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SPEECH AT THE MEETING OF THE CITIZENS OF CHARLESTON - 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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SPEECH AT THE MEETING OF THE CITIZENS OF CHARLESTON
[March 9, 1847]
In spite of his warning at the close of his speech on the Resolutions on the Slave Question (1847) that the time for constitutional, legal solution to the tensions between the Union and the states could be drawing to a close, Calhoun seemed still optimistic that a concerted effort on the part of Southerners could influence, if not control, the direction of the federal policies through the election of a president. It is in that context that Calhoun calls upon the citizens of Charleston to pray to God that the South will have “the wisdom to adopt the best and most efficient course for our own security, and the peace and preservation of the Union.”
Fellow-Citizens: In complying with the request of your committee to address you on the general state of our affairs, in connection with the Federal Government, I shall restrict my remarks to the subject of our peculiar domestic institution, not only because it is by far the most important to us, but also because I have fully expressed my views, in my place in the Senate, on the only other important subject, the Mexican war.
I fully concur in the address of your committee, and the resolutions accompanying it. The facts stated are unquestionable, and the conclusions irresistible.
Indeed, after all that has occurred during the last twelve months, it would be almost idiotic to doubt that a large majority of both parties in the non-slaveholding States have come to a fixed determination to appropriate all the territories of the United States now possessed, or hereafter to be acquired, to themselves, to the entire exclusion of the slaveholding States. Assuming, then, that to be beyond doubt, the grave, and to us, vital question is presented for consideration: Have they the power to carry this determination into effect?
It will be proper to premise, before I undertake to answer this question, that it is my intention to place before you the danger with which we are threatened from this determination, plainly and fully, without exaggeration or extenuation, and, also, the advantages we have for repelling it, leaving it to you to determine what measures should be adopted for that purpose.
I now return to the question, and answer—Yes, they have the power, as far as mere numbers can give it. They will have a majority in the next Congress in every department of the Federal Government. The admission of Iowa and Wisconsin will give them two additional States, and a majority of four in the Senate, which heretofore has been our shield against this and other dangers of the kind. We are already in a minority in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College; so that with the loss of the Senate, we shall be in a minority in every department of the Federal Government; and ever must continue so, if the non-slaveholding States should carry into effect their scheme of appropriating to their exclusive use all the territories of the United States. But, fortunately, under our system of government, mere numbers are not the only element of power. There are others, which would give us ample means of defending ourselves against the threatened danger, if we should be true to ourselves.
We have, in the first place, the advantage of having the constitution on our side, clearly and unquestionably, and in its entire fabric; so much so, that the whole body of the instrument stands opposed to their scheme of appropriating the territories to themselves. To make good this assertion, it is only necessary to remind you, that ours is a federal, and not a national, or consolidated Government—a distinction essential to a correct understanding of the constitution, and our safety. It ought never to be forgotten or overlooked. As a federal Government, the States composing the Union are its constituents, and stand in the same relation to it, in that respect, as the individual citizens of a State do to its government. As constituent members of the Union, all the territories and other property of the Union belong to them as joint owners or partners, and not to the Government, as is erroneously supposed by some. The Government is but the agent intrusted with the management; and hence the constitution expressly declares the territory to be the property of the United States—that is, the States united, or the States of the Union, which are but synonymous expressions. And hence, also, Congress has no more right to appropriate the territories of the United States to the use of any portion of the States, to the exclusion of the others, than it has to appropriate in the same way, the forts, or other public buildings, or the navy, or any other property of the United States. That it has such a right, no one would venture to assert; and yet, the one is placed exactly on the same ground with the other by the constitution.
It was on this solid foundation that I placed the right of the slaveholding States to a full and equal participation in the territories of the United States, in opposition to the determination of the non-slaveholding States to appropriate them exclusively to themselves. It was my intention to urge them to a vote, but I was unable to do so, in consequence of the great pressure of business during the last few days of the session. It was felt by those opposed to us, that if the foundation on which I placed my resolutions be admitted, the conclusion could not be successfully assailed: and hence the bold but unsuccessful attempt to assail the foundation itself, by contending that ours is a national or consolidated Government, in which the States would stand to the Union, as the counties do to the States, and be equally destitute of all political rights. Such a conclusion, if it could be established, would, indeed, place us and our peculiar domestic institutions, at the mercy of the non-slaveholding States; but, fortunately, it cannot be maintained, without subverting the very foundation of our entire political system, and denying the most incontrovertible facts connected with the formation and adoption of the constitution.
