John C. Calhoun and Slavery as a “Positive Good:” What He Said

 by Charles King Bird

The “positive good” speech of February 6, 1837, is vintage Calhoun, an exercise of his conception of the proper role of a statesmen placed in the highest deliberative body of the Union. That role was to look beyond the present clamour and clatter of routine politics and discern the deeper forces at work and what present choices and trends meant for the future.

As Andrew Lytle said in his essay on Calhoun, the role of a statesmen is to define clearly for a people the alternatives before them. This Calhoun sought to practice not only in regard to abolitionism, but with all big issues. This is why thoughtful people of the North as well as the South for forty years gave serious attention to what he had to say. This is why, alone among the American public figures of his time, he is still studied as a thinker.

There is no doubt that in 1837 he intended to change the political dynamic in regard to abolitionism. In keeping with his conception of his role as an independent and far-seeing public figure, he had in 1816 forced revision of the National Bank into something better than the original design. A few years previous he had done the same with the tariff, which was now coming down. He would do it again later this same year when he left the opposition and supported Van Buren on the Independent Treasury. And again in 1844 when he forced the Texas issue into the presidential campaign after the front-runners of both parties had colluded to keep it out of sight.

Before making his dramatic and definitive public stand against the new form that anti-slavery had taken, he had observed it for several years until he was sure that it had revealed itself fully. Even more than this new phenomenon itself, Calhoun was prompted by the evasive behaviour of the everyday politicians of North and South to the critical considerations it raised. The unvarying instinct of everyday politicians is to avoid hard issues. Majorities in Congress and the party press pretended to regard abolitionism as a temporary outbreak of enthusiasm which would soon die away as other such irrelevant, intemperate, and impossible enthusiasms had.

In the meantime, they claimed, it was best to pay as little attention to the abolitionists as possible except to throw them a scrap now and then to keep them quiet and avoid the appearance of disdaining such earnest if misguided citizens. Any Southerner who responded to them was immediately labeled by both political parties as an agitator and disunionist, stirring up things that were best left alone.

Calhoun chose the occasion to positively defend the institution of slavery as it then existed in the South because of a new enemy that needed to be clearly identified and checked. The time of that session of Congress and the previous one had been consumed for weeks by abolition petitions. These had literally flooded the Congress. An entire large room in the National Archives, which I have visited, is needed to contain them. There had been interminable wrangling in both houses about how to deal with this unprecedented situation. We should be clear that nobody, North or South, Democrat or Whig, except for a tiny minority led by John Quincy Adams, intended to respond to these petititons.

The main difference of opinion was the degree of non-action that the petitions were to receive. Calhoun favoured refusing to receive them, lest Congress seem to countenance the hateful abuse they contained and to assume jurisdiction that it did not have over the subject of slavery. The parliamentary expedients adopted are complicated, but essentially both houses decided that it was somehow better not to appear to deny the right of petition but to receive and immediately table them. This procedure did not prevent John Quincy Adams from proclaiming that a Southern slave power was choking out the sacred rights of northern citizens.

Calhoun wanted to hold up to public view the nature of this new movement and to confront what he regarded as the politicians’ irresponsible avoidance of a grave issue. Knowing Calhoun as well as I do, his primary goal, I believe, was to convince the South that a lukewarm defense was no longer a proper stance. He began his address by calling for the Secretary to read two randomly selected petitions recently received by the Senate. Then he spoke:

Such . . . is the language held towards us and ours. The pecuilar institutions (sic) of the South . . . is pronounced to be sinful and odious, in the sight of God and man; and this with a systematic design of rendering us hateful in the eyes of the world, with a view to a general crusade against us and our institutions. This too, in the legislative halls of the Union, created by the confederated States, for the better protection of their peace, their safety, and their respective institutions; and yet we . . . are expected to sit here in silence, hearing ourselves and our constituents day after day denounced . . . if we but open our lips, the charge of agitation is resounded on all sides . . . . Every reflecting mind must see in this, a state of things deeply and dangerously diseased.

[A sidebar on the ongoing misuse of the term “pecuilar institution.” Calhoun did not mean that the institution was strange. He meant that it was peculiar to the Southern region as cod-fishing was peculiar to New England.]

He next made the point that abolitionism was not going to go away; unless called to account by vigorous rejection it would grow. He continued:

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 the Union, with a hatred more deadly than one hostile nation ever entertained toward another. It is easy to see the end. By the necessary course of events . . . we must become, finally, two peoples.

Such righteous revolutionary zeal would not fade away but would use every small victory as a base for a further attack until finally the South would have to surrender or to separate and defend itself. Because the North had adopted a false constitutional theory that the federal government was the judge of its own limits, the abolitionists believed that they had the responsibility and the power to reconstruct Southern society. Rising generations of Northerners would be fed on relentless defamation of the South. The ranks of the abolitionists would increase until they formed a block large enough that Northern politicians would compete for their votes. As he said, “there are kind feelings towards us on the part of the great body of the non-slaveholding States, but as kind as their feelings may be, we may rest assured that no political party in those States will risk their ascendancy for our safety.”

