John C. Calhoun : The Slavery Question – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders

Andrew Jackson : Personal Politics
Henry Clay : Compromise Legislation
Daniel Webster : The American Union
John C. Calhoun : The Slavery Question
Abraham Lincoln : Civil War and Preservation of the Union
Robert E. Lee : The Southern Confederacy

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders
John Lord

Topics Covered
Rapid Rise of Calhoun
Education; lawyer; member of Congress
Early speeches
His enlightened mind
Secretary of war
Condition of the South
Calhoun’s dislike of Jackson
The tariff question
Bears heavily on the South
Calhoun a defender of Southern interests
The tariff of 1832
Clay’s compromise bill
Jackson’s war on the bank
Calhoun in the Senate
His detestation of politics as a game
Lofty private life
Early speeches
The original abolitionists
Northern lecturers
Calhoun’s foresight
Calhoun as logician
Southern view of slavery
Anti-slavery agitation
Slavery in the District of Columbia
John Quincy Adams and anti-slavery petitions
Southern opposition to them
Clay on petitions
Violence of the abolitionists
Misery of the slaves
Admission of Michigan and Arkansas into the Union
Triumphs of the South
Growth of the abolitionists
Texan independence
Annexation of Texas
The Mexican war
The war of ideas
Prophetic utterances of Calhoun
His obstinacy and arrogance
Admission of California into the Union
Clay’s concessions
Calhoun dying
Compromise bill
Calhoun’s career
His want of patriotism in later life
Nullification doctrines
Calhoun contrasted with Clay
His character

John C. Calhoun : The Slavery Question


The extraordinary abilities of John C. Calhoun, the great influence he exerted as the representative of Southern interests in the National Legislature, and especially his connection with the Slavery Question, make it necessary to include him among the statesmen who, for evil or good, have powerfully affected the destinies of the United States. He is a great historical character,–the peer of Webster and Clay in congressional history, and more unsullied than either of them in the virtues of private life. In South Carolina he was regarded as little less than a demigod, and until the antislavery agitation began he was viewed as among the foremost statesmen of the land. His elevation to commanding influence in Congress was very rapid, and but for his identification with partisan interests and a bad institution, there was no office in the gift of the nation to which he could not reasonably have aspired.

John Caldwell Calhoun was born in 1782, of highly respectable Protestant-Irish descent, in the Abbeville District in South Carolina. He was not a patrician, according to the ideas of rich planters. He had but a slender school education in boyhood, but was prepared for college by a Presbyterian clergyman, entered the Junior Class of Yale College in 1802, and was graduated with high honors. He chose the law for his profession, studied laboriously for three years, spending eighteen months at the then famous law school at Litchfield, Connecticut, and gave great promise, in his remarkable logical powers, of becoming an eminent lawyer.

Whatever abilities Mr. Calhoun may have had for the law, it does not appear that he practised it long, or to any great extent. His taste and his genius inclined him to politics. And, having married a lady with some fortune, he had sufficient means to live without professional drudgery. After serving a short time in the State Legislature of South Carolina, he was elected a member of Congress, and took his seat in the House of Representatives in 1811, at the age of twenty-nine. From the very first his voice was heard. He made a speech in favor of raising ten thousand additional men to our army to resist the encroachments of Great Britain and prepare for hostilities should the country drift into war. It was an able speech for a young man, and its scornful repudiation of reckoning the costs of war against insult and violated rights had a chivalric ring about it: “Sir, I here enter my solemn protest against a low and calculating avarice entering this hall of legislation. It is only fit for shops and counting-houses…. It is a compromising spirit, always ready to yield a part to save the residue.” Here at an early date we hear the key-note of his life,–hatred of compromises and half-measures. If it were necessary to go to war at all, he would fight regardless of expense.

Thus Calhoun began his public career as an advocate of war with Great Britain. The old Revolutionary sores had not yet had time to heal, and there was general hostility to England, except among the Virginia aristocrats and the Federalists of the North. Although a young man, Calhoun was placed upon the important committee of Foreign Affairs, of which he was soon made chairman.

Calhoun’s early speeches in Congress gave promise of rare abilities. The most able of them were those on the repeal of the Embargo, in 1814; on the commercial convention with Great Britain in 1816; on the United States Bank Bill and the tariff the same year; and on the Internal Improvement Bill in 1817. The main subject which occupied Congress from 1812 to 1814 was the war with Great Britain, during the administration of Madison; and afterwards, till 1817, the great questions at issue were in reference to tariffs and internal improvements.

In the discussion of these subjects Calhoun took broad and patriotic ground. At that time we see no sectional interests predominating in his mind. He favored internal improvements, great permanent roads, and even the protection of manufactures, and a National Bank. On all these questions his sectional interests at a later day led him to support the exact opposite of these early national views. Says Von Holst: “His speech on the new tariff bill (April 6, 1816) was a long and carefully prepared argument in favor of the whole economical platform on which the Whig party stood to the last day of its existence…. Even Henry Clay and Horace Greeley have not been able to put their favorite doctrine into stronger language…. His final aim was the industrial independence of the United States from Europe; and this, he thought, could be obtained by protective duties.”

Calhoun’s speeches, during the six years that he was a member of the House of Representatives, were so able as to attract the attention of the nation, and in 1817 Monroe selected him as his Secretary of War. And he made a good executive officer in this branch of the public service, putting things to rights, and bringing order out of confusion, living on terms of friendship with John Quincy Adams and other members of the cabinet, planning military roads, introducing a system of strict economy in his department, and making salutary reforms. He tolerated no abuses. He was disposed to do justice to the Indians, and raise them from their degradation, even seeking to educate them, when it was more than probable that they would return to their barbaric habits,–a race, as it would seem from experience, very difficult to civilize. Adams thus spoke of his young colleague: “Mr. Calhoun is a man of fair and candid mind, of honorable principles, of quick and clear understanding, of cool self-possession, of enlarged philosophical views, and of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted,”–a very different verdict from what he wrote in his diary in 1831. Judge Story wrote of him in 1823 in these terms: “I have great admiration for Mr. Calhoun, and think few men have more enlarged and liberal views of the true policy of the national government.”

