Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part Two)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

Yesterday, Calhoun opened his farewell speech by declaring the great source of sectional strife not slavery itself, or rather antislavery agitation from North of the Mason-Dixon Line, but instead the growing disequilibrium between the slave and free states in the federal government. The ailing South Carolinian, in his last month of life, gave the Senate a history lesson to illustrate the point. Beginning with the first census of 1790:

the population of the United States, including Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, which then were in their incipient condition of becoming States; but were not actually admitted, amounted to 3,929,827. Of this number the Northern States had 1,997,899, and the Southern 1,952,072, making a difference of only 45,827 in favor of the former States. The number of States, including Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, were sixteen; of which eight, including Vermont, belonged to the Northern section, and eight, including Kentucky and Tennessee, to the Southern, — making an equal division of the States between the two sections under the first census.

Right there in the numbers: the sections enjoyed something close to perfect equality. But times changed:

According to the last census [1840] the aggregate population of the United States amounted to 17,063,357, of which the Northern section contained 9,728,920, and the Southern 7,334,437, making a difference in round numbers, of 2,400,000. The number of States had increased from sixteen to twenty-six, making an addition of ten States. In the meantime the position of Delaware had become doubtful as to which section she properly belonged. Considering her as neutral, the Northern States will have thirteen and the Southern States twelve, making a difference in the Senate of two Senators in favor of the former.

Calhoun tips his hand here by citing barely-enslaved Delaware as an uncertain neutral. Despite his opening insistence  that a vague sectional imbalance, not slavery, formed the cornerstone of sectional discontent he goes on to list the least enslaved slave state as the one which at least partly left the South for the North. The line between the two remained the line between slavery and free soil.

According to Calhoun, the sections agreed to the Constitution with the understanding that they came into the Union as equals. In other words, the Union required precise equality of North and South. One supposes the framers had a few too many the night before they planned to write those clauses. I plan a future post to highlight some other issues with Calhoun’s position here.

Regardless, that old order faced the crisis of 1850 like Calhoun did, in its twilight years. The South could no longer count Delaware as anything better than a sectional neutral, Calhoun wrote. To him, California’s admission did not break the senatorial balance. Delaware’s disloyalty to the South did that, or at least badly damaged it. He might have added examples from other Border States, the Upper South, and even the occasional Deep South politicians breaking faith with the solid South he invented as a new constitutional unit over the states and, in some ways, the national government itself.

And the Senate held the last vestiges of Calhoun’s Ancien Regime. Tomorrow, the Senator from South Carolina has some remarks for the House.

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