The Union and abolition could not co-exist, he said. The Union was in danger. Here Calhoun was not far from what Jefferson said in his fire-bell letter : “A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” To assert that the Union and abolition could not co-exist was unwelcome, but it was true. As always, Calhoun was acting the statesman, discerning what the present foretold of the future.

With this introduction Calhoun was ready to reply to the abolitionist attack on the South, and to do so he had to discuss the realities of Southern life as he and his colleagues knew them. According to the abolitionists the South was a land of horrors devoid of religion and decency and law and order, inhabited by depraved white barbarians and black people out of whom all humanity had been crushed. Calhoun and all Southerners knew this to be a false picture. Neither the whites nor the blacks of the South resembled their portraits as painted by the abolitionists.

Mr Calhoun “insisted that the slaveholders of the South had nothing in the case to lament or to lay to their conscience….. Nor was there anything in the doctrines he held in the slightest degree inconsistent with the highest and purest principles of freedom.

Be it good or bad, it has grown up with our society and institutions …. 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.

Never before in history, he continued, has the black race ”attained a condition so civilised and so improved, not only physically but morally and intellectually….in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, as reviled as they have been, to its present comparative civilised condition.” The rapid increase of numbers, nearly equal to the white population, Calhoun, said “is conclusive proof” of the advancement and of the relative comfort of this class of Souhern labourers.

Nor had the white race degenerated. “…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. I ask whether we have not contributed our full share of talents and political wisdom in forming and sustaining this political fabric; and whether we have not constantly inclined most strongly to the side of liberty, and been the first to see and first to resist the encroachments of power. In one thing only are we inferior—the arts of gain;….

“I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin” 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 honour and interests of those I represent are involved.”

Many Southerners were ready for Calhoun’s message. Most educated Southerners had read about and some had seen the degraded and hopeless poor of New York and London. They knew that women and children in New York were working 16 hour days for starvation wages. A few years later it was reliably reported that there were in the city 150,000 unemployed and 40,000 homeless. As well as 600 brothels and 9,000 grog shops where the poor could drown their sorrows. There was little reason for the planter to wallow in guilt.

Our visceral distaste for whatever is connected with the word “slavery,” tends to disguise for us the enormity of what the abolitionists demanded. We imagine that the South was resisting a humane and reasonable proposition to give up its evil ways. Northerners were zealous to squeeze every possible penny of personal profit out of government policy, yet were proposing that the South literally perform the vastest act of self-disinheritance in history, and launch its society into a revolutionary gamble that would alter the life of every person and could well bring disaster and destroy the hopes of its posterity. In the 21st century it is easily to overlook that the African-American population was a majority in three Southern states and in a vast swath of territory from Southside Virginia to East Texas, while in Massachusetts it was around 1 per cent.

We are now so used to demands for revolutionary alteration of society in the pursuit of virtue, such an inclination is so firmly a part of the American national business, that it is hard to comprehend the situation presented. This demand upon Southerners came from people who were obviously hostile and who assumed a power that was not theirs to demand a revolution for which they bore no direct responsibility and from the consequences of which they would not suffer. This in a Union which Southern fathers and grandfathers had established to make secure the welfare of their sons and grandsons. A Union which they had contributed more than their fair share to build and sustain and upon which they had made no selfish demands. As Calhoun said on a later occasion: “When did the South ever lay its hand upon the North?”

In our present society it is thought that good people are those who submit to being reconstructed in the cause of virtue. The people who were thus addressed belonged to another tradition. They believed in personal responsibility for exercise of their rights and duties and in the necessity of guarding against potential infringements upon their freedom of action. Otherwise, they would not have been the kind of men who conquered a continental wilderness and founded free institutions.

There were no precedents for emancipation on such a scale. The few precedents that existed were unencouraging. There was Haiti; and in the British West Indies, the small population of slave owners had been compensated and gone back home while the islands, once the most valuable in the world, had sunk into poverty.

Abolitionists vigorously rejected compensation to slave owners; it would be rewarding sinners. Even at minimum it was beyond what was a conceivable public expenditure. Although, as has been pointed out, it would have been cheaper than the cost of the war. The difference is that the North enjoyed the profits of the war, while only the South would have profited from compensated emancipation.

Colonization had failed, though it would continue to be held up as a solution, mostly notably by Abraham Lincoln. The Virginia constitutional convention in the shadow of the Nat Turner massacre of white children had despaired of any remedy except for the South to keep on and to keep the matter in the hands of those involved.