The post he held, however, was not Calhoun’s true arena, but one which an ambitious young man of thirty-five could not well decline, from the honor it brought. The secretaryship of war is the least important of all the cabinet offices in time of peace, and was especially so when the army was reduced to six thousand men. Its functions amounted to little more than sending small detachments to military posts, making contracts for the commissariat, visiting occasionally the forts and fortifications, and making a figure in Washington society. It furnished no field for extensive operations, or the exercise of remarkable qualities of mind. But inasmuch as it made Calhoun a member of the cabinet, it gave him an opportunity to express his mind on all national issues, and exercise an influence on the President himself. It did not make him prominent in the eyes of the nation. He was simply the head of a bureau, although an important personage in the eyes of the cadets of West Point and of some lazy lieutenants stationed among the Indians. But whatever the part he was required to play, he did his duty, showed ability, and won confidence. He doubtless added to his reputation, else he would not have been talked about as a candidate for the presidency, selected as a candidate for the vice-presidency, and chosen to that position by Northern votes, as he was in 1824, when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, and the friends of Henry Clay made Adams, instead of Jackson, President. Calhoun’s popularity with all parties resulted in his election as vice-president by a very large popular vote. He deserved it. The day had not come for the ascendency of mere politicians, and their division of the spoils of office.

The condition of the slaveholding States at this period was most prosperous. The culture of cotton had become exceedingly lucrative. Rich planters spent their summers at the North in luxurious independence. It was the era of general “good feeling.” No agitating questions had arisen. Young men at the South sought education in the New England colleges; manufacturing interests were in their infancy, and had not, as yet, excited Southern jealousy. Commercial prosperity in New England was the main object desired, although the war with Great Britain had proved disastrous to it. Political influence seemed to centre in the Southern States. These States had furnished four presidents out of five. The great West had not arisen in its might; it had no great cities: but Charleston and Boston were centres of culture and wealth, and on good terms with each other, both equally free from agitating questions, and both equally benignant to the institution of slavery, which the Constitution was supposed to have made secure forever. The Adams administration was notable for nothing but beginnings of the tariff question and the protectionist Act of 1828, the growth of the Democratic party, the final intensity of the presidential campaign of 1828, and the election of Jackson, with Calhoun as Vice-president.

As the incumbent of this office for two terms, Mr. Calhoun did not make a great mark in history. His office was one of dignity and not of power; but during his vice-presidency important discussions took place in Congress which placed him, as presiding officer of the Senate, in an embarrassing position. He was between two fires, and gradually became alienated from the two opposing parties to whom he owed his election. He could go neither with Adams nor with Jackson on public measures, and both interfered with his aspirations for the presidency. His personal relations with Jackson, who had been his warm friend and supporter, became strained after his second election as Vice-President. He took part against Jackson in the President’s undignified attempt to force his cabinet to recognize the social position of Mrs. Eaton. Further, it was divulged by Crawford, who had been Secretary of the Treasury in Monroe’s cabinet when Calhoun was Secretary of War, that the latter had in 1818 favored a censure of Jackson for his unauthorized seizure of Spanish territory in the Florida campaign during the Seminole War; and this increased the growing animosity. What had been an alienation between the two highest officers of the government ripened into intense hatred, which was fatal to the aspirations of Calhoun for the presidency; for no man could be President against the overpowering influence of Jackson. This was a bitter disappointment to Calhoun, for he had set his heart on being the successor of Jackson in the presidential chair.

There were two subjects which had arisen to great importance during Mr. Calhoun’s terms of executive office which not only blasted his prospects for the presidency, but separated him forever from his former friends and allies.

One of these was the tariff question, which gave him great uneasiness. He opened his eyes to see that protection and internal improvements, so ably advocated by Henry Clay, and even by himself in 1816, were becoming the policy of the government to the enriching of the North. True, it was only an economical question, but it seemed to him to lay the axe to the root of Southern prosperity. It was his settled conviction that tariffs for protection would increase the burdens of the South by raising the price of all those articles which it was compelled to buy, and that large profits on articles manufactured in the United States would only enrich the Northern manufacturers. The South, being an agricultural country exclusively, naturally sought to buy in the cheapest market, and therefore wanted no tariff except for revenue. When Mr. Calhoun saw that protectionist duties were an injury to the slaveholding States he reversed entirely his former opinions. And what influence he could exert as the presiding officer of the Senate was now displayed against the Adams party, which had favored his election to the vice-presidency, and of course alienated his Northern supporters, especially Adams, who now turned against him, and as bitterly denounced as once he had favored and praised him. Calhoun had now both the Jackson and Adams parties against him, though for different reasons.

Up to this time, until the agitation of the tariff question began, Mr. Calhoun had not been a party man. He was regarded throughout the country as a statesman, rather than as a politician.

But when manufactures of cotton and woollen goods were being established in Lowell, Lawrence, Dover, Great Falls, and other places in New England, wherever there was a water-power to turn the mills, it became obvious that a new tariff would be imposed to protect these infant industries and manufacturing interests everywhere. The tariff of 1824 had borne heavily on the South, producing great irritation, and very naturally “the planters complained that they had to bear all the burdens of protection without enjoying its benefits,–that the things they had to buy had become dearer, while the things produced and exported found a less market.” Financial ruin stared them in the face. It seemed to them a great injustice that the interests of the planters should be sacrificed to the monopolists of the North.

In the defence of Southern interests Mr. Calhoun in the Senate at first appealed to reason and patriotism. It is true that he now became a partisan, but he had been sent to Congress as the champion of the cotton lords. He was no more unpatriotic than Webster, who at first, as the representative of the merchants of Boston, advocated freer trade in the interests of commerce, and afterwards, as the representative of Massachusetts at large, turned round and advocated protective duties for the benefit of the manufacturer. It is a nice question, as to where a Congressman should draw the line of advocacy between local and general interests. What are men sent to Congress for, except to advance the interests intrusted to them by their constituents? When are these to be merged in national considerations? Calhoun’s mission was to protect Southern interests, and he defended them with admirable logical power. He was one of three great masters of debate in the Senate. No one could reasonably blame him for the opinions he advanced, for he had a right to them; and if he took sectional ground he did as most party leaders do. It was merely a congressional fight.

But when, after the tariff of 1828, it appeared to Calhoun that there was no remedy; that protection had become the avowed and permanent policy of the government; that the tobacco and cotton of the South, being the chief bulk of our exports, were paying tribute to Northern manufactures, which were growing strong under protection of Federal taxes on competing imports; and that the South was menaced with financial ruin,–he took a new departure, the first serious political error of his life, and became disloyal to the Union.

In July, 1831, he made an elaborate address to the people of South Carolina, in which, discussing the theoretical relations of the States to the Union, he put forth the doctrine that any State could nullify the laws of Congress when it deemed them unconstitutional, as he regarded the existing tariff to be. He looked upon the State, rather than the Union of States, as supreme, and declared that the State could secede if the Union enforced unconstitutional measures. This, as Von Hoist points out, practically meant that, “whenever different views are entertained about the powers conferred by the Constitution upon the Federal government, those of the minority were to prevail,”–an evident absurdity under a republican government.