But, it may be asked, what do we gain by having the constitution ever so clearly on our side when a majority in the non-slaveholding States stand prepared to deny it? Possibly such may be the case; still we cannot fail to gain much by the advantage it gives us. I speak from long experience—I have never known truth, promptly advocated in the spirit of truth, fail to succeed in the end. Already there are many highly enlightened and patriotic citizens in those States, who agree with us on this great and vital point. The effects of the discussion will not improbably greatly increase their number; and, what is of no little importance, induce a still greater number to hesitate and abate somewhat in their confidence in former opinions, and thereby prepare the way to give full effect to another advantage which we possess. To understand what it is, it will be necessary to explain what is the motive and object of this crusade on the part of the non-slaveholding States against our peculiar domestic institution.
It is clear that it does not originate in any hostility of interests. The labor of our slaves does not conflict with the profit of their capitalists or the wages of their operatives; or in any way injuriously affect the prosperity of those States, either as it relates to their population or wealth. On the contrary, it greatly increases both. It is its products, which mainly stimulate and render their capital and labor profitable; while our slaves furnish, at the same time, an extensive and profitable market for what they make. Annihilate the products of their labor—strike from the list the three great articles which are, most exclusively, the products of their labor—cotton, rice, and tobacco—and what would become of the great shipping, navigating, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the non-slaveholding States? What of their Lowell and Waltham, their New York and Boston, and other manufacturing and commercial cities? What, to enlarge the question, would become of the exports and imports of the Union itself; its shipping and tonnage; its immense revenue, on the disbursements of which, millions in those States, directly or indirectly, live and prosper? Fortunately, then, the crusade against our domestic institution does not originate in hostility of interests. If it did, the possibility of arresting the threatened danger, and saving ourselves, short of a disrupture of the Union, would be altogether hopeless; so predominant is the regard for interest in those States, over all other considerations.
Nor does it originate in any apprehension that the slave-holding States would acquire an undue preponderance in the Union, unless restricted to their present limits. If even a full share of the territories should fall to our lot, we could never hope to outweigh, by any increased number of slaveholding States the great preponderance which their population gives to the non-slaveholding States in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. All we could hope for would be, to preserve an equality in the Senate, or, at most, to acquire a preponderance in that branch of the Government.
But, if it originates neither in the one nor the other of these, what are the real motives and objects of their crusade against our institution? To answer this, it will be necessary to explain what are the feelings and views of the people of the non-slaveholding States in reference to it, with their effects on their party operations, especially in relation to the Presidential election.
They may, in reference to the subject under consideration, be divided into four classes. Of these, the abolitionists proper—the rabid fanatics, who regard slavery as a sin, and thus regarding it, deem it their highest duty to destroy it, even should it involve the destruction of the constitution and the Union—constitute one class. It is a small one, not probably exceeding five per cent of the population of those States. They voted, if I recollect correctly, about 15,000, or at most 20,000 votes in the last test of their strength in the State of New York, out of about 400,000 votes, which would give about five per cent. Their strength in that State, I would suppose, was fully equal to their average strength in the non-slaveholding States generally. Another class consists of the great body of the citizens of those States, constituting at least seven-tenths of the whole, and who, while they regard slavery as an evil, and as such are disposed to aid in restricting and extirpating it, when it can be done consistently with the constitution, and without endangering the peace or prosperity of the country, do not regard it as a sin, to be put down by all and every means.
Of the other two, one is a small class, perhaps not exceeding five per cent of the whole, who view slavery as we do, more as an institution, and the only one, by which two races, so dissimilar as those inhabiting the slaveholding States, can live together nearly in equal numbers, in peace and prosperity, and that its abolition would end in the extirpation of one or the other race. If they regard it as an evil, it is in the abstract; just as government with all of its burdens, labor with all its toils, punishment with all its inflictions, and thousands of other things, are evils, when viewed in the abstract; but far otherwise, when viewed in the concrete, because they prevent a greater amount of evil than they inflict, as is the case with slavery as it exists with us.