Slavery was not confined to a few large plantations, contrary to propaganda. The plantation itself was not an obscene and accidental excresence upon America. It was a far older and more fundamental part of life than the Union. About a fourth of the white families across the South had some stake in slavery, a far greater percentage than of the Northern people who owned stock in banks and tariff protected industries. Most of these slaveholdings were small—one or two families who lived and worked closely with their owners and moved with them in the pioneer stream westward to new lands. Slavery was not a proposition to be voted up or down—it was the warp and woof of everyday life in an area larger than Western Europe. It was a basic social institution and a vast distribution of private property, the future elimination of which would be the largest confiscation in history. And it was an inextricable part of the production of the exports that made international trade possible for Americans.

It is a common now to equate the Old South with Nazi Germany. Nothing proves more conclusively the historical ignorance and ideologically-driven deceitfulness of present commentators. Servitude in the Old South was domestic—people were held to labour by families, not by a totalitarian state. Such servitude is a vastly familiar in human history. There was no barbed wire around the plantations, hardly anything that could even be called a police force in the South. True, the legal theory of chattel slavery was harsh, though not as harsh as has been represented. But the plantations were homes and farms where people were born, lived, and buried, not arbitrary and lawless but governed by longstanding custom and public opinion, the immemorial rounds of agriculture, and the give and take of everyday life. Far from being seats of hopeless barbarity, they were the homes and livelihoods of more than half of the great founders and early leaders of the United States. Many Northern and European visitors found them to be places of peace and contented life. Many of the survivors of plantation servitude interviewed in the 1930s remembered them as marked by a consoling and comfortable life—too many to be easily dismissed.

Disconnection from culture has proceeded so far that Americans are literally unable to imagine the past or understand any society except in terms of their own narrow reality. They cannot conceive of a society that was familial but not egalitarian. This destroys the capacity to understand not only Old South but the Bible and most of history and the world’s great literature.

If one wants to bring up fascism, it was the North which invaded, occupied, and seized the wealth of other people’s lands and did so without apology and glorying in the right of the stronger to dispose of the weaker. Often before and during the war Northern leaders vaunted their pure Anglo-Saxonism as superior to the inferior, mongrel breed of Southerners It was Hitler who admired Abraham Lincoln for ruthlessly crushing resistance to the central state.

The most fundamental obstacle the abolitionists did not address at all. What would happen to the black people turned out to fend for themselves? As free men they were almost universally regarded as inferior and unwelcome members of society, a situation in which the North was as complicit as the South, if not more so. And while the abolitionists were raging against the planters for abominable cruelty to their dependants, the more hard-nosed variety of Yankee was condemning them as bad, inefficient businessmen for being too good to the folks on the plantation and not extracting greater profit from their workers.

Slavery could not disappear for the simple reason that Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to citizenship and equality for black people and there was therefore no real alternative to the existing arrangement. Calhoun was accepting this fact realistically and concluding that the existing way was the best possible under the circumstances and that therefore Southern society embodied a good. Southerners had no reason to apologize.

We should recall that Abraham Lincoln on the eve of The War told the Northern public that “the Southern people are exactly what we would be in their situation.” And, he said, even given unlimited power he would not know what to do about the existing slavery.

Calhoun proposed a reasonable answer, the only possible one and one that Southerners were already carrying out every day. To make the best of the situation into which they had been born, bringing to bear their good will, Christianity, and conscientious care for dependants. These were qualities which, of course, the abolitionists in their ignorance and malice denied that they possessed.

It was not all that unprecedented to refute attacks by challenging the portrayal of slavery as an evil. Calhoun deliberately, I think, emphasized the point by using the word “positive” along with “good.” Even so, this speech would probably have passed into history with no more notice than many others if Calhoun had stopped with “positive good.” Instead, as was his custom, he concluded by taking the higher ground of a philosophical view. He chose to take the war into enemy country, which is what, I suspect, really bothers those who declaimed against him then and now.

“I hold,” he told the Senate and the country, “. . . that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilised society in which one portion of the community did not . . . live on the labour of the other.” This was as true of the North as of the South. A conflict of interest and an uneven distribution of wealth marked all societies at all times. The South was trying one way to cope with this truth. Calhoun was not asking to stop the clock to defend a static institution to be kept forever behind a defensive bunker. Rather, he said, the South was engaged in an “experiment” which he believed had, all things considered, showed itself a good. The North was engaged in a different experiment. He was not yet willing to concede that the Southern way was inferior in the production of human happiness. Another decade, he suggested, would allow a better comparison.

It is pretty evident from the commentary in Congress and the press, that what really bothered the critics of his famous speech was his insistence that the conflict of capital and labour was not a particular curse of the South. He refused to accept the scenario of Northern good and Southern evil.

In regard to the society of the Old South, Calhoun was more nearly right and the abolitionists more nearly wrong. In regard to the future he excelled all others in perception.

The position of African-Americans in the United States has long presented a moral challenge. But it is an evasion when thorny problems of the day receive a pseudo-solution by projection of blame onto the long dead slave owners of the Old South and their spokesmen. Unfortunately, this is a familiar habit for Americans.

SOURCE: From The Abbeville Institute Scholars’ 2008 Conference, ” “Northern Anti-Slavery Rhetoric.”

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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