Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part One)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

A vice-president for two presidents, a secretary of state, and most famously a senator, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun spent decades as the Senate’s leading prophet of disunion. In his way a statesman-philosopher for slavery, Calhoun built a whole worldview around the notion of it as a positive good. His speeches very nearly write the history of Southern discontent and much of the usual narrative draws heavily from them. This of course skews our understanding of the antebellum South in a particularly South Carolinian direction. Calhoun’s vision of a united South, of a South at all, obscures the very divisions he spent some of his more famous speeches denouncing.

But Calhoun did not invent the South and over time the section did come to resemble more closely his unified dream. It never got there, but did get close enough to finally try secession, the senator’s second favorite remedy. (Calhoun generally preferred a radical constitutional overhaul involving massive decentralization of the already tiny federal government.)

As with Henry Clay, the crisis of 1850 came upon Calhoun in the twilight of his life. Sixty-seven and sick, he heard Clay’s measures and prepared a reply that age and infirmity left him unable to deliver. In fact, Calhoun could not physically walk into the Senate chamber. On March 4, 1850, one of Calhoun’s fellow South Carolina luminaries from the 1830s Nullification Crisis carried him in. Wrapped in flannels, hair soaked with sweat, emaciated, Calhoun gripped the chair and sat silent. His speech passed to his South Carolina colleague, who pleaded poor eyesight and passed it to Virginia’s James Mason.

The author of the new Fugitive Slave Act dutifully rose to read Calhoun’s words. Unlike the Southern Address, Calhoun made the whole nation his audience but like the Southern Address he spoke for the South, even if the South he spoke for lived mostly in his mind. In the dark nights of 1850, Calhoun wrote, the South no longer felt its people (the white ones, anyway) or honor (again, of the white South) safe in the Union. Why?

One of the causes is, undoubtedly, to be traced to the long-continued agitation of the slave question on the part of the North, and the many aggressions which they have made on the rights of the South during the time. I will not enumerate them at present, as it will be done hereafter in its proper place.

There is another lying back of it — with which this is intimately connected — that may be regarded as the great and primary cause. This 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 the exclusive power of controlling the Government, which leaves the other without any adequate means of protecting itself against its encroachment and oppression.

Calhoun went on at length. More of his farewell speech tomorrow.

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