In June, 1832, was passed another tariff bill, offering some reductions, but still based on protection as the underlying principle. In consequence, South Carolina, entirely subservient to the influence of Calhoun, who in August issued another manifesto, passed in November the nullification ordinance, to take effect the following February. As already recited, President Jackson took the most vigorous measures, sustained by Congress, and gave the nullifiers clearly to understand that if they resisted the laws of the United States, the whole power of the government would be arrayed against them. They received the proclamation defiantly, and the governor issued a counter one.

It was in this crisis that Calhoun resigned the vice-presidency, and was immediately elected to the United States Senate, where he could fight more advantageously. Then the President sent a message to Congress requesting new powers to put down the nullifiers by force, should the necessity arrive, which were granted, for he was now at the height of his popularity and influence. The nullifiers enraged him, and though they abstained from resorting to extreme measures, they continued their threats. The country appeared to be on the verge of war.

The party leaders felt the necessity of a compromise, and Henry Clay brought forward in the Senate a bill which, in March, 1833, became a law, which reduced the tariff. It apparently appeased the South, not yet prepared to go out of the Union, and the storm blew over. There was no doubt, however, that, had the South Carolinians resisted the government with force of arms they would have been put down, for Jackson was both Infuriated and firm. He had even threatened to hang Calhoun as high as Haman,–an absurd threat, for he had no power to hang anybody, except one with arms in his hands,–and then only through due process of law,–while Calhoun was a Senator, as yet using only legitimate means to gain his ends.

In the compromise which Clay effected, the South had the best of the bargain, and in view of it the culmination of the “irrepressible conflict” was delayed nearly thirty years. Calhoun himself maintained that the Compromise Tariff of 1833 was due to the resistance which his State had made, but he also felt that the Force Bill with which Congress had backed up the President was a standing menace, and, as usual with him, he looked forward to impending dangers. The Compromise Tariff, which reduced duties to twenty per cent in the main, and made provision for still further reduction, found great opponents in the Senate, and was regarded by Webster as anything but a protection bill; nor was Calhoun altogether satisfied with it. It was received with favor by the country generally, however, and South Carolina repealed her nullification ordinance.

John C. Calhoun Daguerreotype by Mathew Brady

John C. Calhoun Daguerreotype by Mathew Brady

That subject being disposed of for the present, the attention of Congress and the country was now turned to the President’s war on the United States Bank. As this most important matter has already been treated in the lecture on Jackson, I have only to show the course Mr. Calhoun took in reference to it. He was now fifty-three years old, in the prime of his life and the full vigor of his powers. In the Senate he had but two peers, Clay and Webster, and was not in sympathy with either of them, though not in decided hostility as he was toward Jackson. He was now neither Whig nor Democrat, but a South Carolinian, having in view the welfare of the South alone, of whose interests he was the recognized guardian. It was only when questions arose which did not directly bear on Southern interests that he was the candid and patriotic statesman, sometimes voting with one party and sometimes with another. He was opposed to the removal of deposits from the United States Bank, and yet was opposed to a renewal of its charter. His leading idea in reference to the matter was, the necessity of divorcing the government altogether from the banking system, as a dangerous money-power which might be perverted to political purposes. In pointing out the dangers, he spoke with great power and astuteness, for he was always on the look-out for breakers. He therefore argued against the removal of deposits as an unwarrantable assumption of power on the part of the President, which could not be constitutionally exercised; here he agreed with his great rivals, while he was more moderate than they in his language. He made war on measures rather than on men personally, regarding the latter as of temporary importance, of passing interest. So far as the removal of deposits seemed an arbitrary act on the part of the Executive, he severely denounced it, as done with a view to grasp unconstitutional power for party purposes, thus corrupting the country, and as a measure to get control of money. Said he: “With money we will get partisans, with partisans votes, and with votes money, is the maxim of our political pilferers.” He regarded the measure as a part of the “spoils system” which marked Jackson’s departure from the policy of his predecessors.

Calhoun detested the system of making politics a game, since it would throw the government into the hands of political adventurers and mere machine-politicians. He was too lofty a man to encourage anything like this, and here we are compelled to do him honor. Whatever he said or did was in obedience to his convictions. He was above and beyond all deceit and trickery and personal selfishness. His contempt for political wire-pullers amounted almost to loathing. He was incapable of doing a mean thing. He might be wrong in his views, and hence might do evil instead of good, but he was honest. In his severe self-respect and cold dignity of character he resembled William Pitt. His integrity was peerless. He could neither be bought nor seduced from his course. Private considerations had no weight with him, except his aspiration for the presidency, and even that seems to have passed away when his disagreement with Jackson put him out of the Democratic race, and when the new crisis arose in Southern interests, to which he ever after devoted himself with entire self-abnegation.

In moral character Calhoun was as reproachless as Washington. He neither drank to excess, nor gambled, nor violated the seventh commandment. He had no fellowship with either fools or knaves. He believed that the office of Senator was the highest to which Americans could ordinarily attain, and he gave dignity to it, and felt its responsibilities. He thought that only the best and most capable men should be elevated to that post. Nor would he seek it by unworthy ends. The office sought him, not he the office. It was this pure and exalted character which gave him such an ascendency at the South, as much as his marvellous logical powers and his devotion to Southern interests. His constituents believed in him and followed him, perhaps blindly. Therefore, when we consider what are generally acknowledged as his mistakes, we should bear in mind the palliating circumstances.

Calhoun was the incarnation of Southern public opinion,–bigoted, narrow, prejudiced, but intense in its delusions and loyal to its dogmas. Hence he enslaved others as he was himself enslaved. He was alike the idol and the leader of his State, impossible to be dethroned, as Webster was with the people of Massachusetts until he misrepresented their convictions. The consistency of his career was marvellous,–not that he did not change some of his opinions, for there is no intellectual progress to a man who does not. How can a young man, however gifted, be infallible? But whatever the changes through which his mind passed, they did not result from self-interest or ambition, but were the result of more enlightened views and enlarged experience. Political wisdom is not a natural instinct, but a progressive growth, like that of Burke,–the profoundest of all the intellects of his generation.

Calhoun made several great speeches in the Senate of the United States, besides those in reference to a banking system connected with the government, which, whether wise or erroneous, contained some important truths. But the logical deduction of them all may be summed up in one idea,–the supremacy of State rights in opposition to a central government. This, from the time when the diverging interests of the North and the South made him feel the dangers in “the unchecked will of a majority of the whole,” was the dogma of his life, from which he never swerved, and which he pursued to all its legitimate conclusions. Whatever measure tended to the consolidation of central power, whether in reference to the encroachments of the Executive or the usurpations of Congress, he denounced with terrible earnestness and sometimes with great eloquence. This is the key to the significant portion of his political career.

