Tuesday, March 18, 2008

John C. Calhoun: 'A Positive Good'

John C. Calhoun

Today is John C. Calhoun's birthday. I admit, the outspoken senator from South Carolinia is not one of my favorite characters in American history, but he is terribly significant.

I recently re-read one of Calhoun's most well-known speeches. Delivered on the floor of the United States Senate in 1837, Calhoun defended the institution of slavery. While some Americans begrudgingly admitted that slavery was a "necessary evil" in the country, Calhoun disagreed:

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.

Calhoun continued on with his theme, extolling the virtues of American slavery:

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 quiet 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, 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.

This speech is important. Calhoun gives us a bit of insight into how a slave-owner might justify his actions. Moreover, when I re-read this speech, I was struck by how familiar the rhetoric sounded. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, pro-slavery men--the real defenders of American slavery--adopted many of the same arguments.

Take, for example, William J. Grayson. Not only was this South Carolinian a representative in the United States Congress, he was also a poet. A book of his poetry was published in 1855. One of his most interesting poems compared Northern workers and Southern slaves. Like Calhoun, Grayson reached a startling conclusion:

"The Hireling"

Free but in name -- the slaves of endless toil...
In squalid hut -- a kennel for the poor,
Or noisome cellar, stretched upon the floor,
His clothing rags, of filthy straw his bed,
With offal from the gutter daily fed...
These are the miseries...the wants, the cares,
The bliss that freedom for the serf prepares...

"The Slave"

Taught by the master's efforts, by his care
Fed, clothed, protected many a patient year,
From trivial numbers now to millions grown,
With all the white man's useful arts their own,
Industrious, docile, skilled in wood and field,
To guide the plow, the sturdy axe to wield...
Guarded from want, from beggary secure,
He never feels what hireling crowds endure,
Nor knows, like them, in hopeless want to crave,
For wife and child, the comforts of the slave,
Or the sad thought that, when about to die,
He leaves them to the cold world's charity...

"Social theorist" George Fitzhugh took the argument further. He had been defending slavery in print for nearly a decade when, in 1857, he published Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters.

Though the book contains a great many memorable passages, this excerpt expands on Calhoun's point that slavery was indeed "a positive good:"

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. "Blessed be the man who invented sleep." 'Tis happiness in itself-and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so; for, whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the negro, because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty and not a single right. . . .

I have added Calhoun's speech, Grayson's poem, and several excerpts from Fitzhugh's book to the Primary Documents section for future reference.


calhounpopularrule said...

Your realization of the importance of Calhoun is to be applauded; however, to suggest that Calhoun is the central figure in the "positive good" argument or that he was the most important defender of slavery in the United States is incorrect.

The linking of Calhoun with the "positive good" argument is correct, only to the degree that he did employ the term. It cannot be understood without appreciating the larger context of his use of the term, either. The argument had been prominent since the late 18th century. Frankly, I do not find Lincoln's view of blacks as much more enlightened than Calhoun's, as many scholars have noted.

In terms of the defense of slavery, Calhoun was much more perceptive in regards to its limitations than many others associated with the defense.

I applaud your blog and best wishes in your graduate work.


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