The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XV. Publicists and Orators, 1800–1850

§ 17. Defence of Slavery

One other word must be said of Calhoun’s work; for he did much more than outline the principles of state sovereignty. In the thirties, when the South began to defend slavery as never before, Calhoun stepped forward as a leader; and henceforward he was prepared to defend slavery as an institution and to use his theories concerning the Union to safeguard the institution at every turn. Here was the unnatural union: constitutional theory skilfully adapted to warding off intrusion was wedded to an economic, social, and moral condition of society. This union was all the more significant because slavery, though defended by theories of localism, was in need of recognition and of protection by national law; it needed in fact to expand, if it were to hold its own; and thus Calhoun’s doctrine of the individual rights of the individual states must so be turned, by infinitely cautious curves of logic, as to justify the protection of slaves on the high seas, the existence of slavery in the District of Columbia, national guardianship of slavery in the national domain, the denunciation of free speech on the subject at the North. No one save a giant among clever logicians and a devotee among enthusiasts could have played the rôle with success. His arguments and assertions are cogent and philosophical, keen, yet exhibiting a certain breadth and firmness of grasp. He early recognized the danger of a moral agitation against slavery; he did not say that the Union could not exist half slave and half free; but he did announce (1837) that “Abolition and the Union cannot co-exist”; the fell spirit of abolitionism, based as it was, or pretended to be, on moral grounds, was irreconcilable with the safety of slaves. To meet the attack of moral crusaders, he laid down the philosophy of slaveholding and above all its value in America:

  • I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by colour, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding states between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.
  • He also declared—what may perhaps appear today to be a gruesome fact, or at least something near the fact—that, as social and political equality between the races was impossible, “to change the present condition of the African race … would be but to change the form of slavery.” If the black race must exist among us deprived of social equality, political rights, and, largely, of industrial opportunity, have the former slaves become freemen or have they passed into a new form of servitude?