Facing the chaos during the lame duck session of Congress in 1849, a group of Southern congressmen called on John C. Calhoun to draft the South’s response. History calls it his Southern Address, reflecting that Calhoun directed his remarks to the South and called for unity against the North in an all-South political movement.
Calhoun wasted no time in stating the issue of sectional strife:
We, whose names are hereunto annexed, address you in discharge of what we believe to be a solemn duty, on the most important subject ever presented for your consideration. We allude to the conflict between the two great sections of the Union, growing out of a difference of feeling and opinion in reference to the relation existing between the two races, the European and the African, which inhabit the southern section, and the acts of aggression and encroachment to which it has led.
Northern agitation against slavery provoked the South. He gave his audience a list of those provocations: The Northwest Ordinance’s prohibition of slavery, the same across much of the Louisiana Purchase in the Missouri Compromise, personal liberty laws that interfered with the capture of fugitive slaves, and the organization of Oregon as a free territory.
Reaching beyond the famous controversies over slavery in the territories and fugitive slaves, Calhoun presented a lesser-known but in some ways far more radical grievance:
Abolitionists of the North, openly avowing their intention, and resorting to the most efficient means for the purpose, have been attempting to bring about a state of things to force the Southern States to emancipate their slaves, without any act on the part of any Northern State to arrest or suppress the means by which they propose to accomplish it.
In other words: Northern states arrest abolitionists for the crime of opposing slavery and suppress their petitions, newspapers, and societies for the same reason. The South had long done so, but the North must follow. Preserving slavery required not just legal restrictions on blacks, but also upon whites in North and South alike.
Though history often remembers Calhoun as a states’ rights man, he spends significant portions of the speech implicitly rejecting that doctrine and instead proclaiming that federal law must prevail and hold over contrary state law. Capturing and returning fugitive slaves to their owners
constitutes an essential part of the constitutional compact, and of course the supreme law of the land. As such it is binding on all, the Federal and State Governments, the States and the individuals composing them. The sacred obligation of compact, and the solemn injunction of the supreme law, which legislators and judges, both Federal and State, are bound by oath to support, all unite to enforce its fulfilment, according to its plain meeting and true intent.
Nullification to an antislavery tariff in the 1830s, but never to antislavery state laws in 1849.
In citing states’ rights, many stop there. The states have rights, period. But rights to what? When it comes to discussing the South and its motives leading into the Civil War, its partisans rarely find occasion to specify. Calhoun and his contemporaries had no such inhibitions. He makes that very clear, as do many others, in both their consistent patterns of behavior and in private and public proclamations.
Thus, on slavery, the South
must prove by your acts that you hold all other questions subordinate to it. If you become united, and prove yourselves in earnest, the North will be brought to a pause, and to a calculation of consequences; and that may lead to a change of measures, and the adoption of a course of policy that may quietly and peaceably terminate this long conflict between the two sections. If it should not, nothing would remain for you but to stand up immovably in defence of rights, involving your all–your property, prosperity, equality, liberty, and safety.
Southern unity for slavery, in the Union if possible but out of it if necessary. When Henry Clay stood to present his last compromise, he stood to answer Calhoun’s threat.