Front Page Titles (by Subject) FIRST REPORT - Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun
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FIRST REPORT - John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun 
Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, ed. Ross M. Lence (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992).
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[On February 6, 1837, John Tipton of Indiana presented two petitions from his constituents, calling upon Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Although Mr. Tipton acknowledged that he believed the petitions to be unwise, unconstitutional, and unrepresentative of his constituents in general, he thought their acceptance and referral to committee would quiet the public mind. Mr. Calhoun rose immediately and asked the Chair for a ruling on the procedures to be used in the Senate for addressing such petitions.] 1
Mr. Calhoun expressed the hope that a question would be made on the reception of the petitions. He insisted that, if an objection should be made to the reception of a petition, it was the rule, and for forty years had been the practice of the Senate, to take the vote of reception, without a motion not to receive. He read the rule on this point, which stated that, if there was a cry of the House to receive, and no objection should be made, or if the House were silent, the reception would take place of course. Otherwise, a vote must be taken on its reception. Mr. C. said he had in vain insisted on this at the last session. He hoped the Chair would now sustain the rule, before Mr. C. would be compelled to move a non-reception.
[The Chair ruled that whenever an objection is raised by a Senator rising in his place or objecting in his seat to the reception of a petition, the Senate itself shall judge whether the petition will be received.]
Mr. Calhoun expressed his satisfaction at the decision of the Chair. He hoped the old mode, which had been uniformly practiced till within five or six years, would now be pursued.
[Considerable discussion then ensued about the proper course to follow. Unanimous consent was given to consider all such petitions at the same time. Several petitions were introduced by a number of Senators, including Mr. Ewing and Mr. Morris of Ohio, Mr. Swift and Mr. Prentiss of Vermont, Mr. Buchanan of Pennsylvania, and Mr. Knight of Rhode Island. During the course of that discussion, Mr. Calhoun delivered the following remarks.]
Mr. Calhoun said he thought it very desirable that the Senate and the South should know in what manner these petitioners spoke of Southern people. For this purpose he had selected, from the numerous petitions on the table, two, indiscriminately, which he wished the Secretary to read.
(These two petitions were read, and proved to be rather more moderate in their language than usual.)
Such is the language (said Mr. C.) with which they characterize us and ours. That which was the basis of Southern institutions, and which could not be dispensed without blood and massacre, was denounced as sinful and outrageous on the rights of men. And all this was proclaimed, in the Senate of the United States, of States that were united together for the purpose of maintaining their institutions in a more perfect manner. Were Southern members to sit quietly and hear themselves denounced in this manner? And if they should speak at all under these circumstances, were they to be denounced as agitators? This institution existed when the constitution was formed; and yet Senators would not only sit and receive them, but were ready to throw blame on those who opposed them.
Mr. C. said he did not belong to the school of those who believed that agitations of this sort could be quieted by concessions; on the contrary, he maintained all usurpations should be resisted in the beginning; and those who would not do so were prepared to be slaves themselves. Mr. C. knew, and had predicted, that if the petitions were received, it would not avail in satisfying the petitioners; but they would then be prepared for the next step, to compel action upon the petitions. Mr. C. would ask Southern gentlemen if they did not see the second step prepared to be taken, not only that the petitions should be received, but referred.
Mr. C. had told Mr. Buchanan and his friends, last year, that they were taking an impossible position; and had said that these men would, at this session, press a reference. Were we now to be told that this second concession would satisfy this incendiary spirit? Such was the very position (a reference) at which the other House arrived at the last session. Had they at all quieted the spirit of abolition? On the contrary, it had caused it to spread wider and strike its roots still deeper. The next step would be to produce discussion and argument on the subject. Mr. C. insisted that the South had surrendered essentially by permitting the petitions to be received. He said it was time for the South to take her stand and reject the petitions. He conscientiously believed that Congress were as much under obligation to act on the subject as they were to receive the petitions; and that they had just as good a right to abolish slavery in the States as in this District.
Mr. C. said the decision of the Chair settled the question that the Senate had a right to refuse to receive the petitions; for, if they had a right to vote at all on the subject, they had the right to vote in the negative; and to yield this point was to yield it for the benefit of the abolitionists, at the expense of the Senate. But it was in vain to argue on the subject. Mr. C. would warn Southern members to take their stand on this point without concession. He had foreseen and predicted this state of things three years ago, as a legitimate result of the force bill. All this body were now opposed to the object of these petitions. Mr. C. saw where all originated—at the very bottom of society, among the lowest and most ignorant; but it would go on, and rise higher and higher, till it should ascend the pulpit and the schools, where it had, indeed, arrived already; thence it would mount up to this and the other House. The only way to resist was to close the doors; to open them was virtually to surrender the question. The spirit of the times (he said) was one of dollars and cents, the spirit of speculation, which had diffused itself from the North to the South. Nothing (he said) could resist the spirit of abolition but the united action of the South. The opinions of most people in the North and South were now sound on this subject; but the rising generation would be imbued by the spirit of fanaticism, and the North and South would become two people, with feelings diametrically opposite. The decided action of the South, within the limits of the constitution, was indispensable.