In his speech on the Force Bill, in 1834, he says:

“If we now raise our eyes and direct them towards that once beautiful system, with all its various, separate, and independent parts blended into one harmonious whole, we must be struck with the mighty change! All have disappeared, gone,–absorbed, concentrated, and consolidated in this government, which is left alone in the midst of the desolation of the system, the sole and unrestricted representative of an absolute and despotic majority…. In the place of their admirably contrived system, the act proposed to be repealed has erected our great Consolidated Government. Can it be necessary for me to show what must be the inevitable consequences?… It was clearly foreseen and foretold on the formation of the Constitution what these consequences would be. All the calamities we have experienced, and those which are yet to come, are the result of the consolidating tendency of this government; and unless this tendency be arrested, all that has been foretold will certainly befall us,–even to the pouring out of the last vial of wrath, military despotism.”

That was what Mr. Calhoun feared,–that the consolidation of a central power would be fatal to the liberties of the country and the rights of the States, and would introduce a system of spoils and the reign of demagogues, all in subserviency to a mere military chieftain, utterly unfit to guide the nation in its complicated interests. But his gloomy predictions fortunately were not fulfilled, in spite of all the misrule and obstinacy of the man he intensely distrusted and disliked. The tendency has been to usurpations by Congress rather than by the Executive.

It is impossible not to admire the lofty tone, free from personal animus, which is seen in all Calhoun’s speeches. They may have been sophistical, but they appealed purely to the intellect of those whom he addressed, without the rhetoric of his great antagonists. His speeches are compact arguments, such as one would address to the Supreme Court on his side of the question.

Thus far his speeches in the Senate had been in reference to economic theories and legislation antagonistic to the interests of the South, and the usurpations of executive power, which threatened directly the rights of independent States, and indirectly the liberties of the people and the political degradation of the nation; but now new issues arose from the agitation of the slavery question, and his fame chiefly rests on his persistent efforts to suppress this agitation, as logically leading to the dissolution of the Union and the destruction of the institution with which its prosperity was supposed to be identified.

The early Abolitionists, as I remember them, were, as a body, of very little social or political influence. They were earnest, clear-headed, and uncompromising in denouncing slavery as a great moral evil, indeed as a sin, disgraceful to a free people, and hostile alike to morality and civilization. But in the general apathy as to an institution with which the Constitution did not meddle, and the general government could not interfere, except in districts and territories under its exclusive control, the Abolitionists were generally regarded as fanatical and mischievous. They had but few friends and supporters among the upper classes and none among politicians. The pulpit, the bar, the press, and the colleges were highly conservative, and did not like the popular agitation much better than the Southerners themselves. But the leaders of the antislavery movement persevered in their denunciations of slaveholders, and of all who sympathized with them; they held public meetings everywhere and gradually became fierce and irritating.

It was the period of lyceum lectures, when all moral subjects were discussed before the people with fearlessness, and often with acrimony. Most of the popular lecturers were men of radical sympathies, and were inclined to view all evils on abstract principles as well as in their practical effects. Thus, the advocates of peace believed that war under all circumstances was wicked. The temperance reformers insisted that the use of alcoholic liquors in all cases was a sin. Learned professors in theological schools attempted to prove that the wines of Palestine were unfermented, and could not intoxicate. The radical Abolitionists, in like manner, asserted that it was wicked to hold a man in bondage under any form of government, or under any guarantee of the Constitution.

At first they were contented to point out the moral evils of slavery, both on the master and the slave; but this did not provoke much opposition, since the evils were open and confessed, even at the South; only, it was regarded as none of their business, since the evils could not be remedied, and had always been lamented. That slavery was simply an evil, and generally acknowledged to be, both North and South, was taking rather tame ground, even as peace doctrines were unexciting when it was allowed that, if we must fight, we must. But there was some excitement in the questions whether it were allowable to fight at all, or drink wine at any time, or hold a slave under any circumstances. The lecturers must take stronger grounds if they wished to be heard or to excite interest. So they next unhesitatingly assumed the ground that war was a malum per se, and wine-drinking also, and all slave-holding, and a host of other things. Their discussions aroused the intellect, as well as appealed to the moral sense. Even “strong-minded” women fearlessly went into fierce discussions, and became intolerant. Gradually the whole North and West were aroused, not merely to the moral evils of slavery, which were admitted without discussion, but to the intolerable abomination of holding a slave under any conditions, as against reason, against conscience, and against humanity.

The Southerners themselves felt that the evil was a great one, and made some attempt to remedy it by colonization societies. They would send free blacks to Liberia to Christianize and civilize the natives, sunk in the lowest abyss of misery and shame. Many were the Christian men and women at the South who pitied the hard condition under which their slaves were born, and desired to do all they could to ameliorate it.

But when the Abolitionists announced that all slaveholding was a sin, and when public opinion at the North was evidently drifting to this doctrine, then the planters grew indignant and enraged. It became unpleasant for a Northern merchant or traveller to visit a Southern city, and equally unpleasant for a Southern student to enter a Northern college, or a planter to resort to a Northern watering-place. The common-sense of the planter was outraged when told that he was a sinner above all others. He was exasperated beyond measure when incendiary publications were transmitted through Southern mails. He did not believe that he was necessarily immoral because he retained an institution bequeathed to him by his ancestors, and recognized by the Constitution of the United States.

Calhoun was the impersonation of Southern feelings as well as the representative of Southern interests. He intensely felt the indignity which the Abolitionists cast upon his native State, and upon its peculiar institution. And he was clear-headed enough to see that if public opinion settled down into the conviction that slavery was a sin as well as an inherited evil, the North and South could not long live together in harmony and peace. He saw that any institution would be endangered with the verdict of the civilized world against it. He knew that public opinion was an amazing power, which might be defied, but not successfully resisted. He saw no way to stop the continually increasing attacks of the antislavery agitators except by adopting an entirely new position,–a position which should unite all the slaveholding States in the strongest ties of interest.

Accordingly he declared, as the leader of Southern opinions and interests, that slavery was neither an evil nor a sin, but a positive good and blessing, supported even by the Bible as well as by the Constitution, In assuming these premises he may have argued logically, but he lost the admiration he had gained by twenty years’ services in the national legislature. His premises were wrong, and his arguments would necessarily be sophistical and fall to the ground. He stepped down from the lofty pedestal he had hitherto occupied, to become not merely a partisan, but an unscrupulous politician. He had a right to defend his beloved institutions as the leader of interests intrusted to him to guard. His fault was not in being a partisan, for most politicians are party men; it was in advancing a falsehood as the basis of his arguments. But, if he had stultified his own magnificent intellect, he could not impose on the convictions of mankind. From the time he assumed a ground utterly untenable, whatever were his motives or real convictions, his general influence waned. His arguments did not convince, since they were deductions from wrong premises, and premises which shocked and insulted the reason.

