Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part Five)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

(Previous Parts: OneTwoThree, and Four)

Having described how the South lost its equal say in the Senate and House, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina proceeded to tell the Senate that restrictions on slavery in the territories brought the South to its diminished state. Those restrictions in turn gave the free states their hitherto unparalleled power.

Having repudiated nearly the entire settled legal edifice restricting slavery, Calhoun then revived the old complaint over the tariff that drove his South Carolina to the brink of secession back in the 1830s, only to find the rest of the South uninterested in standing up to Andrew Jackson’s promise to use force against it. Calhoun and Henry Clay together negotiated a very gradual reduction in the tariff. But a salient fact hides beneath the verbiage about the tariff:

It is well known that the Government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports. I shall not undertake to show that such duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting States, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due portion of the revenue […] a far greater portion of the revenue has been disbursed at the North, than its due share; and that the joint effect of these causes has been, to transfer a vast amount from South to North, which, under an equal system of revenue and disbursements, would not have been lost to her. If to this be added, that many of the duties were imposed not for revenue but for protection, — that is, intended to put money, not in the treasury, but directly into the pocket of the manufacturers, — some conception may be formed of the immense amount which, in the long course of sixty years, has been transferred from South to North.

Calhoun calls the South the exporting region of the nation. He means King Cotton, of course. To that one might add tobacco, rice, and sugar but for most of the South export meant cotton. Cotton grown by slave labor. In other words, via the tariff the North skimmed off the proceeds of the labor the South stole from its slaves.

This had nothing to do with slavery, just how the North excluded slavery from the territories and thus came to dominate the national government had nothing to do with slavery. Calhoun had the brains to see the absurdity in this, but the most brilliant people often make the most brilliant rationalizers. I don’t doubt that he believed every word of it.

What did all of this boil down to?

The result of the whole of these causes combined is — that the North has acquired a decided ascendency over every department of this Government, and through it a control over all the powers of the system. A single section governed by the will of the numerical majority, has now, in fact, the control of the Government and the entire powers of the system. what was once a constitutional federal republic, is now converted, in reality, into one as absolute as that of the Autocrat of Russia,and as despotic in its tendency as any absolute government that ever existed.

Calhoun went on like this while basing his worldview on a despotic autocracy that made the North winning elections look like, well, winning elections. More than that, he practiced that autocracy himself on the slaves he kept at his plantation. Calhoun represented a state singularly dominated by those who did as well, being appointed by the only legislature in antebellum America that had a slaveholder majority. Even by Deep South standards, South Carolina excelled.

South Carolina did not even let its people vote for president. The legislature simply appointed the electors. Other states had done the same, but not since Delaware in 1828. If the Autocrat of Russia, himself the head of the only slave society larger than the American South’s, had an American vacation home he might have picked a nice place in Charleston.


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