John C. Calhoun, Defender of Constitutional Government

” ..the greatest and gravest question that ever can come under your consideration: How can the Union be preserved?”

John C. Calhoun

WASHINGTON, D. C., March 4, 1850 – The South’s most eloquent voice in Congress, albeit the voice of a dying man, was raised in the Senate in warning that the country below the Potomac will have no choice but to secede if current political trends – specifically admission of California as a “free” state – continue to increase the balance of national power held by the Northern states.

So spoke John C. Calhoun, 68-year-old spokesman for South Carolina, who 18 years ago led South Carolina’s unsuccessful fight for nullification over the issue of tariffs, and iron-willed foe alike of the Northern freedom viewpoint and of Henry Clay’s monumental efforts to compromise the feelings between North and South.

In the end the fight for perpetuation of slavery as an American institution may fail, but the voices of the Calhouns will stand always as warnings that the rooting out of such evils must be done carefully, lest with the evils also are rooted out essential liberties of minorities.

Senator Calhoun Spoke on the subject of slavery, but his arguments were those of a defender of constitutional government. He warned that the agitation over slavery “has been permitted to proceed, with almost no attempt to resist it, until it has reached a period when it can no longer be disguised or denied that the Union is in danger.”

Senator Calhoun’s principal arguments rested upon his oft-repeated declaration that slavery is an essential element of the economic life of the South; that it was so regarded by the men who framed the Constitution; that the South alone must determine the position of slavery in its affairs, and – most forcefully – that the admission of new states as “free states” has reached a point where the position of the South in the Federal government is untenable.

The answer, he warned, must eventually be Secession, or a change in this attitude, and he indicated scant hope for the latter.

When Senator Calhoun rose to speak today, he undoubtedly was conscious of the bitter enmities he has made in a long career, of oratorical triumphs and of deep frustrations, especially his loss of the chance at the Presidency, which he coveted. But the old warrior did not show rancor or bitterness.

I have, Senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion. …You have thus forced upon you the greatest and the gravest question that ever can come under your consideration: How can the Union be preserved?

To this question there can be but one answer: that the immediate cause is, the almost universal discontent which pervades all the states composing the southern section of the Union. This widely extended discontent is not of recent origin. It commenced with the agitation of the slavery question, and has been increasing ever since. …

There is another, lying back of it, but with which this is intimately connected, that may be regarded as the great and primary cause. It is to be found in the fact that the equilibrium between the two sections in the government, as it stood when the Constitution was ratified, and the government put in action, has been destroyed. At that time, there was nearly a perfect equilibrium between the two, which afforded ample means to each to protect itself against the aggression of the other; but as it now stands, one section has exclusive power of controlling the government, which leaves the other without any adequate means of protecting itself against its encroachment and oppression.

The cry of, “Union! Union! The glorious Union!,” can no more prevent disunion, than the cry of “Health! Health! Glorious health!,” on the part of the physician, can save a patient lying dangerously ill. So long as the Union, instead of being regarded as a protector, is regarded in the opposite character by not much less than a majority of the states, it will be in vain to attempt to conciliate them by pronouncing eulogies on it.

Besides, this cry of “Union” comes commonly from those whom we cannot believe to be sincere. It usually comes from our assailants; but we cannot believe them to be sincere, for if they loved the Union, they would necessarily be devoted to the Constitution. It made the Union, and to destroy the Constitution would be to destroy the Union. But the only reliable and certain evidence of devotion to the Constitution is, to abstain, on the one hand, from violating it, and to repel, on the other, all attempts to violate it. It is only by faithfully performing those high duties that the Constitution can be preserved, and with it the Union.

Nor can we regard the profession of devotion to the Union, on the part of those who are not our assailants, as sincere, when they pronounce eulogies upon the Union evidently with the intent of charging us with disunion, without uttering one word of denunciation against our assailants. …

Nor can the Union be saved by invoking the name of the illustrious Southerner, whose mortal remains repose on the western bank of the Potomac. He was one of us – a slave-holder and a planter. We have studied his history, and find nothing in it to justify submission to wrong. On the contrary, his great fame rests on the solid foundation that, while he was careful to avoid doing wrong to others, he was prompt and decided in repelling wrong. I trust that, in this respect, we profited by his example.

Nor can we find anything in his history to deter us from seceding from the Union, should it fail to fulfill the objects for which it was instituted, by being permanently and hopelessly converted into the means of oppression instead of protection. On the contra, we find much in his example to encourage us, should we be forced to the extremity of deciding between submission and disunion.

~ Postlogue ~
Calhoun lost in the face of an unbeatable coalition – Henry Clay’s famous Compromise, which won the support of Daniel Webster, even though in taking this stand the old lion from Massachusetts forfeited most of the support he had enjoyed from abolitionists.

Under this Compromise, California was admitted as a “free” state, largely to balance from the Northern standpoint – the admission two years earlier of Texas as a “slave” state with the promised right to divide itself into as many as seven states in the future.

As a sop to the South, New Mexico and Utah were created Territories without determination as to slavery, this subject being left to their own choice when statehood might be given them in the indefinite future. Other minor stipulations of the Compromise forbade slave-trading thereafter in the District of Columbia and promised, on paper, that Southern constables might go into northern states to retrieve escaped slaves.

The Compromise was hailed, at its adoption in September, as the great action to preserve the Union.

In actual results, the dispute broke out with renewed vigor in 1854, and in 1861 the North and South became locked in Civil War.

Further Study: John C. Calhoun : The Slavery Question

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