Calhoun now became a man of one idea, and that a false one. He was a gigantic crank,–an arch-Jesuit, indifferent to means so long as he could bring about his end; and he became not merely a casuist, but a dictatorial and arrogant politician. He defied that patriotic burst of public opinion which had compelled him to change his ground, that mighty wave of thought, no more to be resisted than a storm upon the ocean, and which he saw would gradually sweep away his cherished institution unless his constituents and the whole South should be made to feel that their cause was right and just; that slavery had not only materially enriched the Southern States, but had converted fetich idolaters to the true worship of God, and widened the domain of civilization. The planters, one and all, responded to this sophistical and seductive plea, and said to one another, “Now we can defy the universe on moral grounds. We stand united,–what care we for the ravings of fanatics outside our borders, so long as our institution is a blessing to us, planted on the rock of Christianity, and endorsed by the best men among us!” The theologians took up the cause, both North and South, and made their pulpits ring with appeals to Scripture. “Were not,” they said, “the negroes descendants of Ham, and had not these descendants been cursed by the Almighty, and given over to the control of the children of Shem and Japhet,–not, indeed, to be trodden down like beasts, but to be elevated and softened by them, and made useful in the toils which white men could not endure?” Ultra-Calvinists united with politicians in building up a public sentiment in favor of slavery as the best possible condition for the ignorant, sensuous, and superstitious races who, when put under the training and guardianship of a civilized and Christian people, had escaped the harder lot which their fathers endured in the deserts and the swamps of Africa.

The agitation at the North had been gradually but constantly increasing. In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison started “The Liberator;” in 1832 the New England Antislavery Society was founded in Boston; in 1833 New York had a corresponding society, and Joshua Leavitt established “The Emancipator.” Books, tracts, and other publications began to be circulated. By lectures, newspapers, meetings, and all manner of means the propagandism was carried on. On the other hand, the most violent opposition had been manifested throughout the North to these so-called “fanatics.” No language was too opprobrious to apply to them. The churches and ministry were either dumb on the subject, or defended slavery from the Scriptures. Mobs broke up antislavery meetings, and in some cases proceeded even to the extreme of attack and murder,–as in the case of Lovejoy of Illinois. The approach of the political campaign of 1836, when Van Buren was running as the successor of Jackson, involved the Democratic party as the ally of the South for political purposes, and “Harmony and Union” were the offsets to the cry for “Emancipation.”

By 1835 the excitement was at its height, and especially along the line of the moral and religious argumentation, where the proslavery men met talk with talk. What could the Abolitionists do now with their Northern societies to show that slavery was a wrong and a sin? Their weapons fell harmless on the bucklers of warriors who supposed themselves fighting under the protection of Almighty power in order to elevate and Christianize a doomed race. Victory seemed to be snatched from victors, and in the moral contest the Southern planters and their Northern supporters swelled the air with triumphant shouts. They were impregnable in their new defences, since they claimed to be in the right. Both parties had now alike appealed to reason and Scripture, and where were the judges who could settle conflicting opinions? The Abolitionists, somewhat discouraged, but undaunted, then changed their mode of attack. They said, “We will waive the moral question, for we talk to men without conscience, and we will instead make it a political one. We will appeal to majorities. We will attack the hostile forces in a citadel which they cannot hold. The District of Columbia belongs to Congress. Congress can abolish slavery if it chooses in its own territory. Having possession of this great fortress, we can extend our political warfare to the vast and indefinite West, and, at least, prevent the further extension of slave-power. We will trust to time and circumstance and truth to do the rest. We will petition Congress itself.”

And from 1835 onward petitions rolled into both Houses from all parts of the North and West to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, which Congress could constitutionally do. The venerable and enlightened John Quincy Adams headed the group of petitioners in the House of representatives. There were now two thousand antislavery societies in the United States. In 1837 three hundred thousand persons petitioned for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The legislatures of Massachusetts and Vermont had gone so far as to censure Congress for its inaction and indifference to the rights of humanity.

But it was in January, 1836, that John C. Calhoun arose in his wrath and denied the right of petition. The indignant North responded to such an assumption in flaming words. “What,” said the leaders of public opinion, “cannot the lowest subjects of the Czar or the Shah appeal to ultimate authority? Has there ever been an empire so despotic as to deny so obvious a right? Did not Caesar and Cyrus, Louis and Napoleon receive petitions? Shall an enlightened Congress reject the prayers of the most powerful of their constituents, and to remove an evil which people generally regard as an outrage, and all people as a misfortune?”

“We will not allow the reception of petitions at all,” said the Southern leaders, “for they will lead to discussion on a forbidden subject. They are only an entrance wedge to disrupt the Union. The Constitution has guaranteed to us exclusively the preservation of an institution on which our welfare rests. You usurp a privilege which you call a right. Your demands are dangerous to the peace of the Union, and are preposterous. You violate unwritten law. You seek to do what the founders of our republic never dreamed of. When two of the States ceded their own slave territory to the central government, it was with the understanding that slavery should remain as it was in the district we owned and controlled. You cannot lawfully even discuss the matter. It is none of your concern. It is an institution which was the basis of that great compromise without which there never could have been a united nation,–only a league of sovereign States. We have the same right to exclude the discussion of this question from these halls as from the capitals of our respective States. The right of petition on such a subject is tantamount to consideration and discussion, which would be unlawful interference with our greatest institution, leading legitimately and logically to disunion and war. Is it right, is it generous, is it patriotic to drive us to such an alternative? We only ask to be let alone. You assail a sacred ark where dwell the seraphim and cherubim of our liberties, of our honor, of our interests, of our loyalty itself. To this we never will consent.”

