be set up by a band of robbers. We meet John C. Calhoun and the “forty thieves” associated with him, as being no better, or more entitled to respect, than a ship’s company of pirates; and the time is coming when they will be so regarded generally. It shall not avail that the Constitution and laws sanction slavery. “There is a law above all earthly statutes, written on the heart,” and by that law, unchangeable and eternal, no man can be or hold a slave.

We intended to have said something on the extension of slavery in connection with our remarks on this address, but have neither the time nor the space sufficient for the purpose. We leave this task to the “free soilers,” both in the Whig and the Democratic ranks. The journals of each of these parties will attend to the address on this point, as well as to the right of Congress to break up the disgraceful and inhuman slave-marts in the District of Columbia, and abolish the whole system of wickedness, root and branch. As to the probable effect of this address, we believe that its most injurious consequences have already taken place. Its power to injure is destroyed. It was terrible in the distance, but tame on its approach. In the South, it may stir a slight fever. The slaveholders many be alarmed, enraged, and may “swear terribly” about it, but the North will despise the address, and the “grey fox” and “forty thieves” who gave it to the world. We think it an excellent means of agitating the public mind on the subject of slavery, and promoting the anti-slavery cause, and should not regret if Mr. Calhoun would favor us with another meeting, and make another address. We are quite sure that another meeting, though it would not probably be so large as the first, would be no less effective in exciting contempt for the whole slave power of the country.

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