[Mr. Tipton expressed considerable surprise at Mr. Calhoun’s remarks, saying that he thought there was nothing in the petitions before them that could produce such feelings. Mr. Bayard of Delaware moved to table the question of the reception of the petitions. A favorable vote on Mr. Bayard’s motion did not end debate, however, as Mr. Davis of Massachusetts immediately introduced some forty additional petitions. Returning to the issue of the procedures of the Senate, Mr. King of Georgia announced that he thought Mr. Calhoun was in error in his interpretation of the differences between the current and the last session of the Senate.]
Mr. Calhoun said he, for one, was extremely pleased with the decision of the Chair (that a mere objection required a vote on the reception of the petitions). But he ought to go further, and put the question of reception, whether the petition were objected to or not. According to the rule, he said, the burden of making a motion to receive should fall on those presenting the petitions. Mr. C. had formerly pressed the Chair twice on this point, but was then overruled. The question was, whether we were bound to receive the petitions by the constitution. That question the Chair had now yielded, and had admitted that it was in the power of the body itself to say whether or not the petitions should be received.
Mr. C. again argued that, if Congress were bound to receive petitions, they were equally bound to refer and act upon them.
[Intense debate now ensued. In the course of that discussion, Mr. Rives of Virginia, who noted that he had observed the whole debate with pain and mortification, said that while he did not object to the presentation of the abolitionists’ petitions, he did object to the gratuitous exhibition of those horrid pictures of misery that had no foundation in fact. He noted that he did not subscribe to slavery in the abstract—a point on which he differed with the gentleman from South Carolina.]
Mr. Calhoun explained, and denied having expressed any opinion in regard to slavery in the abstract. He had merely stated, what was a matter of fact, that it was an inevitable law of society that one portion of the community depended upon the labor of another portion, over which it must unavoidably exercise control. He had not spoken of slavery in the abstract, but of slavery as existing where two races of men, of different color, and striking dissimilarity in conformation, habits, and a thousand other particulars, were placed in immediate juxtaposition. Here the existence of slavery was a good to both. Did not the Senator from Virginia consider it as a good?
Mr. Rives said, no. He viewed it as a misfortune and an evil in all circumstances, though, in some, it might be the lesser evil.
Mr. Calhoun insisted on the opposite opinion, and declared it as his conviction that, in point of fact, the Central African race (he did not speak of the north or the east of Africa, but of its central regions) had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition, as that which it now enjoyed in the Southern States. The population doubled in the same ratio with that of the whites—a proof of ease and plenty; while, with respect to civilization, it nearly kept pace with that of the owners; and as to the effect upon the whites, would it be affirmed that they were inferior to others, that they were less patriotic, less intelligent, less humane, less brave, than where slavery did not exist? He was not aware that any inferiority was pretended. Both races, therefore, appeared to thrive under the practical operation of this institution. The experiment was in progress, but had not been completed. The world had not seen modern society go through the entire process, and he claimed that its judgment should be postponed for another ten years. The social experiment was going on both at the North and the South—in the one with almost pure and unlimited democracy, and in the other with a mixed race. Thus far, the results of the experiment had been in favor of the South. Southern society had been far less agitated, and he would venture to predict that its condition would prove by far the most secure, and by far the most favorable to the preservation of liberty. In fact, the defence of human liberty against the aggressions of despotic power had been always the most efficient in States where domestic slavery was found to prevail. He did not admit it to be an evil. Not at all. It was a good—a great good. On that point, the Senator from Virginia and himself were directly at issue.
[Mr. Rives said that he had no desire to get into a family quarrel with Mr. Calhoun on this matter. He, for one, however, did not believe slavery was a good—morally, politically, or economically. And while he would defend the constitutional rights of the South to the end, that commitment would not cause him to return to the explored dogmas of Sir Robert Filmer in order to vindicate the institution of slavery in the abstract.]
Mr. Calhoun complained of having been misrepresented. Again [he] denied having pronounced slavery in the abstract a good. All he had said of it referred to existing circumstances; to slavery as a practical, not as an abstract thing. It was a good where a civilized race and a race of a different description were brought together. Wherever civilization existed, death too was found, and luxury; but did he hold that death and luxury were good in themselves? He believed slavery was good, where the two races co-existed. The gentleman from Virginia held it an evil. Yet he would defend it. Surely if it was an evil, moral, social, and political, the Senator, as a wise and virtuous man, was bound to exert himself to put it down. This position, that it was a moral evil, was the very root of the whole system of operations against it. That was the spring and well-head from which all these streams of abolition proceeded—the effects of which so deeply agitated the honorable Senator.
Mr. C. again adverted to the successful results of the experiment thus far, and insisted that the slaveholders of the South had nothing in the case to lament or to lay to their conscience. He utterly denied that his doctrines had anything to do with the tenets of Sir Robert Filmer, which he abhorred. So far from holding the dogmas of that writer, he had been the known and open advocate of freedom from the beginning. Nor was there anything in the doctrines he held in the slightest degree inconsistent with the highest and purest principles of freedom.
In the First Report, the original reporter’s commentary is in parentheses and the bracketed material is mine.—R.M.L.