Mr. Clay then came forward in Congress as an advocate for considering the question of petitions. He was for free argument on the subject. He admitted that the Abolitionists were dangerous, but he could not shut his eyes to an indisputable right. So he went half-way, as was his custom, pleasing neither party, and alienating friends; but at the same time with great tact laying out a middle ground where the opposing parties could still stand together without open conflict. “I am no friend,” said he, “to slavery. The Searcher of hearts knows that every pulsation of mine beats high and strong in the cause of civil liberty. Wherever it is practicable and safe I desire to see every portion of the human family in the enjoyment of it; but I prefer the liberty of my own country to that of other people. The liberty of the descendants of Africa in the United States is incompatible with the liberty and safety of the European descendants.” Such were the sentiments of the leading classes of the North, not yet educated up to the doctrines which afterwards prevailed. But the sentiments declared by Clay lost him the presidency. His political sins, like those of Webster, were sins of omission rather than of commission. Neither of them saw that the little cloud in the horizon would soon cover the heavens, and pour down a deluge to sweep away abominations worse than Ahab ever dreamed of. Clay did not go far enough to please the rising party. He did not see the power or sustain the rightful exercise of this new moral force, but he did argue on grounds of political expediency for the citizens’ right of petition,–a right conceded even to the subjects of unlimited despotism. An Ahasuerus could throw petitions into the mire, without reading, but it was customary to accept them.

The result was a decision on the part of Congress to admit the petitions, but to pay no further attention to them.

The Abolitionists, however, had resorted to less scrupulous measures. They sent incendiary matter through the mails, not with the object of inciting the slaves to rebellion,–this was hopeless,–but with the design of aiding their escape from bondage, and perchance of influencing traitors in the Southern camp. To this new attack Calhoun responded with dignity and with logic. And we cannot reasonably blame him for repelling it. The Southern cities had as good a right to exclude inflammatory pamphlets as New York or Boston has to prevent the introduction of the cholera. It was the instinct of self-preservation; whatever may be said of their favorite institution on ethical grounds, they had the legal right to protect it from incendiary matter.

But what was incendiary matter? Who should determine that point? President Jackson in 1835 had recommended Congress to pass a law prohibiting under severe penalties the circulation in the Southern States, through the mails, of incendiary publications. But this did not satisfy the Southern dictator. He denied the right of Congress to determine what publications should be or should not be excluded. He maintained that this was a matter for the States alone to decide. He would not trust postmasters, for they were officers of the United States government. It was not for them to be inquisitors, nor for the Federal government to interfere, even for the protection of a State institution, with its own judgment. He proposed instead a law forbidding Federal postmasters to deliver publications prohibited by the laws of a State, Territory, or District. In this, as in all other controverted questions, Calhoun found means to argue for the supremacy of the State and the subordination of the Union. His bill did not pass, but the force of his argument went forth into the land.

How far antislavery documents had influence on the slaves themselves, it is difficult to say. They could neither read nor write; but it is remarkable that from this period a large number of slaves made their escape from the South and fled to the North, protected by philanthropists, Abolitionists, and kind-hearted-people generally.

How they contrived to travel a thousand miles without money, without suitable clothing, pursued by blood-hounds and hell-hounds, hiding in the daytime in swamps, morasses, and forests, walking by night in darkness and gloom, until passed by friendly hands through “underground railroads” until they reached Canada, is a mystery. But these efforts to escape from their hard and cruel masters further intensified the exasperation of the South.

It was in 1836 that Michigan and Arkansas applied for admission as States into the Union,–one free and the other with slavery. Discussions on some technicalities concerning the conditions of Michigan’s admission gave Mr. Calhoun a chance for more argumentation about the sovereignty of a State, which, considering the fact that Michigan had not then been admitted but was awaiting the permission of Congress to be a State, showed the weakness of his logic in the falsity of his premise. Besides Arkansas, the slave-power also gained access to a strip of free territory north of the compromise line of 36°30′ and the Missouri River. In 1837 John Quincy Adams, “the old man eloquent” of the House of Representatives, narrowly escaped censure for introducing a petition from slaves in the District of Columbia. In 1838 Calhoun introduced resolutions declaring that petitions relative to slavery in the District were “a direct and dangerous attack on the institutions of all the slave-holding States.” In 1839 Henry Clay offered a petition for the repression of all agitation respecting slavery in the District. Calhoun saw and constantly denounced the danger. He knew the power of public opinion, and saw the rising tide. Conservatism heeded the warning, and the opposition to agitation intensified all over the South and the North; but to no avail. New societies were formed; new papers were established; religious bodies began to take position for and against the agitation; the Maine legislature passed in the lower House, and almost in the upper, resolutions denouncing slavery in the District; while the Abolitionists labored incessantly and vigorously to “Blow the trumpet; cry aloud and spare not; show my people their sins,” as to slavery.

In 1840 Van Buren and Harrison, the Democratic and Whig candidates for the presidency were both in the hands of the slave-power; and Tyler, who as Vice-President succeeded to the Executive chair on Harrison’s death, was a Virginian slaveholder. The ruling classes and politicians all over the land were violently opposed to the antislavery cause, and every test of strength gave new securities and pledges to the Southern elements and their Northern sympathizers.

Notwithstanding the frequent triumphs of the South, aided by Whigs and Democrats from the North, who played into the hands of Southern politicians, Mr. Calhoun was not entirely at rest in his mind. He saw with alarm the increasing immigration into the Western States, which threatened to disturb the balance of power which the South had ever held; and with the aid of Southern leaders he now devised a new and bold scheme, which was to annex Texas to the United States and thus enlarge enormously the area of slavery. It was probably his design, not so much to strengthen the slaveholding interests of South Carolina, as to increase the political power of the South. By the addition of new slave States he could hope for more favorable legislation in Congress. The arch-conspirator–the haughty and defiant dictator–would not only exclude Congress from all legislation over its own territory in the national District, but he now would make Congress bolster up his cause. He could calculate on a “solid South,” and also upon the aid of the leaders of the political parties at the North,–“Northern men with Southern principles,”–who were strangely indifferent to the extension of slavery.

The Abolitionists were indeed now a power, but the antislavery sentiment had not reached its culmination, although it had become politically organized. For the campaign of 1840, seeing the futility of petition and the folly of expecting action on issues foreign to those on which Congressmen had been elected, the Abolitionists boldly called a National Convention, in which six States were represented, and nominated candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency. It was a small and despised beginning, but it was the germ of a mighty growth. From that time the Liberty Party began to hold State and National Conventions, and to vote directly on the question of representatives. They did not for years elect anybody, but they defeated many an ultra pro-slavery man, and their influence began to be felt. In 1841 Joshua R. Giddings, from Ohio, and in 1843 John P. Hale from New Hampshire and Hannibal Hamlin from Maine brought in fresh Northern air and confronted the slave-power in Congress, in alliance with grand old John Quincy Adams,–whose last years were his best years, and have illumined his name.

Most of the antislavery men were still denounced as fanatics, meddling with what was none of their business. In 1843 they had not enrolled in their ranks the most influential men in the community. Ministers, professors, lawyers, and merchants generally still held aloof from the controversy, and were either hostile or indifferent to it. So, with the aid of the “Dough-Faces,” as they were stigmatized by the progressive party, Calhoun was confident of success in the Texan scheme.