The remaining class is much larger, but still relatively a small one; less, perhaps, than twenty per cent of the whole, but possessing great activity and political influence in proportion to its numbers. It consists of the political leaders of the respective parties, and their partizans and followers. They, for the most part, are perfectly indifferent about abolition, and are ready to take either side, for or against, according to the calculation of political chances; their great and leading object being to carry the elections, especially the Presidential, and thereby receive the honors and emoluments incident to power, both in the Federal and State Governments.
Such are the views and feelings of the several classes in the non-slaveholding States in reference to slavery, as it exists with us. It is manifest, on a survey of the whole, that the first class—that is, the abolition party proper—is the centre which has given the impulse that has put in motion this crusade against our domestic institution. It is the only one that has any decidedly hostile feelings in reference to it, and which, in opposing it, is actuated by any strong desire to restrict or destroy it.
But it may be asked, how can so small a class rally a large majority of both parties in the non-slaveholding States to come to the determination they have, in reference to our domestic institution? To answer this question, it is necessary to go one step further and explain the habitual state of parties in those, and, indeed, in almost all the States of the Union.
There are few of the non-slaveholding States, perhaps not more than two or three, in which the parties are not so nicely balanced, as to make the result of elections, both State and Federal, so doubtful as to put it in the power of a small party, firmly linked together, to turn the elections, by throwing their weight into the scale of the party which may most favor its views. Such is the abolition party. They have, from the first, made their views paramount to the party struggles of the day, and thrown their weight where their views could be best promoted. By pursuing this course, their influence was soon felt in the elections; and, in consequence, to gain them soon became the object of party courtship: first by the Whigs; but for the last twelve months, more eagerly by the Democrats, as if to make up for lost time. They are now openly courted by both; each striving by their zeal to win their favor by expressing their earnest desire to exclude what they call slavery from all the territories of the United States, acquired or to be acquired. No doubt the Mexican war, and the apprehension of large acquisition of territory to the slaveholding States, has done much to produce this state of things, but of itself it would have been feeble. The main cause or motive, then, of this crusade against our domestic institution, is to be traced to the all-absorbing interest, which both parties take, in carrying the elections, especially the Presidential. Indeed, when we reflect that the expenditure of the Federal Government, at all times great, is now swelled probably to the rate of seventy million of dollars annually, and that the influence of its patronage gives it great sway, not only over its own, but over the State elections—which gives in addition a control over a vast amount of patronage—and the control of the Federal patronage, with all its emoluments and honors, centres in the President of the United States—it is not at all surprising, that both parties should take such absorbing interest in the Presidential election; acting, as both do, on the principle of turning opponents out of office, and bestowing the honors and emoluments of Government on their followers, as the reward of partizan services. In such a state of things, it is not a matter for wonder, that a course of policy, so well calculated to conciliate a party like the abolitionists, as that of excluding slavery from the territories, should be eagerly embraced by both parties in the non-slaveholding States; when by securing their support, each calculates on winning the rich and glittering prize of the Presidency. In this is to be found the motive and object of the present crusade against our domestic institution, on the part of political leaders and their partizans in those States.
