Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part Seven)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

(Previous Parts: OneTwoThree, Four, Five, and Six)

Calhoun did not see Northern dominance of the House, soon the Senate, and the Electoral College as abstractions. Each formed a frightful dagger poised at the heart of the South: slavery. Against the force of numbers and the tide of history, whether an artificial tide engineered in abolitionist drawing rooms and mass meetings or a natural course of events, what choices remained to the besieged South?

Is it, then, not certain, that if something is not done to arrest it [antislavery agitation], the South will be forced to choose between abolition and secession?

Calhoun emphasized that disunion did not appear ex nihilo. He did not play Southern Zeus spawning Secession Athena full-grown from his head. But antislavery agitation had strained the cords of Union and broken many.

In religion:

The first of these cords which snapped, under its explosive force, was that of the powerful Methodist Episcopal Church. The numerous and strong ties which held it together, are all broken, and its unity gone. They now form separate churches; and, instead of that feeling of attachment and devotion to the interests of the whole church which was formerly felt, they are now arrayed into two hostile bodies, engaged in litigation about what was formerly their common property.

The next cord that snapped was that of the Baptists — one of the largest and most respectable of the denominations. That of the Presbyterian is not entirely snapped, but some of its strands have given way.

In politics:

two great parties which have, with some modifications, existed from the beginning of the Government. They both extended to every portion of the Union, and strongly contributed to hold all its parts together. But this powerful cord has fared no better than the spiritual. It resisted, for a long time, the explosive tendency of the agitation, but has finally snapped under its force – if not entirely, in a great measure.

Conscience vs. Cotton and Barnburners vs. Hunkers, divisions fresh in Calhoun’s mind only foreshadowed the polarization of the coming decade.

Thus disunion ripened and

If the agitation goes on, the same force, acting with increased intensity, as has been shown, will finally snap every cord, when nothing will be left to hold the States together except force.

Calhoun did not want Clay’s measures. He did not want the Missouri Compromise. He wanted it all. The entire edifice of restriction on slavery had to go or, failing that, the South’s permanent minority had to gain some kind of veto over the North’s permanent majority. (Calhoun gave the Senate no proposals in that direction. They appeared instead on posthumous works.) King Cotton had to rule over numbers. Barring those solutions, only disunion remained.

Calhoun died on March 31st, not a month into his sixty-eighth year, but his ideas lived on in the minds of the next generation of Southern statesmen. Starting with his native South Carolina, they would fulfill his secession prophecy at the close of the decade.

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