At that time many adventurers had settled in Texas, which was then a province of Mexico, and had carried with them their slaves. In 1820 Moses Austin, a Connecticut man, long resident in Missouri, obtained large grants of land in Texas from the Mexican government, and his son Stephen carried out after the father’s death a scheme of colonization of some three hundred families from Missouri and Louisiana. They were a rough and lawless population, but self-reliant and enterprising. They increased rapidly, until, in 1833, being twenty thousand in number, they tried to form a State government under Mexico; and, this being denied them, declared their independence and made revolution. They were headed by Sam Houston, who had fought under General Jackson, and had been Governor of Tennessee. In 1836 the independence of Texas was proclaimed. Soon after followed the battle of San Jacinto, in which Santa Anna, the President of the Mexican republic and the commander of the Mexican forces, was taken prisoner.

Immediately after this battle Mr. Calhoun tried to have it announced as the policy of the government to recognize the independence of Texas. When Tyler became President, by the death of Harrison, although elected by Whig votes he entered heart and soul into the schemes of Calhoun, who, to forward them, left the Senate, and became Secretary of State, as successor to Mr. Upshur. In 1843 it became apparent that Texas would be annexed to the United States. In that same year Iowa and Florida–one free, the other slave–were admitted to the Union.

The Liberty party beheld the proposed annexation of Texas with alarm, and sturdily opposed it as far as they could through their friends in Congress, predicting that it would be tantamount to a war with Mexico. The Mexican minister declared the same result. But “Texas or Disunion!” became the rallying cry of the South. The election of Polk, the annexationist Democrat, in 1844, was seized upon as a “popular mandate” for annexation, although had not the Liberty Party, who like the Whigs were anti-annexationists, divided the vote in New York State, Clay would have been elected. The matter was hurried through Congress; the Northern Democrats made no serious opposition, since they saw in this annexation a vast accession of territory around the Gulf of Mexico, of indefinite extent. Thus, Texas, on March 1, 1845, was offered annexation by a Joint Resolution of the Senate and House of Representatives, in the face of protests from the wisest men of the country, and in spite of certain hostilities with Mexico. On the following fourth of July Texas, accepting annexation, was admitted to the Union as a slave State, to the dismay of Channing, of Garrison, of Phillips, of Sumner, of Adams, and of the whole antislavery party, now aroused to the necessity of more united effort, in view of this great victory to the South; for it was provided that at any time, by the consent of its own citizens, Texas might be divided into four States, whenever its population should be large enough; its territory was four times as large as France.

The Democratic President Polk took office in March, 1845; the Mexican War, beginning in May, 1846, was fought to a successful close in a year and five months, ending September, 1847; the fertile territory of Oregon, purchased from Spain, had been peaceably occupied by rapid immigration and by settlement of disputed boundaries with Great Britain; California–a Mexican province–had been secured to the American settlers of its lovely hills and valleys by the prompt daring of Capt. John C. Frémont; and the result of the war was the formal cession to the United States by Mexico of the territories of California and New Mexico, and recognition of the annexation and statehood of Texas.

James Knox Polk Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy

James Knox Polk Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy

Both the North and the South had thus gained large possibilities, and at the North the spirit of enterprise and the clear perception of the economic value of free labor as against slave labor were working mightily to help men see the moral arguments of the antislavery people. The division of interest was becoming plain; the forces of good sense and the principles of liberty were consolidating the North against farther extension of the slave-power. The perils foreseen by Calhoun, which he had striven to avoid by repression of all political discussion of slavery, were nigh at hand. The politicians of the North, too, scented the change, and began to range themselves with their section; and, while there was a long struggle yet ahead before the issues would be made up, to the eye of faith the end was already in sight, and the “Free-Soilers” now redoubled their efforts both in discussion and in political action.

Thus far, most of the political victories had been with the slave-power, and the South became correspondently arrogant and defiant. The war of ideas against Southern interests now raged with ominous and increasing force in all the Northern States. Public opinion became more and more inflamed. Passions became excited in cities and towns and villages which had been dormant since the Constitution had been adopted. The decree of the North went forth that there should be no more accession of slave territory; and, more than this, the population spread with unexampled rapidity toward the Pacific Ocean in consequence of the discovery of gold in California, in 1848, and attracted by the fertile soil of Oregon. Immigrants from all nations came to seek their fortunes in territories north of 36°30′.

What Calhoun had anticipated in 1836, when he cast his eyes on Texas, did not take place. Slave territory indeed was increased, but free territory increased still more rapidly. The North was becoming richer and richer, and the South scarcely held its own. The balance which he thought would be in favor of the South, he now saw inclining to the North. Northern States became more numerous than Southern ones, and more populous, more wealthy, and more intelligent. The political power of the Union, when Mr. Polk closed his inglorious administration, was perceptibly with the North, and not political power only, but moral power. The great West was the soil of freemen.

But the haughty and defiant spirit of Calhoun was not broken. He prophesied woes. He became sad and dejected, but more and more uncompromising, more and more dictatorial. He would not yield. “If we yield an inch,” said he, “we are lost.” The slightest concession, in his eyes, would be fatal. When he declared his nullification doctrines it was because he thought that State rights were invaded by hostile tariffs. But after the Mexican War slavery was to him a matter of life and death. He made many excellent and powerful speeches, which tasked the intellect of Webster to refute; but, whatever the subject, it was seen only through his Southern spectacles, and argued from partisan grounds and with partisan zeal. Everything he uttered was with a view of consolidating the South, and preparing it for disunion and secession, as the only way to preserve the beloved institution. In his eyes, slavery and the Union could not co-exist. This he saw plainly, but if either must perish it should be the Union; and this doctrine he so constantly reiterated that he won over to it nearly the entire South. But in consolidating the South, he also consolidated the North. He forced on the issue, believing that even yet the South, united with Northern allies, was the stronger, and that it could establish its independence on a slavery basis. The Union was no union at all, and its Constitution was a worthless parchment. “He proposed a convention of the Southern States which should agree that, until full justice was rendered to the South, all the Southern ports should be closed to the sea-going vessels of the North.” He arrogantly would deprive the North even of its constitutional rights in reference to the exclusion of slavery from the Territories. In no way should the North meddle with the slavery question, on penalty of secession; and the sooner this was understood the better. “We are,” said he, “relatively stronger than we shall be hereafter, politically and morally.”