It would be a great mistake to suppose that it is the less dangerous, because it originates mainly in mere party considerations in connection with elections. It will be on that account but the more so, unless, indeed, it should be met by us with promptitude and unanimity. The absorbing, overriding interest, felt by both parties to carry the elections—especially the Presidential—would give such an impulse to their efforts to conciliate the abolitionists, at our expense, if we should look on with apparent indifference, as would enlist in their favor the large portion of the non-slaveholding States, estimated at seven-tenths of the whole, which are, as yet, well affected towards us, and utterly dishearten the small but intelligent class, which, as yet, is perfectly sound. The former would conclude, in that case, that we ourselves were ready to yield and surrender our domestic institution, as indefensible; and that the non-slaveholding States might carry their determination into full effect, without hazard to the constitution or the Union, or even disturbing the harmony and peace of the country. Indeed, such has already been our apparent indifference, that these opinions have been expressed, even on the floor of Congress. But, if we should act as we ought—if we, by our promptitude, energy, and unanimity, prove that we stand ready to defend our rights, and to maintain our perfect equality, as members of the Union, be the consequences what they may; and that the immediate and necessary effect of courting abolition votes, by either party, would be to lose ours, a very different result would certainly follow. That large portion of the non-slaveholding States, who, although they consider slavery as an evil, are not disposed to violate the constitution, and much less to endanger its overthrow, and with it the Union itself, would take sides with us against our assailants; while the sound portion, who are already with us, would rally to the rescue. The necessary effect would be, that the party leaders and their followers, who expect to secure the Presidential election, by the aid of the abolitionists, seeing their hopes blasted by the loss of our votes, would drop their courtship, and leave the party, reduced to insignificance, with scorn. The end would be, should we act in the manner indicated, the rally of a new party in the non-slaveholding States, more powerful than either of the old, who, on this great question, would be faithful to all of the compromises and obligations of the constitution; and who by uniting with us, would put a final stop to the further agitation of this dangerous question. Such would be the certain effect of meeting, with promptitude and unanimity, the determination of the non-slaveholding States to appropriate all the territories to their own use—That it has not yet been so met is certain; and the next question is: Why has it not been, and what is the cause of this apparent indifference in reference to a danger so menacing, if not promptly and unitedly met on our part?
In answering this important question, I am happy to say, that I have seen no reason to attribute this want of promptitude and unanimity to any division of sentiment, or real indifference, on the part of the people of the slaveholding States, or their delegates in Congress. On the contrary, as far as my observation extends, there is not one of their members of Congress who has given any certain indication of either. On the trying questions connected with the Wilmot Proviso, the votes of the members from the slaveholding States, at the last and present sessions, were unanimous. To explain what is really the cause, I must again recur to what has already been stated; the absorbing interest felt in the elections—especially the Presidential—and the controlling influence which party leaders and their followers exercise over them. The great struggle between the parties is, which shall succeed in electing its candidate; in consequence of which the Presidential election has become the paramount question. All others are held subordinate to it by the leaders and their followers. It depends on them to determine whether any question shall be admitted into the issue between the parties, in the Presidential contest, or whether it shall be partially or entirely excluded. Whether it shall be one or the other, is decided entirely in reference to its favorable or unfavorable bearing on the contest, without looking to the higher considerations of its effects on the prosperity, the institutions, or safety of the country. Nothing can more strongly illustrate the truth of what I have asserted, than the course of the parties in relation to the question which now claims your attention. Although none can be more intimately connected with the peace and safety of the Union, it is kept out of the issue between the parties, because it is seen that the Presidential vote of New York, and many others of the non-slaveholding States, will, in all probability, depend on the votes of the abolitionists; and that the election of the President may, in like manner, depend on the votes of those States. And hence the leaders in them are tolerated by many of the leaders and their followers in the slaveholding States, in openly canvassing for the vote of the abolitionists, by acting in unison with them, in reference to a question, on the decision of which the safety of their own section, and that of the Union itself may depend. But while it is seen that the Presidential election may be secured by courting the abolition votes, it is at the same time seen, that it may be lost, if the consequence should be the loss of the vote of the slaveholding States; and hence the leaders are forced to attempt to secure the former without losing the latter. The game is a difficult one; but difficult as it is, they do not despair of success, with the powerful instruments which they have under their control. They have, in the first place, that of the party press, through which a mighty influence is exerted over public opinion. The line of policy adopted is for the party press to observe a profound silence on this great and vital question, or if they speak at all, so to speak as to give a false direction to public opinion. Acting in conformity to this policy, of the two leading organs at the seat of Government, one never alludes to the question; so that, as far as its remarks are concerned, no one could suppose that it was the cause of the least agitation or feeling in any portion of the Union. The other occasionally alludes to it, when it cannot well avoid doing so, but only to palliate the conduct of those who assail us, by confounding them with our defenders as agitators, and holding both up equally to the public censure. It is calculated by pursuing this course, that the people of the slaveholding States will be kept quiet, and in a state of indifference, until another and still more powerful instrument can be brought into play, by which it is hoped that slaveholders and abolitionists will be coerced to join in nominating and supporting the same candidate for the Presidency. I allude to what is called a National Convention, or Caucus, for nominating candidates for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency. Already the machinery has been put in motion, in order to coerce the oldest and most populous of the slaveholding States; and no doubt, will, in due season, be put in motion to effect the same object in all of them. Should it succeed—should the party machinery for President-making prove strong enough to force the slaveholding States to join in a convention to nominate and support a candidate who will be acceptable to the abolitionists, they will have committed the most suicidal act that a people ever perpetrated. I say acceptable; for it is clear that the non-slaveholding States will outnumber in convention the slaveholding, and that no one who is not acceptable to the abolitionists can receive their votes—and of course, the votes of the States where they hold the balance; and that no other will be nominated, or, if nominated, be elected. And yet, there are not a few in the slaveholding States, men of standing and influence, so blinded by party feeling, or the prospect of personal gain or advancement by the success of their party, who advocate a step which must prove so fatal to their portion of the Union under existing circumstances. Can party folly, or rather madness, go further?
