Speech on Abolition Petitions

What does Calhoun mean when he refers to slavery as “a positive good”? Why does he think it is a good thing? What does he think the effect of abolitionism will be unless it is checked? Why is it better to be a slave than a poor man, according to Calhoun?
Is Calhoun right to describe abolitionists like Garrison as fanatics? How does Calhoun’s view of slavery differ from the view expressed by Tallmadge and the Presbyterians in Minutes of the General Assembly?

As one of his measures against slavery, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) (“On the Constitution and the Union”) organized the mass mailing of abolitionist literature to southerners in 1835. Aware of what its reception would likely be in the south, postmasters inquired of the postmaster general, Amos Kendall (1789–1869), what they should do with this material. Kendall suggested to President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), who was a slaveowner, as were four of his six predecessors, that the postmasters should not deliver it. Jackson agreed, and the postmasters followed his order.

With access to the mails shut off, abolitionists began circulating petitions to submit to Congress, as was their right according to the First Amendment. In response, southern Congressmen and Senators persuaded both the House and the Senate to adopt measures prohibiting the introduction of anti-slavery petitions. In the House, the “gag rule” was in effect from 1836 to 1844. An informal “gag rule” operated in the Senate from 1836 to 1850. Congress adopted such measures not only because the three-fifths clause gave the slave interest more votes in Congress than it would have had otherwise. At the time, the two major parties, Democrats and Whigs, were national parties, the Democrats stronger in the south and the Whigs stronger in the north. Party loyalty, in effect, led some northern congressmen to overlook the violation of rights that the gag rule represented. The censorship of the mails and the “gag rules” showed how the slave power scorned the rights of whites, as well as of African Americans. As John Quincy Adams (1767—1848), now serving in the House, said, slavery “is a slow poison to the morals of any community. Ours is infected with it to the vitals.”

Adams became the champion in the House of the anti-slavery petitions. Over the years, thousands of them reached Congress, principally the House, with hundreds of thousands of signatures. A master of parliamentary maneuver and a debater of some skill, Adams found ways around the gag rule that allowed him to attack slavery, while embarrassing and maddening those who supported it, especially southern Congressmen. On one occasion, he raised the issue of a petition supposedly from slaves, leading to a move to censure him. But the supposed slave petition was in favor of slavery (presumably a forgery planted to embarrass Adams). Adams turned the ruse against slavery’s supporters, tricking them into censuring a petition that supported their position! Not only that, the effort at censure allowed Adams the opportunity to defend himself on the floor of the House, an occasion he used to attack the “gag rule,” slavery, and those who supported it.

On the very day that Adams presented the petition from “slaves” and spoke at length of the evil of slavery, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) rose on the floor of the Senate to argue against anti-slavery petitions and abolitionism, and to proclaim that slavery was a positive good. Calhoun spent most of his career as a Congressman and Senator from South Carolina, but also served as Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Vice President of the United States. In his lifetime, slavery had become a dominant fact of American life. In 1790, there were almost 700,000 slaves in the United States. By 1830, there were about two million, out of a total population (including slaves) of nearly 13 million (South Carolina’s population was about 50% slave). Calhoun became the leading advocate of states’ rights and the pro-slavery position in American politics. In making the claim that slavery was a positive good, Calhoun was leading southern opinion far from the view of slavery as an unavoidable evil that prevailed at the Founding (See The Three-Fifths ClauseThe Slave Trade Clause, and The Fugitive Slave Clause).

—David Tucker

Source: John C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun: delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the present time (New York: Harper’s and Brothers, 1843), 222–226, https://archive.org/stream/speechesofjohncc00incalh#page/222/mode/2up.

. . . I do not belong, said Mr. Calhoun, to the school which holds that aggression is to be met by concession. Mine is the opposite creed, which teaches that encroachments must be met at the beginning, and that those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves. In this case, in particular, I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If we concede an inch, concession would follow concession—compromise would follow compromise, until our ranks would be so broken that effectual resistance would be impossible. We must meet the enemy on the frontier, with a fixed determination of maintaining our position at every hazard. Consent to receive these insulting petitions, and the next demand will be that they be referred to a committee in order that they may be deliberated and acted upon. . . .

As widely as this incendiary spirit [of abolition] has spread, it has not yet infected this body, or the great mass of the intelligent and business portion of the North; but unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards till it brings the two great sections of the Union into deadly conflict. This is not a new impression with me. . . .

Standing at the point of time at which we have now arrived, it will not be more difficult to trace the course of future events now than it was then. They who imagine that the spirit now abroad in the North, will die away of itself without a shock or convulsion, have formed a very inadequate conception of its real character; it will continue to rise and spread, unless prompt and efficient measures to stay its progress be adopted. Already it has taken possession of the pulpit, of the schools, and, to a considerable extent, of the press; those great instruments by which the mind of the rising generation will be formed. However sound the great body of the non-slaveholding states are at present, in the course of a few years they will be succeeded by those who will have been taught to hate the people and institutions of nearly one-half of this Union, with a hatred deadlier than one hostile nation ever entertained towards another. It is easy to see the end. By the necessary course of events, if left to themselves, we must become, finally, two people. It is impossible under the deadly hatred which must spring up between the two great nations, if the present causes are permitted to operate unchecked, that we should continue under the same political system. The conflicting elements would burst the Union asunder, powerful as are the links which hold it together. Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it—and the sooner it is known the better. The former [abolition] may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races. Be it good or bad, [slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding states is an evil: far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually . . .

In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature. . . .

But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding states between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. . . . I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse. But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact. There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding states has been so much more stable and quieter than that of the North. . . .

Surrounded as the slaveholding states are with such imminent perils, I rejoice to think that our means of defense are ample, if we shall prove to have the intelligence and spirit to see and apply them before it is too late. All we want is concert,[1] to lay aside all party differences and unite with zeal and energy in repelling approaching dangers. Let there be concert of action, and we shall find ample means of security without resorting to secession or disunion. I speak with full knowledge and a thorough examination of the subject, and for one see my way clearly. . . . I dare not hope that anything I can say will arouse the South to a due sense of danger; I fear it is beyond the power of mortal voice to awaken it in time from the fatal security into which it has fallen.

  1. 1. Agreement or harmony.
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