The great fight arose in 1849. The people in the Northwestern territories had been encouraged to form governments, and had already tasted the delights of self-rule. President Polk had recommended the extension of the old Missouri Compromise line of 36° 30′ westward to the Pacific, leaving the territory south of that open to slavery. This would divide California, and was opposed by all parties. Calhoun now went so far as to claim the constitutional right to take slaves into any Territory, while Webster argued the power of Congress to rule the Territories until they should become States. So excited was the discussion that a convention of Southern States was held to frame a separate government for the “United States South.” The threat of secession was ever their most potent argument. The contest in Congress centred upon the admission of California as a State and the condition of slavery in the Territories of Utah and New Mexico.

A great crisis had now arrived. Clay, “the great pacificator,” once more stepped into the arena with a new compromise. To provide for concessions on either side, he proposed the admission of California (whose new constitution prohibited slavery); the organization of Utah and New Mexico as Territories without mention of slavery (leaving it to the people); the arrangement of the boundary of Texas; the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia; and the enactment of a more stringent fugitive-slave law, commanding the assistance of people in the free States to capture runaways, when summoned by the authorities.

The general excitement over the discussion of this bill will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. The South raged, and the North blazed with indignation,–especially over the Fugitive-Slave Bill.

Meanwhile Calhoun was dying. His figure was bent, his voice was feeble, his face was haggard, but his superb intellect still retained its vigor to the last. Among the multitude of ringing appeals to the reason and moral sense of the North was a newspaper article from The Independent of New York, by a young Congregational minister, Henry Ward Beecher. It was entitled “Shall we Compromise?” and made clear and plain the issue before the people: “Slavery is right; Slavery is wrong: Slavery shall live; Slavery shall die: are these conflicts to be settled by any mode of parcelling out certain Territories?” This article was read to Calhoun upon his dying bed. “Who wrote that?” he asked. The name was given him. “That man understands the thing. He has gone to the bottom of it. He will be heard from again.” It was what the great Southerner had foreseen and foretold from the first.

The compromise bill at last became a law. It averted the final outbreak for ten years longer, but contained elements that were to be potent factors in insuring the final crisis.

With the burden of the whole South upon his shoulders Calhoun tottered to the grave a most unhappy man, for though he saw the “irrepressible conflict” as clearly as Seward had done, he also saw that the South, even if successful, as he hoped, must go through a sea of tribulation. When he was no longer able to address the Senate in person he still waged the battle. His last great speech was read to the Senate by Mr. Mason of Virginia, on the 4th of March, 1850. It was not bitter, nor acrimonious; it was a doleful lament that the Southern States could not long remain in the Union with any dignity, now that the equilibrium was destroyed. He felt that he had failed, but also that he had done his duty; and this was his only consolation in view of approaching disasters. On the last day of March he died, leaving behind him his principles, so full of danger and sophistries, but at the same time an unsullied name, and the memory of earlier public services and of private virtues which had secured to him the respect of all who knew him.

In reviewing the career of Mr. Calhoun it would seem that the great error and mistake of his life was his disloyalty to the Union. When he advocated State rights as paramount over those of the general government he merely took the ground which was discussed over and over again at the formation of the Constitution, and which resulted in a compromise that, with control over matters of interest common to all States, the central government should have no power over the institution of slavery, which was a domestic affair in the Southern States. Only these States, it was settled, had supreme control over their own “peculiar institution.” As a politician, representing Southern interests, he cannot be severely condemned for his fear and anger over the discussion of the slavery question, which, politically considered, was out of the range of Congressional legislation or popular agitation. But when he advocated or threatened the secession of the Southern States from the Union, unless the slavery question was let alone entirely both by Congress and the Northern States, he was unpatriotic, false in his allegiance, and unconstitutional in his utterances. A State has a right to enter the Union or not, remaining of course, in either case, United States territory, over which Congress has legislative power. But when once it has entered into the Union, it must remain there as a part of the whole. Otherwise the States would be a mere league, as in the Revolutionary times.

Mr. Calhoun had a right to bring the whole pressure of the slave States on a congressional vote on any question. He could say, as the Irish members of Parliament say, “Unless you do this or that we will obstruct the wheels of government, and thus compel the consideration of our grievances, so long as we hold the balance of power between contending parties.” But it is quite another thing for the Irish legislators to say, “Unless you do this or that, we will secede from the Union,” which Ireland could not do without war and revolution. Mr. Calhoun, in his onesidedness, entirely overlooked the fact that the discontented States could not secede without a terrible war; for if there is one sentiment dear to the American people, it is the preservation of the Union, and for it they will make any sacrifice.

And the same may be said in reference to Calhoun’s nullification doctrines. He would, if he could, have taken his State out of the Union, because he and the South did not like the tariff. He had the right, as a Senator in Congress, to bring all the influence he could command to compel Congress to modify the tariff, or abolish it altogether. And with this he ought to have been contented. With a solid South and a divided North, he could have compelled a favorable compromise, or prevented any legislation at all. It is legitimate legislation for members of Congress to maintain their local and sectional interest at any cost, short of disunion; only, it may be neither wise nor patriotic, since men who are supposed to be statesmen would by so doing acknowledge themselves to be mere politicians, bound hand and foot in subjection to selfish constituents, and indifferent to the general good.

Mr. Calhoun became blind to general interests in his zeal to perpetuate slavery, or advance whatever would be desirable to the South, indifferent to the rest of the country; and thus he was a mere partisan, narrow and local. What made him so powerful and popular at the South equally made him to be feared and distrusted at the North. He was a firebrand, infinitely more dangerous and incendiary than any Abolitionist whom he denounced. Calhoun’s congressional career was the opposite of that of Henry Clay, who was more patriotic and more of a statesman, for he always professed allegiance to the whole Union, and did all he could to maintain it. His whole soul was devoted to tariffs and internal improvements, but he would yield important points to produce harmony and ward off dangers. Calhoun, with his State-sovereignty doctrines, his partisanship, and his unscrupulous defiance of the Constitution, forfeited his place among great statesmen, and lost the esteem and confidence of a majority of his countrymen, except so far as his abilities and his unsullied private life entitled him to admiration.


I know of no abler and more candid life of Calhoun than that of Von Holst. Although deficient in incidents, it is no small contribution to American literature, apparently drawn from a careful study of the speeches of the great Nullifier. If the author had had more material to work upon, he would probably have made a more popular work, such as Carl Schurz has written of Henry Clay, and Henry Cabot Lodge of Daniel Webster and Alexander Hamilton. In connection read the biographies of Clay, Webster, and Jackson; see Wilson’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, also Benton’s Thirty Years of Congressional History, and Calhoun’s Speeches.

Abraham Lincoln : Civil War and Preservation of the Union

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Founders