As to myself, I have ever been opposed to such conventions, because they are irresponsible bodies, not known to the constitution; and because they, in effect, set aside the constitution with its compromises, in reference to so important a subject as the election of the Chief Magistrate of the Union. I hold it far safer, and every way preferable, to leave the election where the constitution has placed it—to the Electoral College to choose; and if that fails to make a choice, to the House of Representatives, voting by States, to elect the President from the three candidates having the highest votes. But, if I had no objection to such conventions, under ordinary circumstances, I would regard the objection as fatal under the existing state of things, when all parties of the non-slaveholding States stand united against us on the most vital of all questions; and when to go into one would be, in effect, a surrender on our part. As both parties there have united to divest us of our just and equal rights in the public domain, it is time that both parties with us should unite in resistance to so great an outrage. Let us show at least as much spirit in defending our rights and honor, as they have evinced in assailing them. Let us, when our safety is concerned, show at least as firm a determination, and as much unanimity, as they do, with no other interest on their part but the temporary one of succeeding in the Presidential contest. Henceforward, let all party distinction among us cease, so long as this aggression on our rights and honor shall continue, on the part of the non-slaveholding States. Let us profit by the example of the abolition party, who, as small as they are, have acquired so much influence by the course they have pursued. As they make the destruction of our domestic institution the paramount question, so let us make, on our part, its safety the paramount question. Let us regard every man as of our party, who stands up in its defence; and every one as against us, who does not, until aggression ceases. It is thus, and thus only, that we can defend our rights, maintain our honor, ensure our safety, and command respect. The opposite course, which would merge them in the temporary and mercenary party struggles of the day, would inevitably degrade and ruin us.
If we should prove true to ourselves and our peculiar domestic institution, we shall be great and prosperous, let what will occur. There is no portion of the globe more abundant in resources—agricultural, manufacturing and commercial—than that possessed by us. We count among our productions the great staples of cotton, rice, tobacco and sugar, with the most efficient, well fed, well clad, and well trained body of laborers for their cultivation. In addition to furnishing abundant means for domestic exchanges among ourselves, and with the rest of the world, and building up flourishing commercial cities, they would furnish ample resources for revenue. But far be it from us to desire to be forced on our own resources for protection. Our object is to preserve the Union of these States, if it can be done consistently with our rights, safety, and perfect equality with other members of the Union. On this we have a right to insist. Less we cannot take. Looking at the same time to our safety and the preservation of the Union, I regard it as fortunate that the promptitude and unanimity, on our part, necessary to secure the one, are equally so to preserve the other. Delay, indecision, and want of union among ourselves would in all probability, in the end, prove fatal to both—The danger is of a character, whether we regard our safety or the preservation of the Union, which cannot be safely tampered with. If not met promptly and decidedly, the two portions of the Union will gradually become thoroughly alienated, when no alternative will be left to us as the weaker of the two, but to sever all political ties, or sink down into abject submission. It is only by taking an early and decided stand, while the political ties are still strong, that a rally of the sound and patriotic of all portions of the Union can be successfully made to arrest so dire an alternative.
Having now pointed out the danger with which we are menaced, and the means by which it may be successfully met and resisted, it is for you and the people of the slaveholding States, to determine what shall be done, at a juncture so trying and eventful. In conclusion, it is my sincere prayer, that the Great Disposer of events may enlighten you and them to realize its full extent, and give the wisdom to adopt the best and most efficient course for our own security, and the peace and preservation of the Union.